When Pope Francis declared 2021 to be the Year of St. Joseph, many of my Catholic friends expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to focus more intently on the foster father to the Christ and spouse of Mary, the Theotokos. Although popes and bishops and saints, to a one, have expressed admiration and spiritual gratitude to Joseph (with some, like Teresa of Avila, declaring that petitions to St. Joseph always redound to the good), many Catholics will confess themselves a bit puzzled by that enthusiasm. In fact, they will say they are puzzled by Joseph himself, largely due to his perceived silence throughout Scripture, where none of his speech is quoted. “We don’t know him,” a colleague of mine said, as the dedicated year began. “It feels like everywhere you go in this diocese, you see another parish named for Joseph, but I’ve never really understood why, when he is so silent.”
That’s the deal with Joseph. Because he is silent, some find it easy to miss him, or undervalue him. In a way, that’s a reflection of our current, noisy age, wherein the loudest voices, the flashiest or most deliberately sensational opinions, the most frequent posters to social media take up so much of our awareness, while the quieter ones—or those who have deliberately stepped back from all the noise because it has become so empty—are forgotten, their influence diminished, mostly because they’re just not perceived as “doing” enough. In our increasingly utilitarian society—where one’s human value is too closely related to what one does, how many likes and follows one has, and just how high and far people will jump to insure that they are seen, heard, and not forgotten—it can be easy to wonder, as my colleague did, why Catholics name so many buildings and programs for Joseph; why nearly every parish has a statue of Joseph, usually with a great many of the attendant candles lit as people go to him with requests for intercessory prayer, with help for everything from job situations to family matters to selling a house.
Joseph’s silence in Scripture is a misperception. Silent he may be, but (and utilitarians should actually appreciate this) through his actions, he speaks to us aplenty—and in a steady, consistent voice of affirmation and trust. All we must do to hear him is watch, and then wonder; when we do, we will discover that Joseph is easy to know because—within a life of extraordinary circumstance—he is nevertheless just like us: hard-working, sometimes confounded, protective of his family, and ultimately true to himself. Where he may differ from you and me is in his willingness to take things on faith when anyone in his circle of friends might raise their brow and call him foolish. Joseph was willing to look like a fool to the world—taking Mary as his wife rather than sending her away, leaving friends and the society he knew to depart for Egypt in the middle of the night. Heeding dreams, for heaven’s sake, when smart, successful people put their trust in the tangible things, the sensible things.