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World May 1, 2018

Commentary: St Joseph the Worker in the 21st century

By Courtney Grogan

St. Joseph by Carl Fougerousse. Photo courtesy of the One Faith Exhibition.

Washington D.C. (CNA)—As the father of Alfie Evans fought to defend his son’s life, I could not help but think of St. Joseph fleeing the threat of King Herod’s tyranny with the Christ child in his arms.

“Joseph became the guardian, the administrator, and the legal defender of the divine house whose chief he was,” wrote Leo XIII in 1889 in Quamquam pluries, an encyclical letter on devotion to St. Joseph. “He guarded from death the Child threatened by a monarch's jealousy, and found for Him a refuge.”

Leo XIII presented St. Joseph as a model at a time when the world and the Church were wrestling with the challenges posed by modernity at the turn of the century. A few years later, the pope went on to publish Rerum novarum, an encyclical on capital and labor which outlined principles to ensure the dignity of laborers.

St. Joseph is also an apt recourse for the unique troubles facing society in the 21st century.

For a modernity that sanctions euthanasia, we turn to St. Joseph, the patron of the dying.

As the modern workplace reckons with the fallout of the sexual revolution and the #MeToo movement, we can turn to the chaste leadership of St. Joseph the Worker.

Faced with the breakdown of the family in society, the head of the Holy Family models faithful fatherhood.

In what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” we have Joseph the artisan and craftsman.

As society condones abortion, St. Joseph stands guard over expectant mothers.

At a time when the number of refugees worldwide has hit record highs, St. Joseph, himself once a refugee, watches over immigrants.

In what Cardinal Sarah has called “the dictatorship of noise,” Joseph is a saint of humble silence.

The globalized 21st century needs St. Joseph, whom Bl. Pius IX named patron of the universal Church in 1870.

“If you want to be close to Christ, I repeat to you 'Ite ad Ioseph': Go to Joseph! ” said Ven. Pius XII in 1955 as he instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker to be celebrated on May 1.

The new feast was intentionally placed on the calendar to counter the communist May Day rallies, but this was not the first time the Church had presented St. Joseph’s example as an alternative path toward workers’ dignity.

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference instituted May 1 as a holiday for labor in remembrance of Chicago’s “Haymarket affair” labor protests.

In that same year, Leo XIII warned the poor against the false-promises of “seditious men”, calling them to turn instead to St. Joseph with a reminder that mother Church “each day takes an increasing compassion on their lot.”

According to the pontiff, the witness of St. Joseph’s life taught the rich “what are the goods most to be desired,” while the everyday workmen could claim St. Joseph’s recourse as their “special right, and his example is for their particular imitation.”

“It is, then, true that the condition of the lowly has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the labourer is not only not dishonouring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled,” wrote Leo XIII in Quamquam pluries.

In 1920, Benedict XV prayerfully offered St. Joseph as the “special guide” and “heavenly patron” of laborers “to keep them immune from the contagion of socialism, the bitter enemy of Christian principles.”

And, in the 1937 encyclical on atheistic communism, Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI placed “the vast campaign of the Church against world Communism under the standard of St. Joseph, her mighty Protector.”

“He belongs to the working-class, and he bore the burdens of poverty for himself and the Holy Family, whose tender and vigilant head he was. To him was entrusted the Divine Child when Herod loosed his assassins against Him,” Pope XI continued. “He won for himself the title of ‘The Just,’ serving thus as a living model of that Christian justice which should reign in social life.

Yet, despite the 20th century Church’s emphasis on St. Joseph the Worker, it cannot be emphasized enough that Joseph’s life was not defined by his work, but by his vocation to fatherhood.

“For Saint Joseph, life with Jesus was a continuous discovery of his own vocation as a father,” wrote Saint John Paul II in his book “Rise, Let Let Us Be On Our Way.”

He continued, “Jesus Himself, as a man, experienced the fatherhood of God through the father-son relationship with Saint Joseph. This filial encounter with Joseph then fed into Our Lord’s revelation of the paternal name of God. What a profound mystery!”

John Paul II saw firsthand communist attempts to separate the family unit and undermine parental authority in Poland. He said that he looked to St. Joseph’s fatherhood as a model for his own priestly fatherhood.

Alfie Evans’ father, Tom, wrote that he was “absolutely heartbroken” that his son had died on April 28. This father was denied his opportunity to seek refuge for his sick son in Italy at a Vatican-linked hospital by UK courts.

For fathers who face the same grief as Tom Evans, we can pray Leo XIII’s prayer to St. Joseph: “Aid us from on high, most valiant defender, in this conflict with the powers of darkness. And even as of old thou didst rescue the Child Jesus from the peril of His life, so now defend God's Holy Church from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity.”