Devotion to St. Joseph - A Brief History

On 13 October 1917, probably the greatest miracle in the entire history of Christianity took place. During the last apparition of Our Lady in Fátima, more than 30,000 pilgrims witnessed the famous "Miracle of the Sun of Fátima": After it had been raining heavily all day, the dark cloud cover suddenly parted, allowing the sun to shine through in all its splendour. The sun began to rotate and "dance" on its axis, shining in all colours and emitting colourful flashes of light. The large crowd, including many non-believers and representatives of the secular press, who had come out of mere curiosity, were overwhelmed by this heavenly miracle, which Our Lady had announced a month earlier, threw themselves on their knees and many were converted.

This miracle, which marked the climax of the apparitions of Fátima that took place on the thirteenth day of each month from May to October 1917, is famous and therefore known to many. Hardly anyone knows, however, that St. Joseph also appeared in the midst of this mighty miracle. St Lucia, one of the three seers, described the apparition of St Joseph as follows:

"After Our Lady had disappeared into the infinite distance of the firmament, we then saw, next to the sun, St. Joseph with the Child Jesus and Our Lady dressed in white with a blue cloak. St. Joseph with the Child Jesus seemed to bless the world with a hand gesture in the shape of a cross. Then a little later this apparition disappeared and we saw Our Lord and Our Lady. Our Lord blessed the world in the same way as St Joseph had done before."

More than 30.000 people witnessed the Miracle of the Sun of Fátima on 13 October 1917

The manner, in which St. Joseph appeared, is deeply characteristic of him. He appears at the solemn climax of all the apparitions, he appears as the head of the Holy Family and gives the paternal blessing for the whole world - his role could hardly be more significant and important. Nevertheless, his appearance only lasts a very short time and therefore seems inconspicuous in comparison to the much longer apparitions of Our Lady. In comparison to her detailed messages, he remains completely silent during his apparition and recedes completely behind the blessing he gives - and so it is probably no coincidence that he was soon forgotten by many, that today almost no one thinks of St. Joseph when the apparitions of Fátima are mentioned.

This was already the case during St. Joseph's lifetime on earth: during his life, St. Joseph takes a back seat to Jesus and Mary and usually only appears as a silent companion in Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, he is the head of the Holy Family! In the Holy House of Nazareth, he was the "master of the house". It was therefore not only Our Lady who was obedient to him. Jesus Christ himself, the only begotten Son of God, was obedient to him as a child and adolescent! He had the unique task in the history of salvation of shaping the human nature of the Savior. All the virtues that Jesus embodied as a human being, he developped through the education of St. Joseph. What infinite holiness, what breathtaking responsibility St. Joseph had - and what humility! He did not impose himself, but remained in the background and worked secretly behind the scenes. This did not change even after his blessed death. In the history of the veneration of saints, he takes a back seat to many other saints, although he is the greatest saint right after Our Lady. During the last 2000 years, this great saint was sorrounded by a veil of silence.

One of the exceptions was the Year of St Joseph, which the Church celebrated from 8 December (Fest of the Immaculate Conception) 2020 to 8 December 2021. During this time, St. Joseph was the focal point of the Church's public life, the Holy Father dedicated an Apostolic Exhortation to him with Patris Corde and numerous celebrations, devotions, lectures, conferences and much more were held in his honour around the world.

This website is a late fruit of the Year of St Joseph. Our aim is to ensure that some of the splendour of this year is preserved and passed on. Together with many other faithful, we are convinced that today is the "time of St Joseph", that it is his and God's will that he should increasingly step out of obscurity and emerge into the open. But let us first take a look at the history of his veneration, which only developed late, and then only slowly. This way we can understand why St Joseph still lags behind many other saints in veneration today - and why by that, his great holiness shines through all the more brightly. In this way, we can finally understand why he is such a great role model for us today and why the millennia-old call "Ite ad Joseph! - Go to Joseph" is particularly relevant to our time!

As already indicated, in St Joseph we venerate the greatest saint after Our Lady, because except for Our Lady, no other human being was ever so intimately united with God and participated directly and actively in the mystery of the Incarnation.

But this is precisely the reason why St Joseph remained in the background in the early Church and also why he had to remain there. For during the first centuries, the Church had to assert itself against many heresies that in one way or the other denied that Jesus Christ was true God. The first councils struggled to define beyond doubt the exact relationship between the Son of God and God the Father. It was particularly difficult to explain the infallible dogma of faith that Jesus Christ was true God and true man at the same time in a way that would certainly exclude misunderstandings.

The greatest and most dangerous heresy of antiquity was Arianism, which denied Jesus' divinity; this movement, which went back to the Alexandrian priest Arius, saw Jesus as a God-like being who was very close to God, but denied that Jesus himself was true God and therefore "consubstantial" with the Father as the Son, as the first Council of Nicaea (325 AD) dogmatically defined. It is still prayed today in the Creed ("consubstantialis patri", i.e. "consubstantial with the Father"). It took many centuries for the last remnants of this heresy to largely disappear from the scene, and it persisted for a long time, especially among the Germanic tribes.

But what does this have to do with St Joseph? Well, while efforts were made to emphasise Jesus' divinity against the heretics, the veneration of Jesus' human (foster) father could have led to misunderstandings. A few centuries later, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the great Doctor of the Church of the High Middle Ages, wrote in retrospect about this problem that it was necessary at the time not to place too much emphasis on St Joseph so that "his paternal right [as the foster father] over the Saviour would not obscure his origin from the eternal Father [i.e. Jesus' sonship with God]."

So ultimately, the entire first millennium was not favourable to the veneration of St Joseph. It is true that many church fathers mentioned St Joseph in praise when talking about the story of Jesus' childhood. However, this did not mean that he was truly venerated.

There is a second reason why this only became established and widespread later on: in the first centuries, during the time of the great persecutions of Christians, the Church generally only honoured martyrs as saints. As the "perpetual virgin" and "God-bearer"/"Theotokos" (two of Mary's earliest official titles), Mary proved to be an exception. Only after Christianity was tolerated by Emperor Constantine and elevated to the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius did this gradually change. Saints who were not martyrs, but who bore witness to Christ in a special way through their holy way of life, began to be honoured as the so-called "confessors", like they are called to this today.

It was not until the High Middle Ages that a more widespread awareness and appreciation of the saintly life of St Joseph emerged. It was at that time that the first nativity scenes were created. The piety of the newly founded mendicant orders in the High Middle Ages, such as the Dominicans, Carmelites and especially the Franciscans, focused on the humanity of Jesus (whereas in the centuries before Christ had often been venerated as a strict judge and a rather remote ruler). Thus the life of Jesus, especially the childhood story of Jesus, took centre stage - and with the childhood story, of course, also the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Even though the Holy Scriptures do not mention a single word that St Joseph uttered, the Christmas story and the rest of the childhood story of Jesus is of course inconceivable without St Joseph, the foster father, guardian and protector of the Saviour! The Franciscans in particular venerate St Joseph as a humble, simple, modest and poor labourer. This is where the real story of the veneration of St Joseph begins.

The number of apostles of the veneration of St Joseph has been growing steadily since the high and late Middle Ages, and among them we find many great saints and theologians, including St Theresa of Avila, the reformer of the Carmelite Order, St Francis de Sales, Blessed Bernardine of Siena and, last but not least, Jean Gerson, who, as an influential theologian throughout Europe, praised the virtues of St Joseph in many of his writings and argued strongly that St Joseph was a young and strong man when he became engaged to Mary, not an elderly and weak grandfather-kind of man as is often portrayed. From her own experience, St Theresa of Avila coined the words that are still often quoted today: "Any grace asked of St Joseph will most certainly be granted."

As a result, devotion to the saint spread throughout Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards. Various dioceses chose him as their patron saint, and Emperor Leopold finally declared him patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Because the Carmelite and Franciscan religious orders were at the forefront of the missionary work in America, they opened up a cultural area to St Joseph that has had a special devotion to him ever since: Mexico was the first kingdom to consecrate itself to St Joseph, and many churches and cities in Latin America bear his name.

However, the actual victorious march of the veneration of Joseph only commenced in the 19th century. It was above all the popes who encouraged devotion to St Joseph. Blessed Pope Pius IX elevated him to patron saint of the Holy Church at a time of growing persecution of the Church by the secular European nation states. Leo XIII then composed the prayer to St Joseph for the Church, which is still much prayed today.

Even behind a shop window, St Joseph manages to somehow hide himself...

We have now heard some of the reasons why the veneration of St Joseph was only able to establish itself late. Considering the high position of St Joseph as the greatest saint after the Mother of God, there is a great discrepancy between this high position and the spread of his veneration. In relation to his unique holiness, the devotion to St Joseph was and still is far behind that of many other saints! But perhaps this is precisely a reflection of the special holiness of St Joseph. For his unassuming reserve and humble hiddenness are not just evident in the history of his veneration, but already in his earthly life. After all, not a single word of him is recorded in Holy Scripture; he takes a back seat to Jesus and Mary. Perhaps this is precisely the "message" of St. Joseph: those who are great and important in the eyes of God are small and insignificant in the eyes of the world. What many saints have taught, St. Joseph fulfilled like no other: Holiness is to be sought in obscurity! St. Philip Neri once recommended to his spiritual children that they should strive not to be known by people, that they should "love to be unknown" ("amare nesciri"). St. Joseph seems to have exemplified this most purely of all the saints. He, who had the most important role in the history of salvation after Our Lady, always remained in the background.

If St Joseph has increasingly emerged from his obscurity in recent years and has become known, loved and venerated by more and more people, then perhaps we can recognise in this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of salvation. This assumption is confirmed when we consider the development of Marian devotion: In recent centuries, Marian devotion has intensified and Our Lady herself has confirmed in the last 200 years through increased apparitions that this is the will of God. In Fátima, she recommended her "Immaculate Heart" to the world as the "ultimate means of salvation" that God gives to humanity. The increased presence of Our Lady in the life of the Church is thus an expression of God's will for the end times. God has willed that the importance of Our Lady should increase in these last times. Apparently, this also seems to include the fact that the "true time of St Joseph", which St José Manyanet predicted 150 years ago, has now dawned. It is precisely in this our time of crisis that the promise contained in the proclamation "Ite ad Joseph - Go ye all to Joseph" is being fulfilled! Just as Joseph of Egypt was the steward of Egypt's food supplies in times of the seven-year famine, St Joseph is the steward of the spiritual means of salvation in the many tribulations of our time. St Joseph of Egypt saved the peoples of the Orient from starvation. If we entrust ourselves to him, St Joseph will save us from apostasy, desolation and despair. At the same time, he teaches us that true holiness consists in detaching ourselves completely from the spirit of the world. Following the example of the Holy Family of Nazareth, he teaches us to preserve and live our faith in small cells. Following the example of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, he teaches us to remain steadfast even in persecution and to accept the will of God in such adversities, disappointments and tribulations - "For this is the will of God for you: Your sanctification" (1 Thess 4:3).