For the past two and a half years, I have been working on a history of the Massachusetts General Hospital, to be published in the MGH bicentennial year of 2011—if I can keep hitting the deadlines, that is. Many times I have walked between buildings at the hospital, but only yesterday did I pay attention to this statue, which stands behind the Catholic Church abutting the hospital complex. The church is St. Joseph’s.
What I find lovely and unusual about this vision of St. Joseph is that here he is not with Jesus but with a young, barefoot girl, who looks up hopefully into his eyes. I have decided to name the girl Teresa.
Devotion to St. Joseph, expressed beautifully in the statue, really got started in late medieval times, according to an essay by Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, in the book Saint Joseph and the Third Millennium. Two influences were important, according to the author.
St. Bonaventure (1221–1274) was a Franciscan theologian whose Meditations on the Passion are a sort of summary of medieval spirituality. Like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius three centuries later, the Meditations exhorted readers to meditate imaginatively on the life of Christ, beginning with the life of the Holy Family. On the flight into Egypt, the reader is told, “Accompany them and help to carry the Child and serve them in every way you can.” Chorpenning’s essay shows how devotion to St. Joseph began growing alongside a widening awareness of the Holy Family.
Jean Gerson (1363–1429), a chancellor of the University of Paris, was more direct. He “conducted an active campaign to rescue St. Joseph from the relative neglect of earlier periods, to correct mistaken notions about him found in the apocryphal gospels and often reflected in art and in literature, and to promote his cult among the faithful. Gerson systematically reworked St. Joseph’s image from that of an aged, ineffective attendant to the Virgin and Christ Child to a vigorous, youthful man who was the divinely appointed head of God’s household, . . . an industrious provider for the Holy Family, and, along with his spouse Mary, an exemplar of holy matrimony.”
But enough history for one morning! Let’s continue with the homily for the Feast of St. Joseph by Karl Rahner, SJ, in which he begins to lay out reasons why St. Joseph is a saint for our times:
Certainly every Christian and every Christian nation are charged with the entire fullness of Christian perfection as a duty that is never completed. But every nation and every human being have, so to speak, their own door, their own approach, through which they alone can come nearer to the fullness of Christianity. Not all of us will find access to the boundless vistas of God’s world through the great gate of surging rapture and burning ardor. Some must go through the small gate of quiet loyalty and the ordinary, exact performance of duty. And it is this fact, I am inclined to think, that can help us to discover a rapport between earth and heaven, between Christians today and their heavenly intercessor.
[To be continued tomorrow]
Blessed St. Joseph, who stand at the “small gate of quiet loyalty and the ordinary, exact performance of duty,” pray for us!