Ite ad Joseph

Joseph reunites with his brothers in Egypt; St. Joseph cares for the child, Jesus by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)

Ite ad Joseph” (Go to Joseph)—a million pilgrims a year visit the Oratory on Queen Mary Road in Montreal where these words are inscribed at the base of a statue of St. Joseph at the main entrance. In the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers, Pharaoh tells the people suffering from hunger to “go to Joseph,” his vicar, who had stored up grain for a time of famine.1 The Catholic Church has adopted these words as a reference also to the Joseph of the New Testament, the husband of Mary, the foster-father of the Son of God.

I am convinced that St. Joseph has a providential role to play in today’s culture of fatherlessness, in modeling the Fatherhood of God, and to mediate in particular God’s protective love. Scripture is replete with metaphors which reflect the human longing to be embraced by a love that communicates a sense of safety and security. “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people.”2 It is the desire to be cherished, a rare quality of love today, which includes the notion of both valuing and protecting. “Gather us under the shadow of your wings, and keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye.”3

Here is not the place to detail the consequences to children of having a weak, absent, or abusive father, as documented for instance in David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America. In his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis comments that “we often hear that ours is a society without fathers”4 and that “the absence of a father gravely affects family life, and the upbringing of children, and their integration into society.”5

The serious injustice of a father’s neglect or abuse, especially when augmented by the malice of the devil, usually traumatizes the hearts of children with the horrible lie that God the Father is absent and uncaring, or unjust, intimidating, and punitive. It appears this plague is reaching global proportions—as if the warm, comfortable, and age-old belief in God our Father has been eclipsed in the minds of men. Into this void has mushroomed an unease and suspicion that this world is some sort of torture chamber, that a cruel and hostile power, without love, rules the universe and dominates our lives. Such poisonous convictions are the seedbed of suffocating fear and deep anger, which can be repressed into depression, buried as smoldering resentment, or explode in violence. The world, itself, seems to be shaking with a barely suppressed rage, which randomly bursts open—from Orlando to Nice—in acts of terrorism, mass shootings, and other crimes. How desperately we need to feel protected, and know that we are cherished by a paternal presence, exemplified by the foster-father of Christ.

Before discussing St. Joseph’s role in expressing and mediating the Fatherhood of God, we must first note the biblical evidence which points clearly to Jesus as the perfect representation of the Father: “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”6 Does anyone have a warped view of God, stemming in part from a painful past with his or her own father? Perhaps, we have an image of a big bully in the sky who is going to punish us? Then behold the Lamb of God, Jesus on the Cross, giving His life for us. He is not going to “punish” us. There is only one God—not one on the Cross, and another in heaven. Jesus is the complete revelation of the Father. As He Himself testified, He came into the world not to punish and condemn us, but to save us.

Theologically, this is entirely correct. Jesus is the face of the Father. If we want to come closer to God the Father—to know, love and trust Him—we have only to look to Jesus. In addition to the Crucifix, I am drawn to the numinous scene of the beloved disciple lying in the bosom (kolpos) of Jesus at the Last Supper, a model for every Christian called to intimacy with Christ.7 St. John consciously uses the same word in his prologue, explaining that the Word dwells in the kolpos (the bosom) of the Father: the way to the Father’s Heart is through the Heart of His Son8

Our knowledge of the Father comes to us through Jesus, and through human intermediaries, principally our own fathers. But this revelation has been obscured and marred by the father of lies. In the words of the Catechism, “the devil has acquired a certain domination over man” through original sin.9

He is indeed a liar, the treacherous fiend who asked our first parents: “Did God really say . . ?” The devil insinuates that God cannot be trusted, that our heavenly Father is a tyrant, jealously guarding His own power.

Our own distorted image of God is in essence a projection of the diseased and defiant mind of the devil, who in a bizarre and tragic twist, succeeds in persuading countless people that God is somehow cruel and punitive, just like . . . the devil himself. It is a perversion of truth passed on from generation to generation, as original sin is contracted, not committed—as if our earthly parents were carriers of a defective gene. Exploiting human weakness, the one who masquerades as an angel of light can also hide behind the face of our own fathers to wound and deceive us. And yet, in all this, grace triumphs. The mystery of original sin cries out for mercy toward our parents, and all those who may have neglected or hurt us; truly, “they know not what they do.”

Having said that, I still notice a remnant in my psyche of a symbolic misrepresentation of God. Often, the word “Father” in prayer can conjure up a gloomy presence, angry features, and a judgmental gaze, the face of someone (or something) reminiscent of an earthly father. Such a flashback can trigger an instinctive response to danger, and the threat of punishment: fear and anger, teeth on edge, muscles taut, poised for fight or flight. Countless times, I would look at Jesus on the Cross and exclaim: “That’s the revelation of the Father!” An act of faith it was, worthwhile but abstract, on the level of the intellect and will. It seemed—dare I say it—that something was missing. In terms of our image of God, it would appear that no matter how much we educate our minds theologically, we will always envision Jesus primarily as “Son” not as reflection of the “Father.”

Let us pause to consider how the iconography of the Church demonstrates and influences our concept of God. I write this while visiting the Sisters of Mercy in Alma, MI. If someone uninitiated into the Christian mysteries were to enter their chapel, he would see a statue of a woman at prayer on the left of the sanctuary, a man on a cross at the center, and on the right side, another statue of a man holding a child. Who symbolizes fatherhood? The man on the Cross, or the man with the child? Theologically, Jesus represents the Father, but practically and iconographically—in terms of our affect and imagination—Joseph is also given to us as a likeness of the Father. Furthermore, the Eternal Father chose to reveal Himself to the humanity of His Son in part through the person of Joseph. Jesus has memories from his infancy and childhood of Joseph’s loving glance, and gentle voice, forever imprinted on His human imagination as a model of “father.”

Notwithstanding, we must always keep in mind that even the most perfect earthly model of fatherhood is only a pale reflection of the resplendent truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions us that “we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn from this world” and “God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area upon him would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down.”10 I would argue that earthly fathers, especially if they were victimized by the evil one themselves, can be “idols” of God the Father, whereas St. Joseph is an “icon.” The icon has the power to cleanse our imagination of the idol, so that we can draw closer to our true Father.

Joseph evidently played this role in the life of St. Brother Andre (canonized in 2010), the founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory. He was known far and wide as the “miracle man” of Montreal because of the hundreds of physical cures and miraculous healings that were accomplished around him, all of which he attributed to St. Joseph. God chose this humble lay brother as a means for making St. Joseph better known, at the very least, for people to acknowledge that the foster-father of Jesus is a real person, with substantial intercessory power in heaven, producing tangible results.

How did Brother Andre become so intimate with St. Joseph that such signs and wonders abounded? By age 12, Brother Andre was orphaned when his mother died, and he retained only a few vague memories of his father who passed away several years before. Pope Francis has written that “the sense of being orphaned that affects many children and young people today is deeper than we think.”11 Perhaps, Brother Andre’s life itself was prophetic, and he serves as an example to our modern world, to all orphaned literally, or emotionally and spiritually. “Go to Joseph.” It seems that Brother Andre, by a supernatural instinct of faith, was led to St. Joseph as a spiritual father.

Back to the statue of Joseph holding the child Jesus. His figure shines like the sun, a carpenter clothed in a majestic golden robe, in meekness unaware of his glory. He lives not for himself, but for Jesus. And for us, like God the Father. Close to his heart, he cherishes the Child, while Jesus, with open arms, offers Himself to us. Joseph’s lowered gaze also protects, from prying eyes, a treasure within, a vast interior world, a tranquil ocean of mercy.

In prayer, whenever the shadow of the false father looms, I turn to Joseph. The darkness retreats before this radiant icon of the Father. Wrapped in this light, with Christ in my heart, I am safe. I can finally rest. I often ask St. Joseph to take me by the hand, and show me life through his eyes, unveiling for me the reality of this world as my Father’s house. “Yes, dearest Joseph, help me to contemplate all that is good, true, beautiful and loving in God, myself, and others.” In this way, in a very practical manner, St. Joseph helps me live in the truth of being surrounded by the protective love of God the Father, an embrace that dissipates all bitterness and resentment, a security that nurtures peace and joy.

To this day, the Church continues to proclaim: “Go to Joseph!” At the same time that Brother Andre entered religious life, the Catholic Church was “officially” drawing attention to St. Joseph by endowing him with the title “Patron of the Universal Church” in 1870. (It is worth noting that “patron” derives from the Latin for father, “pater“). More recently, Pope Francis added Joseph’s name to the remaining Eucharistic prayers. I had the privilege of being in Rome on a sabbatical during the election of Francis, and to attend his inaugural Mass on March 19th—which just so happens to be the feast of St. Joseph—as if God Himself were drawing attention to St. Joseph.

“On your walls, Jerusalem, I have set my watchmen to guard you.”12 It is one of the many Scriptural images of God as our loving Father and Protector. St. Joseph’s Oratory, a rock of refuge on the side of Mount Royal, watches over the city, guarding the coming and going of the people below. In a sense, the Oratory is a monument to the Fatherhood of God, whose only power toward us is love, who has no desire to dominate or punish us; rather, He carries the world in His hands, as Joseph holds the child Jesus with such reverence and tenderness, and with strength to protect us, so that we may securely enjoy the fullness of life.

  1. Gen 41:55.
  2. Ps 125:2.
  3. Liturgy of the Hours, Week II Wednesday Evening Prayer.
  4. Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,”(Vatican City:Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2016) #176.
  5. Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,” (Vatican City:Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2016) #55.
  6. Jn 14:9.
  7. Jn 13:23.
  8. Jn 1:18.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vatican, 1994) #407.
  10. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City:Libreria Editrice Vatican, 1994) #2779.
  11. Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,” (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vatican, 2016) #173.
  12. Is 62:6.
Fr. Tim McCauley About Fr. Tim McCauley

Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa, Canada. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as being a vocation director and a chaplain at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He is currently a priest in residence at St. Patrick Basilica in Ottawa.


  1. Thank you for posting a reflection I chose to read today, Tuesday,28th March,2017

    Sites like Facebook do not always provide reading material which consoles to the extent that this article seems to, and achieve its purpose.

    Thank you for helping readers envision God as a loving Father and directing us to think more about St. Joseph,as model father.

    Thanks for underlining and emphasizing the impact of fatherlessness on children today, the hurt and trauma arising from this absence of care and love.
    Thank you for writing.