St. Joseph “Patris Corde” As a Pastoral Icon

On the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as the patron of the universal church, Pope Francis released the Apostolic Letter “Patris corde,” which means “with a father’s heart.” (1, 2) This is in the spirit of Pope Pius IX’s decree on Dec 8, 1890, which was indeed a call for looking at St. Joseph as truly someone who does everything with Jesus and Mary. This conviction of the papal magisterium is also reflected in the fact that St. Joseph was made the Patron of the Second Vatican Council.(3) All of this and more, along with the sensus fidelium (the universal and organic consensus among the magisterium and all faithful) shows us that the fatherhood we see and experience in St. Joseph is one that is rich in tenderness, nurture, humility and efficacy, through its intrinsic link to Jesus and Mary.

St. Joseph, through the merit of his submission to the providence, finds a unique place within the plan of salvation; he becomes the most authentic icon of paternal grace, protection and affection. He thus sets an example to all fathers — including priests, who are to be spiritual fathers of their flock. For the priest who wonders how he could ever be a “spiritual father” to his flock; there is reason for hope through the example of St. Joseph. The priest may be encouraged by this message by Pope Francis as follows: “Fathers are not born, but made.” (2 i) In the humble example of St. Joseph the worker and the father, the priest in fact finds a relatable model. He may not be “born a father,” but can make himself into a father with the grace of God and through obedience; much like St. Joseph did.

This being the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, we may reflect on what Patris corde has to offer especially for the priests of the Church. We will begin with the realization that St. Joseph is first and foremost a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord! (4, 5) One may even say that his humility and cooperation with God is inseparably linked to his role as the father to Jesus, and as the guardian of the Blessed Mother.

Joseph the proto-priest

Joseph, as the legal father of Jesus, names him as per an angelic instruction (Mt 1:21). He thus took responsibility for his protection, education and development as per the Jewish law. In his submission to the radical and salvific will of God, his sense of responsibility, tenderness and fervour, he sets an example to the priest who too is called in a radical, ever-new and truly mysterious way to walk with and serve Christ. The priest hence is given the responsibility and the privilege to say the words of consecration, calling upon the Holy Spirit (epiklesis), thus acting as a human mediator in making the bread and wine, the body and blood of the Lord himself! Thus the priest holds the body and blood of Christ, and encounters the reality of Christ through the Church in a truly surprising way; this is not unlike St. Joseph’s encounter with Jesus, through Mary.

In being given the gift of celebration of the Holy Mass, the priest in fact is also invited into the mystery that the Apostles (and their successors) are called into! St. Joseph held the infant Jesus — fully human and fully divine — several years prior to the Last Supper, where he offered himself — body and soul — to his disciples. (6 i, ii) Thereafter the Church has celebrated the Holy Mass/Divine Liturgy, wherein this intimate encounter of the apostles with Christ continues. This action if anything was prefigured most directly in the contact between St. Joseph and infant Jesus.

Joseph the father, after the earthly shadow of God the Father

Pope Francis talks of several salient features of St. Joseph and his fatherhood. He is (i) a beloved father who placed himself at the service of salvation for all, (ii) tender, merciful, and loving father who observed Jesus’ growth in human and divine favor (Lk 2:52), (iii) an obedient father who became the guardian of the Blessed Mother — the new and perfect Eve and the altar of the Lord, (iv) an accepting and charitable father, who unconditionally takes in the Blessed Mother (thus becoming the patron of orphans and widows), (v) a creatively courageous and deeply responsible father — he is in fact the miracle that saved Mary and the Child Jesus, (vi) a working father, thus participating in the work of God himself, (vii) father in the shadows — after the shadow of the heavenly father himself! (2 i, ii)

In St. Joseph we find a father who accepts the twin and conjoined realities of the child and the mother, poverty and the Church, and love of sacraments and charity. He thus shows that fathers are not created, fathers are made — men become fathers through responsibility, justice, wisdom, courage, creativity, and most importantly, through obedience and submission to God.

St. Joseph’s eloquent silence in Biblical text also shows us his intense humility; something that we may all imitate. Priests in particular may find encouragement in knowing that fathers are made, and it is indeed a pilgrim journey. Thankfully the first step toward it comes from God, for priests are called into the apostolic fold through God. They may hence trust God and build virtue in the company of Jesus and Mary, much like St. Joseph himself did.

Need for fathers, and priests as fathers . . .

Given the realities of the world, we need fathers. Pope Francis says:

Children today often seem orphans, lacking fathers. The Church too needs fathers. Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthians remain timely: “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers” (1 Cor 4:15). Every priest or bishop should be able to add, with the Apostle: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (ibid.). Paul likewise calls the Galatians: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (4:19). (2 i)

Pope Francis talks of a fundamental lacuna within the Church and the society. He says that while there are many “guides” to Christ, there are no fathers! This could be a wakeup call for priests. The priest of Christ is invited to be spiritual father in a truly remarkable way; he shows the breadth of God’s love. No one who comes to the priest must leave without spiritual counsel and healing; a touch of fatherly care and affection is essential to the “cure of souls.”

Much like St. Joseph, priests are called, and their fatherhood is ultimately founded upon obedience to God and trust in his providence.

In taking on the responsibility of his flock with trust in providential help, in a fundamentally Josephic spirit, the priest becomes a father. This priest, much like St. Joseph, may remain unknown and even poorly appreciated, but he truly is participating in the work of God, through his humble and devout service to his flock. By accepting the weak, the poor, the orphan, the sick into his fold; he emulates the Josephic spirit. The prayerful and holy priest then becomes a co-patron the widows and orphans, cooperating with St. Joseph himself. In taking on these works of mercy, the priest becomes an instrument of creative courage, which when realized efficaciously, would be a miracle of God! For the priest ministers, but healing is from God. In being an instrument of creative courage and humble service, in a Josephic manner, the priest would be placing himself at the service of salvation, the pre-eminent role of the Church.

We now turn to the true archetype of fatherhood in the Catholic mind — God the Father himself. St. Joseph is the earthly shadow of God the father — the fountainhead of Divinity. Hence it is no surprise that in St. Joseph, we see an image of love, pastoral comfort, guidance, spiritual counsel, and a prayerful pathway to life. One can never mistake the centrality of motherhood in Catholic thinking, given the extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Mother and the identification of the Church as a Holy Mother. In addition, it must be now also clear that, in recognizing the role of St. Joseph, as the earthly shadow of God the Father, the Church is essentially placing him as an archetype for the priest himself, from whom the pastoral and sacramental life of his flock gets directed. Hence one may even call St. Joseph the proto-priest, while acknowledging that Christ is truly the high priest (Heb 4:14-16)! Hence St. Joseph truly becomes a minister of salvation.(7) The priest too gets invited for participation into the Divine economy, through his ministerial, sacramental and magisterial roles; all of which play into God’s great plan of salvation. The priest thus finds a true companion and a prototype in St. Joseph.

Evangelic vows, Catholic priesthood and its Josephic character

Finally we turn to the role of evangelical vows in Catholic priesthood. These vows are certainly supererogatory, and rarely seen outside of the Catholic priesthood, and outside monasticism traditions (across religions). What is true of the evangelical vows, and what makes them rare, is that they require a true gift of the self. Here too St. Joseph is an exemplar — his happiness involved a true gift of the self. Pope Francis writes: “In him, we never see frustration, but only trust . . . His patient silence was the prelude to concrete expressions of trust.

Thus St. Joseph, the proto-priest, the minister of salvation, stands out as an exemplar for the joyful priest! He shows the evangelical value of happy and joyful fathers, and shows us the need to value a just, humble, working, responsible, and cheerful father. In St. Joseph we see a true father, who “refuses to live the lives of their children for them” (2 i) and respects the child. The priest too must do the same in the spiritual realm — allowing for a flourishing of the internal life and a spirituality that is most consonant with the person he is a pastor to. Such a fatherhood that deeply accommodates the personal aspects of those we are pastor to has nothing to do with us and our glory, but has everything to do with our “heavenly Father,” whose shadow we find in our beloved St. Joseph.


Patris corde speaks eloquently and deeply about the heart of St. Joseph, which is truly the heart of a father. In him, Pope Francis teaches that we find an earthly shadow of God the Father himself. Given St. Joseph’s relationship to infant Jesus, we find in him a prototype for the Catholic priest, who too is privileged to encounter the substance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist; a sacrament for which he is called to be the privileged human mediator.

The priest of Christ would find an exemplar in St. Joseph, who is truly a proto-priest, and a true minister of salvation.(7) St. Joseph shows us that being a loving, profoundly responsible, merciful, humble, working father, who is creatively courageous is indeed possible in this earthly estate of ours. A spiritual father who models himself on St. Joseph accepts the twin realities of poverty and the Church, love of sacraments and charity, and Jesus and Mary! The Catholic priest is in fact invited into precisely this kind of spiritual fatherhood in relation to his flock. In St. Joseph he indeed finds a prototype of a spiritual father. Furthermore, when the priest holds the consecrated elements — the body and blood of Christ himself — it is analogous to St. Joseph holding the child Jesus! The latter prefigured the former years before the Last Supper!

Finally in St. Joseph we see a father who allows his son to grow into what he truly is pre-ordained to be. His son Jesus was unique like no one else, and along with the Blessed Mother, he allowed for the growth and education of Jesus in a manner that did justice to the Incarnate Word himself! St. Joseph’s silence is in fact an eloquent testimony of his gentle and genuinely fatherly approach, which involved authority but not authoritarianism. In his relationship with Jesus, he in fact sets a splendid example that can be mirrored in the pastoral relationship between the priest and his flock. Hence the Catholic priest who models himself according to the Josephic path becomes a collaborator to St. Joseph himself who is the patron of the universal Church, and the patron of widows and orphans.

Dr. Tiju Thomas About Dr. Tiju Thomas

Dr. Tiju Thomas is in the engineering faculty at Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) in Tamil Nadu (India). In addition to his scientific and technical engagements, he has an abiding interest in adult catechesis, and human formation of college students and young professionals. He works with persons and families when they reach out to him for assistance, most often seeking prayer and meaningful life directions. He believes that his Christian vocation includes availability to those who need help in finding hope when they experience suffering. He also writes articles on spirituality (often drawing from the lives of saints) and inter-religious dialogues. Dr. Thomas can be reached at