St. Joseph and Fatherhood

Originally delivered as a talk for the Diocese of Paterson Advent Day of Prayer for Priests, St. Paul Inside the Walls Evangelization Center, Madison, NJ on December 6, 2022.

It is my privilege and pleasure to be with you today at the invitation of Bishop Kevin Sweeney. I propose today to use as my outline two documents of Pope Francis: The first is called “With a father’s heart,” his Apostolic letter on Saint Joseph, and the second was an address the Holy Father gave just the beginning of this year to the International Theological Symposium on the priesthood. Rather than some hard theology, Pope Francis spoke from his heart about the need for priests to be close to God, their bishop, brother priests, and the people.

The first talk today is a reflection on Saint Joseph who with a father’s heart loved Jesus and gives us the best example of how we as priests (who are known as fathers) must love the people God has given to our care. Joseph had the courage to become the legal father of Jesus and give Jesus his name so that he too would be legitimate. He had to protect Mary from being accused of adultery. He was a father with great courage, and so too we must be as we are known as fathers and men of courage. Saint Joseph’s whole life was one of challenge: first to accept Mary and then to protect her and the child Jesus, then to flee to Egypt and live in a foreign land. Some of you have experienced that today since you are not from the United States — being transposed into another land creates its own difficulties — but we can look to Joseph who underwent that difficulty to protect the Holy Family as you undergo this to give life to the Church in a different place.

Since 1870, Saint Joseph has been known as the patron of the Universal Church. He was given that title by Pope Pius IX because the Pope wanted the faithful to be able to call upon Joseph when in need.

The famous saying “Go to Joseph” comes from the experience of Joseph, the son of Jacob, who became the viceroy in Egypt and who saved his brothers and family from famine after he had been sold into slavery by his brothers. He became someone important, unrecognized by his brothers as they begged for help. The Holy Father tells us, “Our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people often overlooked.”

My question that I give to you today for your recollection is, “Who sustains you? Who is that person in your life that cares for you in a special way?” It may be your mother, your father, a parishioner, or a brother priest.  Anyone can become that special sustainer that we need, because we too must sustain others. The Holy Father says, “No one is saved alone.” No, we are saved together, and I will speak about our relationship among priests which can be so important for us as fathers. 

Pope Francis gives certain aspects of the life of Joseph which I will explain. He calls him a beloved father. Another question for your meditation is, “Are you a beloved father?” And, as the Pope says, “Are you a servant leader at the service of the entire plan of salvation as Saint Joseph was?” If it were not for the courage of Joseph, the plan of salvation would not have played out as God willed. Joseph had an important part as the guardian of the Redeemer and a real protagonist of the work of redemption. As the Holy Father says, “There are also innumerable holy men and women who are passionately devoted to Saint Joseph because they recognize in him a powerful intercessor who understands the vicissitudes of human life, especially family life because he was a real father to Jesus; also he was a real spouse to Mary.” These are not just titles given but realities that he lived. He was indeed a beloved father; so too, we must be beloved for our people. It is sometimes hard not to disappoint them but that is part of our goal as priests/fathers. Are you a beloved father? Did you follow a very beloved pastor, or did you take over from someone who was removed from ministry but who was very beloved?

Pope Francis calls Joseph “a tender and loving father.” Sometimes tenderness is not always seen as a manly virtue. Psalm 103 tells us, “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” The Holy Father says, “Too often we think that our God works only through our better parts, yet most of his plans are realized in and despite of our frailty.” We need today also to recollect and name our own frailty and weak points. Because most of the time it is exactly through that frailty that God makes us tender and loving for others.

We understand the weaknesses of others because we are weak ourselves. The old adage is, “A good penitent makes a good confessor.” Yes, we must recognize that our weaknesses somehow are part of God’s plan not only to keep us humble, but also to keep us tender in our relationships with others. Pope Francis tells us, “The truth always presents itself to us like the merciful father in the parable of Jesus.” He is referring to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Can we be that type of tender, loving, and accepting father as priest?

The Holy Father calls Saint Joseph an obedient father. We as priests are called to the promise of obedience that we make first as deacons and then as priests. But what does obedience mean? The Holy Father first speaks about Joseph being obedient to his dreams. He heard, “Do not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife and to lead the child out of danger and go to Egypt. Joseph was obedient to his dreams. What are your dreams? Does God speak to you in your dreams? Is there something that you see yourself doing someday? How does God speak to us in dreams? I believe He does. And, as Pope Francis says, “Obedience made it possible for Joseph to surmount the difficulties of his life and spare Mary any harm and Joseph promptly obeyed.” The Holy Father tells us that Joseph took the child and his mother and went to the land of Egypt.

When I was a third grader at Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Newark, Sister Maureen taught us a little poem that I have never forgotten, “All obedience worth the name, must be prompt and ready.” Obedience was very important when I was growing up. Children today, when they do something wrong, are given time out. I guess time to consider what they did, not the usual whack that I might have gotten. There is something to be said about the promptness of obedience.

In the talk this afternoon, I will present some of the ideas Pope Francis has, as well as my own, about how obedience truly is dialogical: first in prayer and discernment, and also in dialogue with those who are superior to us, those who act in God’s place in some ways. But the essence of obedience is certainly the doing of God’s will. How do we discern God’s will for ourselves? Only prayer can teach us, as Mary did, to immediately overcome her fear at the Annunciation. And Joseph too had his own moment of fiat when he promptly obeyed those dreams.

But when did you make your fiat? Was that on the day of your Ordination to the priesthood? Those promises, unfortunately, hardly sustain us. We need to make it repeatedly, so that we will accept God’s will and not our own as our path in life. Saint Joseph was called by God to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood. And so too you have that same privilege and obligation to be a father. Being called father is a title that you must earn. It is not a graduation gift from the seminary, nor an Ordination gift. It is something you must earn by your service to your people.

Next our Holy Father calls St. Joseph “an accepting father.” Joseph accepted Mary unconditionally and he trusted the angel’s words. Unconditional love is the only thing we understand as coming close to God’s love for us. How frequently in our life do we experience unconditional love? Sometimes it is the love of our fathers, our mothers, for some their spouses, for others from their love for and from their children. The person exercising unconditional love wants nothing but all for the other.

Your fatherhood in the priesthood has a great connection with your relationship to your own human father. There was a book written called Fatherless America. It speaks about the great number of children being born out of wedlock without fathers or the absence of fathers even when they are present in the family. It is a great deficit to overcome, yet sometimes our relationship with our fathers is never perfect. There are all kinds of things that can enter into that relationship that make it less than perfect and, unfortunately, we carry those wounds for the rest of our lives. If in some way you are wounded by that relationship, get the help you need to live to understand it better. In my experience, a priest’s relationship to his father influences his ability to be father to others. This dictates how he accepts his sexuality and so many other personality traits. We are all sons of our fathers, like it or not. There is so much of them in us, and to be a good priest you must be the best of fathers. And if you cannot be the best of fathers, you must find a way to improve that relationship with someone who may be alive or may be deceased. Therapy can help. Jesus, Himself, had a wonderful relationship with God, His Father (and St. Joseph), as He obviously spoke about Him so much. He said the Father’s Will was His to do. It was all He lived for.

Most of us found it hard to do what our fathers wanted us to do at various stages of life. Perhaps your father did not want you to become a priest. There are so many things that bring us back to that filial relationship which is so important to our priesthood. Our fatherhood as a priest is a key element in our ministry. Next, Pope Francis calls Saint Joseph “a creatively courageous father.” He says, “In this way, if the first stage of all true interior healing is to accept our personal history and even embrace the things in life that we did not choose, we must now add another important element, creative courage.”

I could best explain this by something that happened in my own life years back. It was a type of betrayal. Someone whom I trusted, very much in fact, betrayed me and accused me of something that never happened, and I am not speaking of the accusations that were successfully defended in the Vos Estis investigation and declared “not to have the semblance of truth.” This case occurred years before. A good priest friend of mine, the one who inspired me to the priesthood,  gave me this advice which I never will forget, “You can have 100 successes in life, but how you react to your betrayals reveals the kind of person that you are.” As priests/fathers, we experience many betrayals. We are not just disappointed by others, sometimes we are betrayed by them. If we had more time, we could speak about the current accusations against priests that are so devastating, some of which are true betrayals of trust. And those that are true are betrayals also of the trust of those innocent victims. Betrayals in marriage are so difficult to deal with; you are confronted with them frequently. I am sure we can only take refuge in remembering how many times Jesus, Himself, was betrayed. A certain creative courage is necessary to overcome those types of disappointments.

In our discussion, I will speak about the recent survey about the relationship of priests and bishops. This too seems to be a betrayal of trust that has been very devastating to the relationship between priests and bishops, and even among priests themselves. The Holy Father gives an interesting example of what he believes creative courage is about, as he attributes it to the friends of the paralytic who took the roof off of the house where Jesus was so that they could lower their friend for his healing by Jesus. Sometimes we, as friends of God’s people and their spiritual fathers, need to take the roof off the houses where Jesus is hiding because they cannot find Him. We need to help them find courage to deal with their problems and forgive their sins, otherwise they will not find the healing that they need. The Pope says, “Saint Joseph could not be other than the guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the body of Christ in history, even as Mary’s motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church.”

Yes, the Church is our mother and when we criticize the Church it is like criticizing our mothers. Sometimes our mothers can make mistakes, but it is not criticism that they need. Rather, it is correction, love, and direction. We struggle today to find that the Church is our mother when we find a lack of tenderness. We can go to Joseph who had that creative courage to find a way to protect his family.

The Holy Father calls St. Joseph “a working father.” A carpenter, yes, but we know so much more about the carpenter’s trade of Joseph and Jesus today through the work of Father John Paul Meier, who recently died, in his series on “Jesus, the marginal Jew.” We know that the carpenter trade then was one of even building houses. Jesus and his father Joseph were able to exercise their trade in the nearby Greek settlement. But the work we do is not to build houses or dig ditches. The work we do is not very physical, but sometimes exhausting psychologically. An old spiritual director in the seminary used to say, “Some priests enter into eternal repose on the day of their ordination.” Pope Francis says, “Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation and opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion.” The work of being a father to others is not an easy job. It takes skill, practice, and courage.

Finally, the Holy Father called Saint Joseph “a father in the shadows.” He uses a novel by a Polish author, Jan Dobraczynski, entitled The Shadow of the Father, which describes the relationship of Joseph to Jesus. Joseph was the earthly shadow of the Heavenly Father, as Joseph watched over Jesus and protected Him, never leaving Him to go his own way.  Yes, many times we are shadow fathers in the sense that we do not beget children. And yet we love them as if they were our own. There comes a point in the life of many priests that they wish to have a son and sometimes they have a good relationship, which can be the source of a vocation. Or at other times they have inappropriate relationships with younger males because they want to be fathers. Like Joseph, we are called to be fathers in the shadows. We are icons of Christ and the Father. We need the courage to be strong in understanding our human nature and developing a spirituality to sustain ourselves.

Pope Francis says every priest or bishop should be able to add, with the apostles, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (I Cor. 4:15) Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Pope Francis says Saint Joseph is traditionally called a Most Chaste Father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but it is the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness.

“Chastity is the freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life; only when love is chaste is it truly love,” says the Holy Father. Chaste love is difficult. Perhaps each day as we celebrate the Eucharist, when we come to the words of institution, “This is my body, this is my blood,” we need to remember we offer our own body and blood with the Lord’s sacrifice. Our celibacy can be a burden, but it also can be a joy when we live it in union with Christ in our prayer. Pope Francis goes on to say, “The priesthood and consecrated life likewise require a kind of maturity. Whatever our vocation be, whether to marriage, celibacy, or virginity, our gift of self will not come to fulfillment if it stops at sacrifice.” Were that the case, instead of being a sign of beauty, joy, and love, the gift of self would risk an expression of sadness and frustration. The paternity that we must exercise as fathers and priests means that we truly must let our children walk alone after we have guided them. We cannot possess them.

This afternoon we will perhaps speak more in depth but for now I have given some points for meditation, some things that you can talk about, and we will have an opportunity for questions later on; take this to prayer. I will pray with the prayer the Holy Father gives at the end of his apostolic letter.

The second part of this retreat will be forthcoming as Part II next month.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio About Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, in 1970, from 1985 to 1991 he served as executive director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services at the USCCB. In 1996, he was ordained auxiliary bishop of Newark; in July of 1999, bishop of Camden, NJ; in October 2003, the seventh bishop of Brooklyn. Bishop DiMarzio has spent his ministry of over 40 years in the areas of immigration assistance and refugee resettlement services. He holds a Master’s in Social Work from Fordham University and a Ph.D. in Social Work Research and Policy from Rutgers University.