|(Bartolomé Esteban Murillo)|
Before I detail the uses made of St. Joseph in the Counter Reformation period, I want to look back briefly at the pre-Tridentine attempts to kick-start Josephite devotion. The following quotations are from Charlene Villaseñor Black’s Creating the Cult of St. Joseph: Art and Gender in the Spanish Empire (Princeton University Press, 2006), which I will also be referencing somewhat obliquely throughout this post.
After centuries of such obscurity, the cult of St. Joseph rose to prominence in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In Italy, St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) preached sermons praising Joseph’s special privileges (derived from having lived with Jesus and Mary) and asserted that Joseph was next to the Virgin in importance in the pantheon of saints. Perhaps the most significant figure to promote devotion to Joseph was Jean Gerson [died 1429], chancellor of Notre Dame and the University of Paris. At the Council of Constance in 1416, Gerson urged the institution of a feast day honoring the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, for which he wrote an office. In a sermon delivered on the birthday of the Virgin Mary, he extolled Joseph as Christ’s earthly father. His three thousand-line Latin poem, the Josephina, laid the foundations of modern Josephine theology....
Whereas Joseph had previously been regarded as a subsidiary figure, old and unimportant, they asserted that, as the head of the Holy Family, the saint had to have been young and robust in order to support, protect, and exercise authority over Mary and Jesus. Gerson further proposed that, like the Virgin, Joseph was assumed into heaven after his death. (23-24)quasi-iconoclastic movements of the Counter Reformation wiped the slate clean on Josephite hagiography, Bernardino and Gerson were dusted off and further exploited by the Molanusian reformers.
The other great promoter of Josephite devotion was St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), who was healed of paralysis by St. Joseph’s intercession. Her influence on the Carmelite order ensured that the new Josephite devotion would be spread wherever Carmelites held sway; most especially in the Hispanic world, but also through evangelist-saints like Francis de Sales (1567-1622) who found inspiration in Teresa’s writings.
Propaganda for the Family
|(Bartolomé Esteban Murillo)|
|(Philippe de Champagne)|
|(Jeroni Jacint Espinosa)|
Most of these things may have been true about the household in Nazareth, but there is no doubt that the newer elaborations are imaginative and based on no traditions. Indeed, what few ancient traditions there are about the Holy Family suggest an imperfect harmony at best. The Holy Family of popular devotion was carefully crafted by the Counter Reformers to suit a particular need, and artistic depictions were often stringently censored to that end.
|(Mafra National Palace, Portugal)|
|(Gaspar Miguel de Berrío)|
|(José Cortés de Alcocer)|
Effects of Fabricated Devotion
Meanwhile, the old cults were shrinking and dying, often with the assistance of newly-scrupulous clergy who wanted nothing that smelled of fiction or imagination in Catholic devotion. John the Baptist, previously invoked in defense of marriage, was forgotten as Joseph took his place as the highest saint below Mary. The parents of the Virgin, Sts. Joachim and Anne, were diminishing as theologians questioned their historicity. Many of the saints once invoked against unhappy marriages—Monica, Helena, Henry and Cunegundes, Gengulphus, Rita—were falling by the wayside.
It’s an unfortunate fact that shortcuts lead to problems down the road. A hastily-built house may fall apart one day because of the shortcuts taken by the builders. A concocted devotion founded on speculative fabrications will not inspire a lasting change in the Church. The more St. Joseph is forced into a superhuman mold, the more it feels like fantasy, and one even more fantastic than the golden legends of old. We shouldn’t reshape saints simply based on a perceived need in the life of the Church.
And really, doesn’t the more ancient belief in Joseph’s pre-Marian marriage with children make him more relatable to married men today? A neat and tidy household with only one child seems more like the marriages of the workaholic, compulsive, fecundophobic neo-pagans of today, and less like the messy, crowded families traditionally promoted by the Church.
Next time, we will move further into modern times, and look at recent papal writings and proclamations about St. Joseph.
|St. Joseph, lover of large families, pray for us!|