The Heart of a Father

In the Church, we have the beautiful feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with the heart symbolizing the immense love of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother for each one of us.

Catholic men might also consider meditating on the heart of St. Joseph, the third member of the Holy Family. His heart is an apt symbol of the love he contributed to the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation that was unfolding under his watch.

And now that same masculine vigilance and love, once focused on his beloved wife and the Christ child, is bestowed on each one of us, as he is universally invoked as the patron of the Catholic Church.

At the outset of St. Luke’s Gospel, we learn that part of St. John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people for the imminent coming of the Messiah was to turn the hearts of fathers to their children so as to make ready for the Lord a people that was truly prepared for Him (Lk. 1:17; cf. Mal. 4:5-6). In St. Joseph, we find a father whose heart is already exquisitely calibrated.

His heart was always in the right place, and God was able to accomplish great things through this eminently just and faithful man.

St. Joseph’s fatherly heart jumps off the page throughout the biblical accounts of Christ’s childhood. Let’s take a brief look at just one such familiar episode: the Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Lk. 2:41-52). 

“Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up according to custom” (vv. 41-42).

These verses may seem unremarkable at first blush, though as St. Joseph is carting the Holy Family from place to place in the first century we can be certain these journeys were much more onerous than a leisurely afternoon drive in the air-conditioned minivan. But even in his fidelity to the Jewish practices of his time, St. Joseph gives us a most timely lesson on the value of men being observant Catholics. Too often we find at Sunday Mass mom and the kids, but where’s dad?

St. Joseph challenges us men to allow our love for the Lord and zeal for our faith to set the tone for the entire family, just as he challenges the pastor to set the tone for the parish and the bishop to set the tone for the diocese.

Real men lead by example.

An Affirmation of Fatherhood

“Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (v. 48).

St. Joseph doesn’t have any lines in this scene, but surely he has a leading role. We hear in Our Lady’s words the great anxiety that overcame St. Joseph when he realized that Jesus was missing, and we can picture him looking frantically for his child.

When she was little, my daughter Abigail got separated from us while on a family outing at the zoo. It was one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever endured as a father, and Abbie was only missing for about an hour. Try losing the Son of God for three days!

It’s also significant that Mary refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father, which surely reflected the common understanding of the people. As an adoptive father myself, I appreciate the affirmation of fatherhood as a reality that transcends biological lineage. As Pope John Paul II commented in his 1989 apostolic exhortation Guardian of the Redeemer:

“In this family, Joseph is the father: his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring; but neither is it an ‘apparent’ or merely ’substitute’ fatherhood. Rather, it is one that fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of the father in the family.”

In this comment we also discern the sublime value of the spiritual fatherhood exercised by priests, which also is not merely a “substitute” or symbolic fatherhood. I look at it this way: My status as God’s child is even more real than my status as the son of Leon Sr. and Eileen, as through Baptism I am identified for eternity as belonging to God’s family (cf. Catechism, nos. 1272-74).

Priests, through their fruitful marriage to the Church as alteri Christi (“other Christs”) are called to “procreate and educate”—that is, “baptize and teach”—the family of God in their midst.

Joseph accepts his vocation to fatherhood through the obedience of faith, even though he also knows that this remarkable Child was conceived “of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20). He exercises this fatherhood in complete docility to God’s will and with superabundant love for mother and Child. As the wondrous events unfold around him, it’s clear that St. Joseph does not have a complete understanding of what’s going to happen next. Yet he always remains faithful in the present moment, and the Lord never fails to reveal to him what he needs to know at any given point in time.

As I’ve tried to translate this into my own life experience, I’ve understood this to mean that I must at all times remain attentive to God and available for my family. When things go wrong, it’s typically because either I’m not paying attention, or I am serving myself and not my beloved family.

Mighty Love and Daily Solicitude

“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and His mother kept all these things in her heart” (v. 51).

Women with careers often need to be affirmed regarding the beautiful vocation of motherhood, which too often–in subtle and not-so-subtle ways–is devalued in our society. Yet men need to hear a similar message regarding fatherhood, spoken through the humbly eloquent life of St. Joseph.

We might do great things in the world’s eyes, but our primary vocation as married men is to be husbands and fathers in the domestic Church, which goes well beyond “bringing home the bacon” and being “good providers.” Similarly, priests exercise their vocation to spiritual fatherhood as faithful heralds of the Gospel, and not as mere “regional managers” of “Churchcorp.”

Luke 2:51 speaks of Jesus’ return to Nazareth with His parents, but it’s also true that St. Joseph committed himself to a hidden life in Nazareth that was recorded only in his beloved wife’s heart, as she delighted in her family’s inner life. As Pope Benedict XVI noted in an Angelus address, St. Joseph’s vocation played out “in the humility and obscurity of his house in Nazareth” (March 19, 2006). His happiness was found in quietly, but strongly serving the Holy Family.

And so St. Joseph didn’t become rich and famous. He didn’t build skyscrapers or even oversee multi-million dollar capital campaigns. Rather, as Pope Leo XIII summarizes, St. Joseph simply set himself to protect with a mighty love and a daily solicitude his spouse and the Divine Child (Quamquam Pluries, 1889). He gave totally of himself to his family, and because of that he truly was a success, both in time and in eternity.

For those of us who wish somehow to be better, to be the godly men we were created to be, we do well to invoke St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church, and to imitate his fatherly heart.

This article originally appeared in Religious Life magazine published by the Institute on Religious Life. It is reprinted here in honor of tomorrow’s feast of St. Joseph.

2 thoughts on “The Heart of a Father”

  1. Thanks for this, Leon. We just had our Lenten retreat preached by the La Salette Missionaries and I followed it in the Spanish version. the Missionary had a meditation on St. Joseph. The best I had ever heard. Now you come up with this one. Good stuff. Thank you for thinking of me.

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