Bishop: St. Joseph has not left the building
by Bishop Joensen | December 22, 2021
Pope Francis concluded the Year of St. Joseph this month on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in typically understated fashion. He made a private visit to the Good Samaritan Home in Rome, a community dedicated to supporting young people experiencing a crisis, substance abuse, or who simply have no place to lay their head. He encouraged them not to be afraid of their own misery: “Jesus likes reality as it is, undisguised; the Lord does not like people who cover their soul, their heart with makeup.”
The Holy Father will not relegate St. Joseph to a back shelf of inert statutes; he continues to teach about the role of Jesus’ adoptive father in the mystery of salvation, locating his paternal place in the household of faith. Joseph shows us the unvarnished truth about who we are called to be: men and women who are not afraid to let their hearts and souls be exposed in our own vulnerability. In the process, we can become a source of refuge, protection, and encouragement for others. Joseph continues to be an example for men, in particular, of the call to offer steadfast presence to those within our own households. At the same time, men are to weave their own life narrative into God’s unfolding story of redemption, drawing his people to himself.
Fabrice Hadjadj (to whom I am indebted for some of my inspiration here), distinguishes St. Joseph’s presence versus absence in the Christmas Season scriptural accounts. In Luke’s Gospel, when the shepherds come to adore the Christ child, Joseph is present with Mary and the child in the manger (Luke 2:16).
In Matthew’s Epiphany, when the Magi come to adore and offer gifts to the newborn King of the Jews, Joseph is not mentioned; only Mary and baby Jesus are identified in what has become a “house” (Matthew 2:11). If Joseph is absent, surely it is not because he has gone off to the local watering hole to watch the donkey bowl match-ups, or because his pride has been wounded by the appearance of such noble guests. Why was Joseph absent: was he gathering more construction supplies to make the temporary lodging more habitable, or hunting for more food to supply their famished new friends?
Natural and spiritual fathers are called to make unassuming presence to their families and others looking for reassurance and support their default mode of life. They take leave only to earn and gather the resources that will help others flourish, or to respond temporarily to another crisis or set of individuals who hold greater claim on their attention and skills. They do not seek to impose their wills on their spouses or children, but with daily integrity and consistency of life, with spare words that speak loudly, and with obvious affection and delight in simply “being with,” they represent God as unflagging witnesses to the growth and development of their offspring and those entrusted to their care. They practice and are perfected in the art of accompaniment, which is to be the signature feature of the domestic and larger church family.
I recently interviewed for my radio show Kendall Geneser of Assumption Parish in Granger, Iowa. I commend to you his autobiographical account, Grounded: A Different Kind of War, that is to be available electronically through your favorite online bookseller on Jan. 1, and in print March 2 (Ash Wednesday). Kendall is very transparent and self-critical in detailing his career as a Navy fighter pilot who nobly choose to serve his country, but who at the same time more pathetically elected in all the other opportunities afforded him to do anything but make his wife, Sherri, and sons Nick and Alex job one. He had no shortage of ego, even as he describes himself as an average pilot. But he also acknowledges that his own will took precedence over God’s will as he dreamt of glory and the next adrenalin rush.
Effectively, for much of his sons’ upbringing, he was an absent dad who consigned his spouse to single-parent status. Only the “grounding” that came in being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis brought him back to his senses. Through the long road of treatment and further professional setbacks, he eventually discovered God’s mercy and his true vocation to help guide his family to heaven.
Kendall poignantly describes how his son Nick benignly absolved him for his prolonged absences; nonetheless, despite the wisdom gained through weakness Kendall’s past choices may have exacted a cost on his son’s sense of God’s paternity. Yet this same God is patient, and Kendall’s now fervent faith and his renewed commitment to fatherhood will no doubt be a great source of grace for his family, parish, and larger community that might heal many wounds, even if it does not result in his own recovery from MS.
Kendall’s story has been grafted into the narrative God has written with his one Word, his Son, who is revealed to us at Christmas. Kendall is now free to offer witness as God asks all earthly fathers and sons (and mothers and daughters). He calls things by name, opens himself to conversion, suffers whatever it costs to be as present as possible to those whom God has entrusted to him. When good news is proclaimed and God’s proposal is accepted as Mary and Joseph each did in their own personal way, then others can likewise locate their own stories within God’s saving plan for all humanity.
The drama of birth, life, and death has countless connections that we only come to perceive in time, all of which take on new luster as a child is born in Bethlehem, is adored by shepherds and Magi, and eventually settles down for what appears to be a rather unremarkable life in the home of Nazareth. Jesus and Mary radiate holiness that attracts hearts and makes the angels sing. And through it all, there is the unheralded, resilient, and virtuously just man who would serve as husband, father, and protector of that Holy Family. But in order for him to do so, he had to do his job not only in the workshop, but by choosing to be present, day in, day out, and to be vulnerable enough to lend his voice to the story God was writing with their lives. St. Joseph’s special year has concluded, but he remains present within and to God’s house, Christ’s Church. He has not left the building.