St. Joseph, Defender of the Church, has proven to be a powerful intercessor in tough times
In 1889, Pope Leo XIII looked on a world where the Catholic faith was growing smaller, where fervor, devotion, and acts of charity in the name of Christ were an increasingly infrequent phenomenon. In response to this decline of faith, Leo penned the encyclical“Quamquam Pluries” (On Devotion to St. Joseph). In it, he wrote:
“Now, Venerable Brethren, you know the times in which we live; they are scarcely less deplorable for the Christian religion than the worst days, which in time past were most full of misery to the Church.”
These words, which were written to call attention to a rise of Catholic persecution, can be equally said of the modern Church, which is reeling from the horrors of persecutions committed by her own members. Equally applicable as Leo’s diagnosis is his prescribed treatment: to grow in devotion to St. Joseph.
Joseph, like his thrice holy bride, has been known and prayed to under many titles throughout the history of Church.
Unlike the Blessed Mother, however, many of those titles have come to be forgotten by the average Catholic: St. Joseph, Most Pure, Most Obedient, Splendor of the Patriarchs, Patron of the Dying, Terror of Demons. Of all these titles, that which was most pertinent to Leo in 1889, and is even more pertinent to use today, is that of St. Joseph, Defender of the Church.
In his encyclical, Leo traces this devotion to Joseph back to his Old Testament namesake and ancestor, Joseph, son of Jacob.
The first Joseph, who won favor with the Pharaoh, was able to help save his family from starvation and lead them to prosperity; St. Joseph, who won favor with God, was given the special distinction of defending the Holy Family, saving Mary and Jesus from Herod, and protecting Jesus until his sacrifice on Calvary to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life.
“[S]o the second [Joseph], destined to be the guardian of the Christian religion,” Leo writes, “should be regarded as the protector and defender of the Church, which is truly the house of the Lord and the kingdom of God on earth. These are the reasons why men of every rank and country should fly to the trust and guard of the blessed Joseph.”
Joseph’s role as defender of the Church expands past biblical exegesis and into the practice of the early Christians themselves. Tradition offers the faithful a prayer invoking his intercession, simply called the“Ancient Prayer to St. Joseph,” that dates back to A.D. 50, only 17 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. The prayer begins:
Oh, St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God, I place in you all my interest and desires. ...
Even in those earliest days, when protection was so necessary for the small and persecuted Church, Joseph’s role as our protector was recognized as having a particular strength and favor before God, a strength and favor which we still can implore come to our aid.
Though devotion to Joseph has dwindled in modern times, it is not solely a vestige of the ancient Church (though, if it were, it would still be powerful and necessary to return to). Rather, at the turn of the 20th century, André Bessette, a frail and simple brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross, reintroduced devotion to the saint in North America — with miraculous results.
Through his work as a doorman, Brother André would hear about the afflictions and illnesses of those attending or visiting Montreal’s Notre Dame College. In response, he would instruct them to seek the intercession of Joseph and would himself entrust them to Joseph.
Eventually, people began to realize that when André prayed through the intercession of Joseph, their loved ones would be healed. Throughout André’s life, hundreds of people were miraculously healed through the intercession of Joseph.
To help further such powerful devotion, André decided to build an oratory dedicated to the father of Jesus and Defender of the Church.
When funds for the Oratory of St. Joseph dried up before the roof could be finished, André is said to have responded with an order to place a statue of Joseph beneath the hole in the ceiling.
His logic was simple: If Joseph wanted the church to have a roof, his intercessions would be powerful enough to make it happen. To this day, the large green copper dome of the Oratory of St. Joseph, which sits above where the statue of Joseph once stood, serves as a testament to the saint’s intercessory power.
As that dome of the oratory protects the basilica beneath it from the onslaught of nature, so, too, can the prayers of Joseph protect the Church from the onslaught of sin. His intercession has proven powerful since the beginning of the Church — why, in this time of great need, should we ignore such a valiant defender?
When Leo prescribed devotion to Joseph, he did so by imploring that the following prayer be added to the end of the rosary, especially during the month of October:
To thee, O blessed Joseph, we have recourse in our affliction, and having implored the help of thy thrice holy Spouse, we now, with hearts filled with confidence, earnestly beg thee also to take us under thy protection. By that charity wherewith thou wert united to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, and by that fatherly love with which thou didst cherish the Child Jesus, we beseech thee and we humbly pray that thou wilt look down with gracious eye upon that inheritance which Jesus Christ purchased by His blood, and wilt succor us in our need by thy power and strength.
Defend, O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family, the chosen off-spring of Jesus Christ. Keep from us, O most loving Father, all blight of error and corruption. Aid us from on high, most valiant defender, in this conflict with the powers of darkness. And even as of old thou didst rescue the Child Jesus from the peril of His life, so now defend God’s Holy Church from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity. Shield us ever under thy patronage, that, following thine example and strengthened by thy help, we may live a holy life, die a happy death, and attain to everlasting bliss in Heaven. Amen.
Evan H. Harrington is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Originally from Santa Clarita, he now lives in New Haven, Connecticut. His work has been featured in the website Aleteia.com and on Ultramontane: A Catholic News Podcast.
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