ROME — Wednesday, March 13 marked the sixth anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the successor of Saint Peter. He was installed as Pope Francis five days later, on March 19, 2013, which also happened to be the day on which the Catholic Church honors Saint Joseph.

In reality, it probably wasn’t a coincidence.

The Argentine pontiff is known to have a strong devotion for Jesus’ earthly father, to the point that he has a statue of a sleeping Joseph in his room. Under it, there’s a “mattress of notes” the pope has left for the saint’s attention, containing problems and challenges he faces and doesn’t know how to resolve. 

The pontiff has tremendous confidence, telling a group of Oblates of St. Joseph last August that he’s put his needs before the saint for decades and “never, ever has he told me no.”

“For more than 40 years, I’ve been praying a prayer that I found in an old French missal which says of Saint Joseph — ‘dont la puissance sait rendre possibles les choses impossibles’ (‘whose power makes possible things that are impossible’),” Francis told the Oblates, adding that Joseph has never let him down.

Francis has long had the image of the sleeping Joseph, depicting him being warned by God about the danger posed by King Herod. 

According to the biblical narrative, it was in a dream that Joseph accepted his role as the father of Jesus and mankind, a “yes” that would turn him into the archetypal figure of “protector” of Mary and Jesus and the whole Church, as Francis said during his first homily in 2013.

“Saint Joseph does not look for friends to vent or ask for suggestions, he does not go to the psychiatrist to interpret the dream ... no: he believed,” Francis said in 2017. “He moved forward. He handled the situation.” In a 2018 tweet, Francis hailed Joseph as a “man of dreams, but not a dreamer.”

Pope Francis shows the sleeping posture of a statue of St. Joseph he keeps on his desk while giving a talk during a meeting with families in the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines, in 2015. The pope spoke about his devotion to Joseph, foster father of Jesus, and his practice of writing prayers on pieces of paper and slipping them under the statue so Joseph could sleep on them. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/PAUL HARING)

The newly elected pope used that image of Joseph as a call to action in his installation homily six years ago.

“Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!” the new pope said.

Since then, much of his pontificate can be summarized in what he said that day to 200,000 faithful who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.”

The successor of Peter, Francis continued, “must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”

A pope who believes gestures are stronger than words, Francis has tried to live this ideal of Joseph opening his arms to protect God’s people. Think of Francis embracing men and women disfigured by illness, for instance, reaching out to migrants, giving the homeless VIP access to the Sistine Chapel, and assigning prisoners a place of honor during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Francis has also praised Joseph as a figure who accepted God’s will that he raise Jesus to manhood, doing so “in silence, without judging, without speaking poorly of others, and without gossiping” — all qualities the pontiff frequently extols.

“[Saint Joseph] silently let [Jesus] grow,” Francis said during an impromptu morning homily on Dec. 18, 2018. “This idea could help us immensely, we who by nature always want to stick our noses in everything, especially in the lives of others. … And we start gossiping, talking. … But he let him grow, silently watching over him and helping him.”

No doubt, Francis also draws consolation from Joseph in moments when his papacy seems an uphill climb, with internal lacerations as well as scandals involving sex, money, and often both. 

In the past 12 months alone, the Church had to face what the pope himself has called “an unprecedented crisis” due to the wrongdoings of some of its members, either because they abused minors or because they covered up for the crime.

Though the roots of the problem are complex and impossible to sum up in a quick phrase, one cause and one consequence are evident: In its flawed imitation of Joseph, the Church failed to protect children and vulnerable adults.

During that first homily, Francis said that “whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.”

He also said that in “every period of history there are ‘Herods’ ” who “wreak havoc and mar the countenance of men and women.” In facing those Herods, this devotee of Joseph will no doubt call upon the saint’s protection and assistance early and often.

Inés San Martín is an Argentinian journalist and Rome Bureau Chief for Crux. She is a frequent contributor to the print edition of Angelus and, through an exclusive content-sharing arrangement with Crux, provides news and analysis to AngelusNews.

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