St. Joseph, Model of Workers, Patron of the Dying
Aspects of a traditional March devotion
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


Development of devotion to St. Joseph
Although St. Joseph was accorded great respect as Jesus’ foster father from the earliest days of the Church’s existence he did not really become the object of widespread devotion until the Middle Ages and later. There was no feast dedicated to him in the Church’s liturgical calendar before the fifteenth century.
At the time of the Crusades the practice of private devotion to St.Joseph filtered into Europe from the Eastern Churches. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Gertrude sought to encourage this devotion among the mass of ordinary Catholics. Towards the end of the fourteenth century the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Carmelites had inaugurated a feast to St. Joseph in their own calendars. Later the Carmelite mystic, St Theresa of Avila, made great efforts to spread her personal devotion to the foster father of Jesus.
St. Joseph’s feast day, March 19th, was added to the Roman Calendar by Pope Sixtus IV (1471 – 84). Originally this was a feast of the lowest rank but during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as devotion to St. Joseph continued to grow, many religious orders and some of the European monarchs persuaded the popes to raise the feast to a higher rank. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV made it a holyday of obligation. In 1870 Pope Pius IX solemnly declared Saint Joseph as the official patron of the universal Church. Pius X removed the obligation to attend Mass on the feast of St. Joseph in 1911, though this was reinstated by the new Code of Canon Law in 1918. Today, March 19th is a Solemnity but not a holyday of obligation (at least not in the Catholic Church in Britain.)
During the industrial era devotion to St. Joseph as the “patron of workers” increased in importance, resulting in the creation, in 1955, of the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1st - International Workers Day and a national holiday in the secular calendar of many countries. Since then images of the saint have tended to show him symbolically holding his carpenter’s tools.
The scriptural witness: Joseph the “just man” (Matt 1:19)
Our image of St. Joseph as husband of Mary and guardian of Jesus, patron of workers and “saint of the dying”, can be traced to the first two chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels – the narratives of Jesus’ infancy. We do not have to treat every detail of these narratives as literal history: where Joseph is concerned particularly we need to read between the lines to a certain extent. But these gospel passages convey vital truths about the nature of the Incarnation and God’s whole plan of salvation, including the part Joseph played in that plan.
We learn that he belonged to the House of David, from which the Messiah was expected to emerge, and that he was betrothed to Mary. He is depicted as a man of quiet but profound devotion to God: patient, wise, morally upright: as Pope John Paul said in his Angelus Message on March 17th 2002, a person “who prays, lives by faith, and seeks to do good in every circumstance of life”.
In the culture of the time fertility was valued very highly and engaged couples were permitted to embark on their conjugal relationship before formal marriage. No shame attached to Mary as a consequence of her “premarital” pregnancy. The dilemma facing St. Joseph was that he was not the father of her child. As the gospel writers relate, Joseph reacted with thoughtfulness rather than anger, and resolved immediately to act in a way that he believed would lessen Mary’s difficulties. Then he received his own mysterious “annunciation” parallel to that of his wife-to-be. Joseph agreed readily to co-operate with God’s intentions.
Soon it became clear that his dedication would involve upheaval and sacrifice: poverty, exile, the frightening experience of being hunted by a murderous tyrant. The Incarnate Word entered history in circumstances familiar to the world’s poor of any era - “in conditions that, humanly speaking were, embarrassing – a first announcement of that self-emptying (cf. Phil 2:5-8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins”. [1] During this testing period St. Joseph emerged as a man of quiet resilience rooted in his deep dependence on God, a faithful husband, father and protector of his family.
When the initial storms subsided Mary and Joseph were able to return to normal life and work. Luke’s gospel in particular provides glimpses of the habits of faith in which they dutifully reared their Son, with the account of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple and the claims that Jesus, at home in Nazareth, “grew in stature and strength and was filled with wisdom” (Lk 2:40) and “increased in wisdom and age, and in divine and human favour” (Lk 2:52).
These meaningful verses convey Jesus’ childhood as a time of discreet but solid spiritual formation at the hands of his parents. As the years passed Joseph exerted his paternal influence on Jesus, handing on his own deep faith in God as well as the skills of carpentry recorded in the gospels and depicted in many later works of Christian art.
The New Testament does not contain any description of Joseph’s death. Again it would be a mistake to make elaborate claims about events for which no reliable scriptural evidence exists. But Joseph’s very absence from the accounts of Jesus’ ministry gave rise to the quite reasonable belief that he had died of natural causes while Jesus was still a young man.
It was the vivid Christian imagination of a later age that elaborated a picture of Joseph’s death-bed with Jesus and Mary in prayerful attendance. From this image arose the devotion to Joseph as patron and comforter of those who are dying. Based on the presumption that his own last days and hours were filled with the joyful expectation of seeing God face to face, many prayers and hymns were composed, asking St. Joseph for the grace of a holy death for ourselves or for others.
Joseph the worker
In the gospels not a single word is spoken by Jesus’ foster father and traditionally this was interpreted as a sign of the quiet concentration - contemplation even – which Joseph brought to his careful work in the carpenter’s shed at Nazareth.
Pictured in this way Joseph inevitably became a symbol of the “sanctification of daily life”, an embodiment of that ordinary form of holiness which does not involve spectacular achievements but rather entails an attitude of patient, unobtrusive dedication to everyday tasks and a loving commitment to the welfare of ones neighbours. This kind of holiness is more liable to find expression in an acceptance of the humdrum aspects of daily life and in small, often unnoticed, acts of service to others.
“St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies,” wrote Pope Paul VI. “…he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things – it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic”. [2] Pope John Paul has also mentioned Joseph’s “humble, mature way of ‘taking part’ in the plan of salvation”. [3]
But more particularly St. Joseph symbolises the dignity of labour and the necessity for all human work to be imbued with a redemptive character. One consequence of the Incarnation is that every area of human life and activity is open to God’s saving power. As the early Fathers stated frequently in different ways: God became human so that we might become divine. There is no aspect of human life on earth which may somehow be left outside God’s Reign.
Work of every kind, therefore, has to contribute to a greater “humanization” of those engaged in it, and the followers of Christ must protest at all forms of labour which demean people or deprive them of their dignity as creatures destined to share in God’s own life. No one has spoken more insistently than Pope John Paul of the need for the economic system to recognise the inalienable value of the human person who “must always be an end and not a means, a subject, not an object, not a commodity of trade”. [4]
In his 1889 Encyclical Letter on St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, Pope Leo XIII described St. Joseph as a man who “passed his life in labour, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family”.
The condition of the lowly, he went on, “has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the labourer is not only not dishonouring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled”. [5]
Referring to the example of Joseph, Leo drew the conclusion that “the poor and those who live by the labour of their hands should be of good heart and learn to be just”. But he went on to warn that “recourse to force and struggles by seditious paths to obtain such ends are madnesses which only aggravate the evil which they aim to suppress. Let the poor, then, if they would be wise, trust not to the promises of seditious men, but rather to the example and patronage of the Blessed Joseph, and to the maternal charity of the Church, which each day takes an increasing compassion on their lot”. [6]
The foster father of Jesus should indeed be viewed as the model worker, as Pope Leo maintained. St. Joseph was a manual labourer who no doubt worked hard to earn his livelihood. There is no suggestion in the gospels that his trade provided his family with a luxurious or carefree style of life.
Yet the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth was no maquiladora. Joseph was a craftsman – an “artisan”, says Leo - employing creative as well as practical skills as he laboured with his own tools at his own workbench. His work did not have the exploited and alienated character of so much modern waged labour, which cannot be viewed as in any sense redemptive or humanising.
The Catholic Worker Movement has argued that the experience of work for millions of human beings is determined by the fact that under modern capitalism “human need is no longer the reason for human work”:
“Instead, the unbridled expansion of technology, necessary to capitalism and viewed as "progress," holds sway. Jobs are concentrated in productivity and administration for a "high-tech," war-related, consumer society of disposable goods, so that labourers are trapped in work that does not contribute to human welfare. Furthermore, as jobs become more specialized, many people are excluded from meaningful work or are alienated from the products of their labour. Even in farming, agribusiness has replaced agriculture, and, in all areas, moral restraints are run over roughshod, and a disregard for the laws of nature now threatens the very planet”. [7]
Against the current neoliberal model of economic production, which is increasingly dividing the family of mankind into rich and poor, privileged and exploited, disciples of Christ must envisage a utopian “economy of communion” and a “civilisation of poverty”, in the sense of simplicity and sufficiency. We must judge the present harmful inequalities of wealth and power against the image of the banquet in God’s Kingdom, where everyone has enough to eat and no one is deprived of a seat around the table.
Today there is less cause to worry about the destructive possibilities of seditious labour struggles and more need to protest about the conditions of near slavery which affect millions of workers throughout the world. If the small groups who have reaped the greatest benefits from the globalised economy do not want the anger of the world’s poor to find expression in desperate acts of violence then they must cease to flaunt their empty, acquisitive way of life as though it were the model of all human fulfilment, divest themselves of their unnecessary luxuries, and address the root causes of anger on the part of the dispossessed.
In the conditions of the modern economy St. Joseph embodies the true meaning of human work. He therefore also stands as a symbol of protest against the evils of alienated labour. He is an archetype of the conscientious workman labouring to provide the needs of others, whose own material wants are simple because his life is filled with God.
It was because these facets of basic Christian spirituality somehow constituted St. Joseph’s identity that Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, has such a great personal devotion to him. It would be an auspicious development if devotion to St. Joseph were to be revived again today among the many Christian activists who struggle to uphold the rights of workers amid the oppressive and often death-dealing realities of the global market.
“When the death shades round us gather”
As one might expect the prayers used in the Catholic Requiem Mass and other forms of funeral service reflect our distinctively Christian understanding of death and eternal life. In these prayers a consciousness of human sinfulness and the transience of life is balanced against confident hope in God’s mercy and the prospect of everlasting happiness. For example:
“Listen to our prayers, Lord, as we humbly beg your mercy, that the soul of your servant whom you have called from this life, may be brought by you to a place of peace and light, and so be enabled to share the life of all your saints.” (Opening Prayer for a Funeral Mass)
“In him who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”. (Preface of Christian Death I)
“Death is the just reward for our sins, yet, when at last we die, your loving kindness calls us back to life”. (Preface of Christian Death IV)
“Lord God, whose days are without end and whose mercies beyond counting, keep us mindful that life is short and the hour of death unknown. Let your Spirit guide our days on earth in the ways of holiness and justice, that we may serve you in union with the whole Church, sure in faith, strong in hope, perfected in love. And when our earthly journey is ended, lead us rejoicing into your Kingdom, where you live forever and ever. Amen.” (Final Prayer at the Graveside)
Until fairly recently the understanding of death that lies behind these prayers would have been held universally among the members of the Christian churches and indeed far beyond their relatively narrow confines. The greater incidence of death from illness, the higher rate of complications in pregnancy, resulting in the mother’s sudden death, shorter lifespans, especially in working class communities, the enormous loss of life in two world wars, all meant that death was a familiar reality to earlier generations and an experience devoid of sentimentality. This is still the case today outside the developed world, where generally life is still far more precarious.
But in Britain at least one is conscious of a vast waning of belief in these attitudes to death, even, it must be said, among the members of church congregations.
I would be the first to pay tribute to the dispositions of quiet courage which, as a priest, I have often witnessed on the part of individuals who know they are close to death, not to mention the reserved, dignified bearing of their close relations in the face of their anticipated loss.
But other, secularising, tendencies have also had a powerful - and baneful - impact on people’s attitudes to death, as on every other aspect of their beliefs and values. And since funerals are still one of the main occasions when Christian clergy encounter families who have no real Christian faith, they are often events which also bring one into contact with the spiritual and emotional poverty of modern consumer culture.
There is nothing systematic or deeply-considered about modern attitudes to death. My impression is that people are generally unmindful of death and disorientated when it occurs in a manner quite distinct from the natural and expected feelings of grief and bereavement.
There is a kind of unconscious denial of death in the secular mentality which tries to make the funeral rites an upbeat “celebration of life”, with testimonies, eulogies, amusing stories about incidents in the deceased person’s life, excerpts of favourite pop songs and the like.
Occasionally one is aware of an insincere emotional theatricality as a funeral assumes the shape of a television award ceremony and the Christian conviction of the ultimate vanity of earthly things collides with shallow notions about how the deceased “knew how to have a good time” and was “larger than life” etc. Frequently one senses behind the inflated language a vague suspicion that the life of the departed didn’t actually add up to much after all in any terms that matter.
The life of the Christian by contrast is a pilgrimage towards God and towards God’s judgement. It is this which gives final meaning to each human life. From a Christian standpoint, then, the moment of death is enormously significant: the end of every earthly journey and the time of crossing over.
The Christian trusts in God’s mercy, not in his or her own innate goodness. A secular outlook is offended or embarrassed by references to the sins of the departed during the funeral liturgy, as though such negative references strike the wrong note. But in the Christian understanding of death nothing could be more natural: we pray that God will now purify the dead person and receive him into his company.
Christian faith enables us to face the reality and the inevitability of our own death and within Catholicism devotion to St. Joseph, “patron of the dying”, is a particular means of preparing ourselves for our final moments on earth. It is not a morbid devotion; rather it encourages a mindfulness of our own eventual demise, a detachment from purely worldly goals, and a strengthening conviction that the ultimate purpose of our lives lies beyond the present realm. It highlights the significance to God of every human life.
Christians are pilgrims en route to their real destination, aliens passing through on their way to their true home. The prayers to St. Joseph for a happy death increase our consciousness of this fact and help us to approach death in a state of serenity, fearlessness and hope. Personally I think that that in the secularised environment we inhabit today it is a great pity that the prayers for a holy death, once so popular, have fallen out of use. I believe that a renewal of this aspect of devotion to St. Joseph would strengthen the basic Christian consciousness of every believer.
With that purpose I have gathered together some traditional prayers to St. Joseph. In imitation of some other Catholic websites I have taken the liberty of “updating” the language of the prayers where necessary, in the hope of making them more accessible. They may be found in a separate article in this issue, under the heading “Prayers to St. Joseph”.


Notes and References
[1] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos, art.10.
[2] Discourse (March 19th 1969): Insegnamenti, VII (1969), p. 1268. Quoted by John Paul II Redemptoris Custos, art. 24.
[3] John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, art.1.
[4] John Paul II, quoted in “John Paul II: Globalisation Must Not Be a New Form of Colonialism”, at http://www.cjd.org/paper/capital.html.
[5] Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, art. 4.
[6] Ibid., art. 5.
[7] “Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker Movement” at http://www.catholicworker.org/aimsandmeanstext.cfm?Number=5.