Theology of the Heart- the Saints
JOSEPH IN FRANCISCAN THEOLOGY
Noel Muscat OFM
The Franciscan movement is widely known for its Christocentric
spirituality. Francis of Assisi cherished profoundly the mysteries
of Christ's life, especially the mystery of the Incarnation and the
mystery of Redemption. Franciscan sanctuaries like Greccio and La
Verna are living reminders of Francis' deep devotion to the humanity
of Christ. They are like replicas of the Holy Places which Francis
visited in 1219-1220, when he went to the Orient as a herald of
Other Franciscan saints followed in their founder's footsteps.
Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, John Duns Scotus,
Bernardine of Siena are just a few in a long list of mystics,
preachers and theologians, who developed the simple spirituality of
the Poverello into one of the foremost schools of theological
thought in the history of the Church. The Franciscan school is
characterised by its devotion to the humanity of Christ. Indeed, the
same monuments of art which sprang up in honour of Francis, are also
reminders of a typically humanistic approach to theology. The
mysteries of Christ's birth in Bethlehem and his death and
resurrection in Jerusalem are always present in famous monuments in
honour of the Poverello. Such is the case of the frescoes in the
lower basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
In this paper we intend to view a particular theme in Franciscan
theology, which is intimately linked to the mystery of the
Incarnation. We shall see the constant devotion of Franciscans
towards the infancy narratives of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke,
as expressed in the same Holy Places of which the Franciscans are
the custodians, as well as in the writings of two famous Franciscan
saints, namely Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Bernardine of Siena. We
shall speak particularly about their devotion to Joseph, the husband
of Mary, and the great role which the Franciscans have played in
spreading devotion towards this particular saint, within the context
of the mystery of the Incarnation.
Franciscans and devotion to St. Joseph in the Holy Land
The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke often mention Joseph as a
"righteous man". He is seen to be a key-figure in the early years of
Jesus' life. He comes from the lineage of the royal house of David,
and has to go to Bethlehem with Mary his wife, who gives birth to
the Son of God and places him in a manger. Joseph becomes an
eloquent example of the "obedience of faith". In his silence he
obeys God's messenger and accepts Mary as his wife. He gives the
name Jesus to the new-born babe, and after fleeing to Egypt to
escape Herod's hatred, he retires with the Holy Family to the town
of Nazareth in Galilee.
These evangelical episodes, so dear to every Christian, have become
immortalised in the Holy Places where the Franciscans have been
present for over 770 years. Among these places, Bethlehem and
Nazareth are closely associated with Joseph and his role in the
The town of Nazareth is known for the sanctuary of the Annunciation,
in which the Word was made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. A
few metres away, in the same complex of buildings, the Franciscans
also officate another sanctuary, this time dedicated to Saint Joseph
and the Holy Family. Although the modern basilica was built in 1914,
the Franciscans have excavated the whole area and found the remains
of the primitive village of Nazareth of the time of Jesus. These
excavations have not only proved the truth of the humble abode in
which Mary inaugurated the mystery of the Incarnation by her
obedience to Gabriel's message, but the same Franciscans have also
unearthed the remains of the house of Joseph, where Jesus spent his
early years as a humble worker. The Judeo-Christian community of
Nazareth already used this house as a place of worship. Proof of
this assertion can be found in a Judeo-Christian baptismal font,
with typical symbols of the first centuries of Christianity in the
Holy Land. In the 6th century a Byzantine church was built, and
later the Crusades built another church on the same remains, upon
which the present church stands. The excavations have unearthed
silos, cisterns and other dwelling places, which were explained by
two leading Franciscan archeologists of the Studium Biblicum
Franciscanum Jerosolimitanum, the late Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti OFM
and Fr. Emmanuele Testa OFM.[1 ]
The Holy Land is the place in which devotion to Saint Joseph started
in its most authentic form, that is, within the context of the
mystery of the Incarnation, centred in Nazareth and Bethlehem, and
in the infancy narratives of the Gospel. The same devotion is also
the result of further meditation upon the role of Joseph in the
apocryphal writings of the first centuries of Christianity. The
relative silence of the Gospels regarding Joseph's ancestral roots
and his subsequent role in the adult life of Jesus was a lacuna
which these writings tried to fill up. The historical truth
underlying such narratives can easily be discarded as legendary, but
not without the danger of ignoring the precious testimony of the
first generations of Judeo-Christian communities which flourished
near the Holy Places.
The assertion that devotion to Saint Joseph in the Latin Church is
fairly recent has to be seen also within the context of devotion to
this saint in the Orient, which certainly dates back to the early
centuries of Christianity. In the Holy Land, however, devotion to
Saint Joseph was never dissociated from the evangelical context of
the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, namely, that of seeing
Joseph as a part of God's salvific plan in its early stages, and
always within a reverential silence with respect to the eloquent
roles of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The Franciscans who went to the Holy Land in the 13th century,
continued to cherish these devotions, fruit of the living memories
of the early centuries of Christianity, and spread them across
Europe. The writings of Franciscan theologians of the 13th and 14th
centuries point to a clear idea of the important role of Joseph of
Nazareth with the context of the mystery of the Incarnation. They
were instrumental in spreading a genuine devotion to this saint
wherever the Franciscans established their friaries. These writings
have also been instrumental in further theological research on the
unique figure of Joseph, which has characterised the more recent
centuries in Church history.
Saint Joseph in the theological writings of Saint Bonaventure
Saint Bonaventure (1217-1274), the Seraphic Doctor, speaks about
Saint Joseph in two of his theological writings, namely in the
Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, and in his Sermons.
In the Commentary on Saint Luke Bonaventure mentions Joseph of
Nazareth various times when explaining the infancy narratives in
Luke 1-2. He comments upon the attribute of "righteous man" given by
Luke, and sees in it a proof of Joseph's integrity as the pure
husband of the Virgin Mary, as well as a sign that he became a
witness of Mary's own virginity .
Bonaventure insists that Joseph was the descendant of Jacob,
according to what Matthew states in the genealogy of Christ. In this
way he belongs to the house of David, to whom God sent the promise
of salvation .
The birth of Christ in Bethlehem is a sign of the fact that both
Joseph and Mary were descendants of David. Joseph was considered to
be Christ's father. The Latin term, so popular in Catholic theology,
is pater putativum . The term, however, does not in any way
diminish the uniqueness of Joseph's ministry as the custodian of the
Holy Family and as Christ's father in the legal sense. This is best
seen when Bonaventure mentions Christ as Joseph's adoptive son or as
a son to be educated. This last reference to Joseph's ministry as a
father who educates his son is indicative of the greatness of Joseph
as a man who fully assumes the responsibility of a father, even
though his son was born of the Holy Spirit . The greatness of
Joseph consists in the fact that, as Bonaventure points out, Mary
indicates her husband as Jesus' true father when the parents find
the adolescent Jesus in the temple.
Bonaventure, therefore, speaks about Joseph's role as only secondary
to that of Mary. He traces the various moments in which Joseph
appears as the one whom God chose to guard and protect the Holy
Family, according to the infancy narratives of Saint Luke's Gospel.
Bonaventure's Sermons are also full of references to Saint Joseph,
when it comes to commenting the infancy narratives. The figure of
Saint Joseph stands out prominently in the Sermons of Advent and the
Christmas season. In fact, the liturgy allots a special place to
Saint Joseph during this liturgical season.
Bonaventure states that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was descended
from a royal lineage[7 ]. Joseph becomes an eloquent example of
obedience of faith . That is why, in Christ's nativity, one has
to contemplate Joseph's reverence towards the mystery of the
Incarnation, his sense of righteousness, his obedience to God's plan
of salvation, and his profound charity towards Christ and the Virgin
Mary . Moreover Joseph excels in divine piety, a virtue which is
one of the noble gifts of the Holy Spirit . The Incarnated
Wisdom, that is the Word made flesh, becomes the great sacrament of
piety, and Joseph, together with Mary, becomes the first witness of
devotion in front of the mystery (sacrament) of the Incarnation.
Joseph also becomes for Bonaventure an eloquent example of humility
in work. Like many other spiritual writers in Christian tradition,
Bonaventure interprets the evangelical figure of Joseph of Nazareth
as one referring to a faber lignarius, or carpenter . Joseph
becomes a model of a righteous man who lives with the work of his
hands. In this way, together with the Virgin Mary, Joseph becomes an
example of evangelical humility . After the Virgin Mary Joseph
is a model for those who want to accept Christ with devotion and
veneration, because he was the first one to accept the new-born
Saviour with the eyes of faith .
Saint Joseph in the theological writings of Saint Bernardine of
Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) is one of the most important
saints in the Franciscan calendar. He was the propagator of the
devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, and the monogram Iesus Hominum
Salvator IHS first used by this saint in his preaching tours in
Italy. Bernardine was also one of the most famous reformers of the
Franciscan Order during the 14th century, and is considered a pillar
of the Friars Minor of the Regular Observance. As we shall see, in
all probability we can trace the beginnings of popular devotion to
Saint Joseph in the west to the merits of the Franciscan Observants,
who spread devotion to the mysteries of Christ's Incarnation and
Redemption wherever they established their friaries, including
The reading for the Office of the solemnity of Saint Joseph is taken
from a Sermon which Saint Bernardine delivered on the Vigil of the
Nativity, and which is popularly known as the Sermon on Saint
Joseph, Spouse of the Virgin.
This Sermon has as a theme the words of Matthew 25,21: "Good and
faithful servant; come and join in your master's happiness".
Bernardine divides the Sermon into the following structure:
Part I: Regarding the nobility of the most holy Joseph according to
Chapter 1 - Regarding the nobility of the blessed Virgin according
to the flesh.
Chapter 2 - Regarding the natural nobility of the most holy Joseph.
Chapter 3 - Regarding the nobility of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which
he acquired from both parents.
Part II: Regarding the triple grace which the Father reserved for
Saint Joseph from all ages.
Chapter 1 - Regarding how Saint Joseph was espoused to the blessed
Virgin, and how he acquired perfection.
Chapter 2 - Regarding the perfection which Joseph acquired in his
life with the Lord Jesus.
Chapter 3 - Regarding how Joseph alone was given by God to Christ,
and how he had been forshadowed and promised in the patriarchs of
the Old Testament.
Part III: Regarding the reward of eternal glory to which Saint
Joseph was elevated in soul and body.
The structure of the Sermon is typically mediaeval, and
characteristic of the erudite preaching of the 13th and 14th
centuries. Saint Bernardine was not only a popular preacher who used
the volgare , or the local Italian dialects, in his ministry. He was
also a renowned scholar and wrote many Sermons in Latin, according
to the norms which all preachers used to follow, especially in the
Mendicant schools annexed to the most famous universities of Europe,
like Paris, Bologna and Oxford.
Bernardine is probably one of the few Saints during the middle ages
who explicitly preached about Saint Joseph. One should not forget
that, during the same time, a chancellor of the Paris university,
Jean de Gerson (+ 1429) distinguished himself regarding his writings
about Saint Joseph, especially in his Sermo de Nativitate gloriosae
Virginis Mariae et de commendatione virginei sponsi eius Ioseph.
This was a Sermon which he delivered to the Fathers at the Council
of Constance on 8th September 1416. De Gerson defended the
sanctification of Saint Joseph in his mother's womb, his immunity
from concupiscence, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven.
It is not surprising, therefore, that even Saint Bernardine of Siena
defends these privileges which he gives to Saint Joseph. We note
this quite clearly in the Sermon to which we are referring .
However, we should note immediately that the Church has never
officially sanctioned this theological idea as official doctrine, as
it has done in the case of the Virgin Mary. Bernardine's Sermon,
however, except for this last section to which we are referring, is
full of genuine teachings regarding the personality and mission of
Saint Joseph in the history of salvation, and the Church has chosen
sections of this particular text as a reading for the Office of
Bernardine of Siena, together with his Franciscan Observant
confrères, invoked Saint Joseph as the patron saint of the Monti di
Pietà, an institution which the Franciscans founded in order to
protect the poor against the scourge of usury in the late Middle
Another devotion to Saint Joseph which the Franciscan Order
cherished was that of celebrating the feast of the marriage of Saint
Joseph with the Virgin Mary on 23 January. This feast was introduced
in the Franciscan calendar in 1537, even though it is important to
note that the Franciscans regarded it always primarily as a feast of
the Virgin Mary and not as another feast of Saint Joseph.
The solemnity of Saint Joseph, celebrated on 19th March, was
introduced in the Roman Missal and Breviary by a Franciscan Pope,
Sixtus IV in 1479. Originally it was celebrated only in Rome, but on
the request of the Conventual Franciscans, the same Pope approved
the Mass of Saint Joseph for the Franciscan Order.
We have only dealt with two of the most famous Franciscan
theologians and preachers. The devotion to Saint Joseph in the
Franciscan Order was also the result of other Franciscan mystics and
writers, like Pier Jean Olieu (+ 1289), Ubertino di Casale (+ 1325)
and Bartolomeo da Pisa (+ 1401). It is of interest to note that
these men formed part of the Spiritual party in the Order, which was
the forerunner of the Observant family.
When one notes the intimate link between the Franciscans, who have
been in the Holy Land Custody for nearly eight centuries, and the
Holy Places such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, linked with the infancy
narratives of the Gospel, one can easily deduce the importance which
the Franciscans attached to a particular devotion to Saint Joseph,
in the same places where the local Judeo-Christian communities
perpetuated the Gospel texts even through oral traditions. The
Franciscans have been the ones who have continued to cherish and
take care of these places, who have organised excavations in order
to unearth the original spots where the Word was made flesh, who
have studied the apocryphal texts coming from the early
The Franciscan saints and mystics of the 13th and 14th centuries
have continued to develop a theological synthesis which the Church
has used both for liturgical texts as well as for documents relating
to Saint Joseph .
In view of what we have seen, it can be safely asserted that
devotion to Saint Joseph was always present in the Franciscan Order,
and that Franciscans introduced it wherever they went. A serious
historical study of the origin of the cult of Saint Joseph in the
Maltese islands has still to be undertaken. It would hopefully point
to the fact and prove that devotion to Saint Joseph on these islands
was introduced by the Franciscans of the Regular Observance, who
founded their friary in Rabat at the end of the 15th century
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