The 150 anniversary from the declaration of St. Joseph as Patron Saint of the Universal Church


Besides celebrating the great solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of God and Our beloved Mother, on December 8 we also commemorate on this date the declaration of St. Joseph as Patron Saint of the Universal Church.

It was Blessed Pope Pius IX, a great devotee of St. Joseph, who, on 8 December 1870, precisely 150 years ago, declared St. Joseph as Patron Saint of the Universal Church. This prophetic act by Blessed Pius IX clearly shows how this great Pope wanted to make St. Joseph known and loved among the members of Christ’s faithful universally. The Pope was more convinced of proclaiming Mary’s Spouse as the Patron Saint of the Universal Church after he had received a letter from a Dominican priest, Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste, who had written to the Pope about his wish that St. Joseph might be rightfully declared as Patron Saint of the Church. Upon reading his letter Blessed Pius IX was so touched and convinced about this priest’s authenticity and zeal for St. Joseph that he not only assented to his request but also expressed himself regarding his approval of Fr. Jean-Joseph’s request.

“This good religious [Jean Joseph Lataste] is offering the sacrifice of his life to obtain that St. Joseph be declared Patron of the Universal Church. Father Lataste will shortly be granted his wish. We have received more than five hundred letters requesting that we declare St. Joseph patron of the Church, but Fr. Lataste is the only one who offered his life”.

Blessed Jean-Joseph espoused so much his heartfelt desire to see St. Joseph as patron of the Church that he voluntarily undertook many penitential practices and heroic mortifications in order to see his wish coming true. This saintly 36-year-old Dominican priest died in the year 1869, just a year before St. Joseph was actually proclaimed as Patron saint of the Church. Here are the words of that famous decree thanks to which Blessed Pope Pius IX declared the universal patronage of St. Joseph of the Church in his Urbi et Orbi message in the words of Pope St. John Paul II:

“As almighty God appointed Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob, over all the land of Egypt to save grain for the people, so when the fullness of time had come and He was about to send to earth His only-begotten Son, the Savior of the world, He chose another Joseph, of whom the first had been the type, and He made him the lord and chief of His household and possessions, the guardian of His choicest treasures.

Indeed, he had as his spouse the Immaculate Virgin Mary, of whom was born by the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ our Lord, who deigned to be reputed in the sight of men as the son of Joseph, and was subject to him.

Him whom countless kings and prophets had desired to see, Joseph not only saw but conversed with, and embraced in paternal affection, and kissed. He most diligently reared Him whom the faithful were to receive as the bread that came down from heaven whereby they might obtain eternal life.

Because of this sublime dignity which God conferred on his most faithful servant, the Church has always most highly honored and praised blessed Joseph next to his spouse, the Virgin Mother of God, and has besought his intercession in times of trouble.

And now therefore, when in these most troublesome times the Church is beset by enemies on every side, and is weighed down by calamities so heavy that ungodly men assert that the gates of hell have at length prevailed against her, the venerable prelates of the whole Catholic world have presented to the Sovereign Pontiff their own petitions and those of the faithful committed to their charge, praying that he would deign to constitute St. Joseph Patron of the Church. And this time their prayer and desire was renewed by them even more earnestly at the Sacred Ecumenical Council of the Vatican.

Accordingly, it has now pleased our Most Holy Sovereign, Pope Pius IX, in order to entrust himself and all the faithful to the Patriarch St. Joseph’s most powerful patronage, has chosen to comply with the prelates’ desire and has solemnly declared him Patron of the Catholic Church.

He has also ordered that his feast on March 19th by henceforth celebrated as a double of the first class, without any Octave, however, because of Lent. He arranged, moreover, that a declaration to this effect be promulgated through the present decree of The Sacred Congregation of Rites on this day sacred to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, the most chaste Joseph’s Spouse. All things to the contrary notwithstanding”.

Some successors of Blessed Pius IX wanted to comment on this memorable decree which declared St. Joseph’s patronage of the entire Church. For instance, Pope St. John XXIII said on this decree: “On that 8 December, 1870, it was this brief but lovely and admirable decree given Urbi et Orbi [to the city of Rome and to the world] has opened a store of rich and beautiful inspirations for the successors of Pius IX”. Another Pope, closer to our times whom we have already mentioned, St. John Paul II, had this to say about this important decree: “Inspired by the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church from the earliest centuries stressed that just as St. Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, that is the Church”.

But what does St. Joseph’s patronage of the Universal Church teach us, as Christians? First, Joseph’s fatherhood of Jesus, even if adopted one, was fully responsible in every detail of his adopted Son’s life here on earth. History teaches us the same thing. Think of the huge success of Caesar Augustus in ancient Rome. His adopted father was Julius Caesar. Thus, Augustus inherited Julius’ Empire. In the New Testament Jesus is referred as the Son of David. Psalm 89 tells us: Thou hast said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant: `I will establish your descendants for ever, and build your throne for all generations'” (Ps 89:3-4). Let us never forget that Jesus’ lineage goes back to his adopted father since Joseph, the carpenter, is the royal son of David. Hence, Jesus inherits David’s throne from Joseph.

More than that, Joseph’s royal personality greatly facilitates for us to comprehend his singular importance both within the Holy Family as well as for the Church entire. The Holy Family per se, was the first domestic Church ever! It is to this family that all families must look to in order to learn from it how to live as a family in holiness. And, if the Church is God’s family, having Christ as her head, Mary as her heart, and Joseph as its custodian to whom then she should look if not to Joseph for her protection? Who can deny the sacrosanct fact that Joseph’s protection of his family, through his discerning interpretation of dreams proved pivotal in saving his family in a royal way is it not the same, by the order of grace, that even in our times he is protecting the whole Mystical Body of Christ? Is not Joseph, by his diligent care both of his family and the great family, the Church, not showing that he is really the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household (Matt 24:45)? The same Jesus who solemnly declared his identity with that of his eternal Father when he said: How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49) was the same Jesus on whom the same evangelist Luke tells us quite admirably: And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them (Luke 2:51). Let us call into our attention that Jesus was not obedient to a common man but to the heir of David’s throne, to a man who was just and holy before God. It is such a man who was fit to be the spouse of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Therefore, it is to him, to Joseph, that the Son of God was obedient and was entrusted under his care. And, by implication, we too as a Church, enter into St. Joseph’s care which comes from this faithful and wise servant who is over God’s household, the Church.

St. Joseph’s paternal role is so important for the Church because he was a builder. In fact, the word τέκτων (tektón) means a craftsman, a carpenter. Hence, Joseph, the royal carpenter, would instruct Jesus to work with his hands as a builder or craftsman because, in so doing, he would be sharing in God’s creative work as a human being. From St. Joseph Jesus, the Creator God, would himself learn to create. In his encyclical letter on human work, Laborem Exercens, Pope St. John Paul II, when talking on Christ as the man of work, writes: “Therefore this was also ‘the gospel of work’, because he who proclaimed it was himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth” (no.26).

The life example of St. Joseph is also of immense help to recover the image of fatherhood so much tarnished in our days. Joseph’s most holy example is a catalyst for fathers to be spiritual and moral leaders within their families. Today’s fathers need to be sustained by Joseph’s dedication, courage, sacrifices to the point of losing his life, for his family. His example is certainly needed to heal the bond between husband and wife and that between father and his children.

As the family and the Church cry out for help so as to be restored back to their original health let us follow, with great trust, the wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila who entrusted her work of reform within the Carmelite Order to St. Joseph. She said: “To other Saints, our Lord seems to have given grace to succour men in some special necessity; but to this glorious Saint, I know by experience, to help us in all: and our Lord would have us understand that as He was Himself subject to him upon earth—for St. Joseph having the title of father, and being His guardian, could command Him—so now in heaven He performs all his petitions. […]”.

Ite Ad Joseph. “Go to Joseph.”

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap