Catechesis on Joseph, a just man and husband of Mary

To love means to choose life’s responsibilities

 To love means to choose life’s responsibilities  ING-049
03 December 2021

At the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 1 December, Pope Francis continued his series of catecheses on Saint Joseph, reflecting on Saint Matthew’s description of Joseph as both “a just man” and as “the husband of Mary” . The following is a translation of his words which he addressed to the faithful in the Paul vi Hall.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Good morning!

Let us continue our journey of reflection on the person of Saint Joseph. Today, I would like to deepen his being “just” and “Mary’s betrothed spouse”, and thus provide a message to all engaged couples, and newlyweds as well. Many events connected with Joseph fill the stories of the apocryphal gospels, that is, the non-canonical gospels, which have also influenced art and various places of worship. These writings that are not in the Bible are stories that Christian piety provided at that time and are a response to the desire to fill in the empty spaces in the canonical Gospel texts, the ones that are in the Bible, which provide us with everything that is essential for faith and the Christian life.

The evangelist Matthew — this is important. What does the Gospel say about Joseph? Not what these apocryphal gospels say which are not something ugly or bad! They are beautiful, but they are not the Word of God. Instead, the Gospels that are in the Bible are the Word of God. Among these is the Evangelist Matthew who defines Joseph as a “just” man. Let us listen to his account: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (1:18-19). Because those who were engaged, when the fiancée was unfaithful or became pregnant, had to denounce her! And women were stoned back then. But Joseph was just. He said: “No, I will not do this. I will be quiet”.

In order to understand Joseph’s behaviour toward Mary, it is helpful to remember the marriage customs of ancient Israel. Marriage included two well-defined phases. The first was like an official engagement that already implied a new situation. In particular, while continuing to live in her paternal home for another year, the woman was in fact considered to be the “wife” of her betrothed spouse. They did not yet live together, but it was as if she were the wife. The second phase was the transfer of the bride from her paternal home to that of her spouse. This took place with a festive procession which concluded the marriage. And the friends of the bride accompanied her there. On the basis of these customs, the fact that “before they came to live together, Mary was found to be with child”, exposed the Virgin to the accusation of adultery. And, according to the ancient Law, her guilt was punishable with stoning (cf. Dt 22:20-21). Nevertheless, a more moderate interpretation had taken hold after this in later Jewish practice that imposed only an act of repudiation along with civil and criminal consequences for the woman, but not stoning.

The Gospel says that Joseph was “just” precisely because he was subject to the law as any pious Israelite man. But within him, his love for Mary and his trust in her suggested a way he could remain in observance of the law and save the honour of his bride. He decided to give her the act of repudiation in secret, without making noise, without subjecting her to public humiliation. He chose the path of confidentiality, without a trial or retaliation. How much holiness there is in Joseph! As soon as we hear news that is a bit colourful or somewhat bad about someone, we immediately turn to gossip. Joseph instead remains quiet!

But the evangelist Matthew immediately adds: “But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (1:20.21). God’s voice intervenes in Joseph’s discernment through a dream in which He reveals a greater meaning than his own justice. How important it is for each one of us to cultivate a just life and, at the same time, to always feel the need for God’s help to broaden our horizons and to consider life’s circumstances from a different, wider perspective. We often feel imprisoned by what has happened to us: “But look what happened to me!” — and we become prisoners of that bad thing that happened to us. But particularly in front of some circumstances in life that initially appear dramatic, a Providence is hidden that takes shape over time and illuminates even the pain that has touched us, with meaning. The temptation is to close ourselves in that pain, in that thought of the not so good things that happened to us. And this is not good for us. This leads to sadness and bitterness. A bitter heart is so ugly.

I would like us to pause to reflect on a detail of this story recounted in the Gospel that we very often overlook. Mary and Joseph were an engaged couple who had probably nurtured dreams and expectations concerning their life and their future. God seems to have unexpectedly inserted himself into their lives and, despite the initial struggle, both of them opened their hearts wide to the reality that was placed before them.

Dear brothers and dear sisters, our lives are very often not what we imagine them to be. Especially in relationships of love and affection, we struggle to move from the logic of falling in love to that of a mature love. And one has to move from falling in love to mature love. You newlyweds, think about this. The first phase is always marked by a certain enchantment that makes us live immersed in the imaginary that often does not correspond to the reality of facts. But precisely when falling in love with its expectations seems to end, that is where true love can begin. In fact, to love is not demanding that the other person or life, should correspond to our imagination. Rather, it means to choose in full freedom to take responsibility for one’s life as it comes. This is why Joseph gives us an important lesson. He chooses Mary with “his eyes open”. We can say “with all the risks”. Think about this: in the Gospel of John, a reproach the doctors of the law make to Jesus is: “we are not children from that”, referring to prostitution. But they knew how Mary had become pregnant and they wanted to throw dirt on Jesus’ mother. For me, this is the worst, the most demonic passage in the Gospel. And Joseph’s risk gives us this lesson: he takes life as it comes. Did God intervene there? I take it. And Joseph does what the angel of the Lord had ordered: Indeed the Gospel says: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not” — without living together she is expecting a son — “until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:24-25). Christian engaged couples are called to witness to a love like this that has the courage to move from the logic of falling in love to that of mature love. And this is a demanding choice which, instead of imprisoning life, can strengthen love so that it may endure when faced with the trials of time. A couple’s love progresses in life and matures each day. Love during an engagement is a bit — allow me to use the word — a bit romantic. You have experienced all of this, but then begins mature love, everyday love, work, the children that come.... And sometimes that romanticism disappears a bit, right? But is there not love? Yes, but mature love. “But you know, Father, sometimes we fight...”. This has been happening from the time of Adam and Eve until today: That spouses fight is our daily bread,! “But we shouldn’t fight?” Yes, yes, you can. “And, Father, sometimes we raise our voices…” It happens. “And there are even times when plates fly”. It happens. But what can be done so that this does not damage the life of the marriage? Listen to me closely: never end the day without making peace. “We fought. My God, I said bad words. I said awful things. But now, the day is ending, I must make peace”. Do you know why? Because the cold war of the following day is very dangerous. Do not let the following day begin at war. For this reason, make peace before going to bed. Always remember: never end the day without making peace. And this will help you in your married life. This journey from falling in love to mature love is a demanding choice, but we must proceed along that path.

This time too, let us conclude with a prayer to Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph,

you who loved Mary with freedom,

and chose to renounce your fantasies to give way to reality,

help each of us to allow ourselves to be surprised by God

and to accept life not as something unforeseen from which to defend ourselves,

but as a mystery that hides the secret of true joy.

Obtain joy and radicality for all engaged Christians,

while always being aware

that only mercy and forgiveness make love possible. Amen.

Special Greetings

I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially the groups from the United States of America. I pray that each of you, and your families, may experience a blessed Advent, in preparation for the coming of the newborn Saviour of the world. May God bless you!

Lastly, as usual, my thoughts turn to the elderly, to the sick, to young people and to newlyweds, To the elderly: do not neglect them and if you can keep them in the family, do not send them away because the elderly are our roots and they should not be neglected. The time of Advent invites us to prepare for Christmas, fearlessly welcoming Jesus Christ who comes in our midst. If we open wide the doors of life everything will acquire a new light and the family, work, suffering, health, friendship and so on, will become further opportunities to discover his comforting presence, the presence of Jesus in our lives, the presence of Emanuel, of the God who comes, which means God with us, and to witness this presence to others. Let us prepare ourselves like this, enlarging our hearts for Christmas.