Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris, France
Catholics often think of St. Joseph as the obvious exemplar for fatherhood. However, like many Christian mysteries that we take too easily for granted, I think we often overlook how counterintuitive it is to place St. Joseph as the model of fatherhood.

First, the Scripture account is clear that Mary conceives Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, St. Joseph is definitively not the actual father of Jesus. Furthermore, as Catholics we maintain Mary’s perpetual virginity, which, of course, entails that Joseph does not beget any children with Mary.

Certainly, one might speculate whether or not Joseph was a widower who had children from a previous marriage, but this is all beside the point. Scripture and Tradition do not offer us an answer to those historical details and St. Joseph’s fatherhood is not venerated on account of children he might have had, but always in relationship to his role as the father in the Holy Family. I’ll return to this shortly, but first, let’s see how understanding fatherhood only seems to get muddier as we further examine Scripture.

Let’s start in Genesis with Eve, our first human mother. When she conceives her first child she says, “I have gotten a man [Cain] with the help of the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). Hmm… Notice, she makes no mention of Adam. But perhaps she is merely being extra pious, wishing to rectify her recently “strained” relationship with God. Fair enough. 

But turn to Christ’s own words: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). Now, perhaps you’ll just say Jesus is being hyperbolic. Fine.  But then we have St. Paul who confuses the situation even further when he says, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).  St. Paul calls himself a father? But wait — this is also the same Paul who acknowledges in Romans 4:16 that Abraham is the “father of us all.” 

As we can see, the great theological question running through Scripture amounts to: “Who’s your daddy?”

Here, I’d like to go back to defending the initial claim that St. Joseph is the key to understanding fatherhood. Yes, this claim is bold, and not only on account of the paradoxes highlighted above, but also because Joseph has no recorded words in Scripture, and therefore, what we learn from him can only come by looking at his few inconspicuous actions.

The first lesson that we glean from St. Joseph is witnessed as he ponders what to do after discovering that his betrothed is with child. “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” (Matt 1:20).

Here, St. Joseph confronts the central mystery that Eve had proclaimed in Genesis and that aligns with Christ’s own words, namely that God is the true Father and Author of life. This claim becomes clear when one recognizes that it is God Who creates and gives each person a unique soul or spirit – something that neither parent directly gives from their biological contribution of egg or sperm.

At first glance, this might seem extraordinarily demeaning to fatherhood. If God alone is the true Father, doesn’t this reduce men to mere biological “pawns” in the natural order? From this theological standpoint, how can fatherhood be understood as anything good, necessary, or noble?

Here, though, is where Joseph illuminates God’s beautiful plan and design for human fatherhood. Even as Mary is the immaculate and perfect mother for Christ, and even though Jesus is a divine person, God still ordains that Joseph should serve as the earthly father.

It is precisely because Joseph was not biologically “needed” for Jesus’s conception, that he can be a definitive testament to how God has designed fatherhood as essential and as having a noble and irreplaceable purpose within the human family. This shows that God does not view human fatherhood akin to other animal relationships where “fathers” often only serve a reproductive function.

Rather, Joseph’s divine appointment to become the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, shows that human fatherhood is a deeper reality and has much greater dignity. By ordaining Joseph to this role, God confirms that earthly fathers are not commodities.

However, if God alone is a true Father, then it follows that earthly fathers are only true fathers to the degree that they imitate and participate in God’s Fatherhood. That is, fatherhood only receives its real meaning from God the Father. It’s worth then pondering what we know about God the Father.

God first reveals Himself as Father in Scripture through His covenants with Israel (cf. Exodus 4:22-23), and then most fully through sending His Son Jesus, the Incarnate Word of the Father (John 3:16). Jesus alludes to God’s goodness and love as a Father when He says: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11).

However, God’s greatest gift is Himself which He offers through sending His Son, Jesus Christ, Who becomes the perfect mediator between God and man — the Eternal High Priest and sacrificial victim for our redemption. In other words, God’s Fatherhood is most radically revealed through His ever-faithful, self-donating love, and in His willingness to share His own divine life with His children.

As we return to St. Joseph, we see that he imitates God’s own love by his faithful guardianship and sacrificial love for Jesus and Mary. He is a model for the kind of prayerful spiritual life that all men should have which always seeks God the Father’s guidance in all decisions in one’s life and for one’s family. This spiritual attentiveness allowed St. Joseph to fulfill his divinely appointed mission and to successfully care for and protect his family.

Beyond protecting and providing, Joseph is a model for fathers as teachers in both spiritual and temporal matters. Through Jesus’s presentation in the temple after birth, we witness not only Joseph’s fidelity to God’s commandments but his paternal concern to raise Jesus according to the Jewish law (cf. Luke 2:22). And we can infer that he taught Jesus the skills of his own trade of carpentry.

We might wonder why we don’t have many explicit details concerning Joseph’s life and actions, and it does seem unfortunate that we do not know more of the particular ways that Joseph embodied the virtues of fatherhood.

However, Joseph’s silence seems to evidence a great humility and is itself a reminder that fatherhood often entails the mundane, ordinary tasks of sacrificial love. Such small deeds won’t be recorded in the history books; however, the effects of these humble actions will undeniably resonate throughout eternity.

Let us then not fail to remember St. Joseph, the humble yet noble man who is a worthy model for all earthly fathers. He is a saint to whom we all—especially men—can turn to for inspiration, guidance, and intercession in our quest to become perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).

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