Every October, pro-lifers celebrate Respect Life Month. This year, this month of prayer and action in support of a Culture of Life has a unique character, since we are also celebrating the Year of St. Joseph.
In a statement announcing Respect Life Month, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, highlighted how, in St. Joseph, we find “a profound reminder of our own call to welcome, safeguard, and defend God’s precious gift of human life.”
I suppose it goes without saying, but St. Joseph is one of my favorite saints. The foster-father of Christ simply has so much to teach me, a priest and pro-life leader, about the nature of authentic fatherhood, service, and holiness. And he has so much to teach all of us about how to go about building a Culture of Life.
In particular, I would single out two characteristics of this great saint, the Patron of the Universal Church.
The Primacy of Contemplation
Firstly, St. Joseph was a man of contemplation.
As Cardinal Sarah notes in The Power of Silence, “The most silent person in the Gospels is of course Saint Joseph; not a single word of his does the New Testament record for us.”
This silence, however, was not the silence of emptiness or of weakness. As Cardinal Sarah writes, this is a mistake made by the modern world, which suggests that “keeping quiet has the appearance of being a weakness, a sort of ignorance or lack of will. In the modern system, the silent person becomes someone who does not know how to defend himself. He is subhuman. Conversely, the so-called strong man is a man of words. He crushes and drowns the other in the floods of his speeches.”
What a powerful indictment of the spiritual and intellectual pathologies of the modern world! Indeed, isn’t the good cardinal right that most people in our modern age who wish to “make a difference,” who wish to change the world, will quickly set about learning the ropes of social media marketing, podcasting, lobbying, fundraising, and all the various tools used by so-called “influencers”? Then they unleash a deluge of words amidst a flurry of activity.
And yet, it sometimes seems as if the only consequence of all this talk and action is that nothing changes, or at least, not for the better. Indeed, quite the contrary: instead, the world just seems ever more frenetic and fractious, riven with dissension and confusion. How little time in the midst all of this is there for deep, careful thought, prayer, and discernment! Instead, the activist’s days are filled with endless e-mails, meetings, presentations, strategy sessions, and fundraising pitches.
Of course, it is not that any of these things are inherently bad. Quite the contrary. As the president of a pro-life non-profit, I know well how important these things can be, and how important it is to do them well. And yet, at the same time, St. Joseph stands as a reminder to me that there is a right order to things, and that we must not lose sight of it.
Pope St. John Paul II writes movingly in Redemptoris Custos that, “The same aura of silence that envelops everything else about Joseph also shrouds his work as a carpenter in the house of Nazareth. It is, however, a silence that reveals in a special way the inner portrait of the man. . . . Joseph was in daily contact with the mystery ‘hidden from ages past,’ and which ‘dwelt’ under his roof.’”
There is a wise old adage that says that “contemplation precedes action.” And the reason for this is obvious: unless our action stems from the right motives, and is in tune with the right principles, it will quickly go astray. Indeed, how easily our most well-intentioned actions become poisoned with ego, overzealousness, anxiety, fear, and imprudence!
In our efforts to build a Culture of Life we, too, must constantly remind ourselves to prioritize contemplation and silence, the way St. Joseph did. We must ensure that our hearts are tapped into the wellspring of all truth, as his was.
The Importance of Courageous, Bold Action
Secondly, St. Joseph was a man of action.
This might seem to contradict what I have said up to this point. But it is not so. Indeed, St. Joseph’s life is as conspicuous for its action as it is for its silence. As St. John Paul II wrote, “The Gospels speak exclusively of what Joseph ‘did.’ Still, they allow us to discover in his ‘actions’ – shrouded in silence as they are – an aura of deep contemplation.”
In the Gospels we find St. Joseph taking bold action: taking Mary as his wife, despite the possibility of scandal and disapproval from others; taking the Christ child and fleeing into Egypt to preserve His life from the murderous desires of Herod.
And yet, as Pope St. John Paul II notes, even these bold actions reveal St. Joseph’s contemplative nature. After all, both of these actions were preceded by prophetic dreams, dreams that St. Joseph had the spiritual perspicuity to hear.
I wonder, indeed, would St. Joseph have heard the Lord speaking to Him in his dreams, if his mind was wrought by anxiety for purely temporal things, or if he, like us, was so wrapped up in the world of media and entertainment, or if he was consumed by the feverish search for greater pleasure and power? Or would the quiet voice of the Lord have been drowned out?
Nevertheless, even if his actions reveal his contemplative nature, those actions were crucial in salvation history. Similarly, we too are called to decisive, courageous, bold action. When the troops of Herod come searching for the Holy Innocents in our midst, we must do what is in our power to protect them.
For some of us, it means answering the call of the Lord to start or to volunteer at pregnancy care centers; for others, to advocate for more humane laws; or to respond to the anti-life propaganda in the media and in our schools; or to write books that defend the sanctity of life; or to preach the sanctity of life from our pulpits; or to step forward and adopt a child that is threatened by abortion; to defend life amongst our family and friends.
Even if it is true that we must prioritize contemplation, that contemplative life must, from time to time (and for some of us, often), find expression in decisive, concrete action, through which we act as God’s instruments in the world.
In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II noted:
[I]n Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony that is only possible for those who possess the perfection of charity. Following St. Augustine’s well-known distinction between the love of the truth (caritas veritatis) and the practical demands of love (necessitas caritatis), we can say that Joseph experienced both love of the truth – that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ – and the demands of love – that equally pure and selfless love required for his vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.
A Call to Fathers
In a special way, during this Respect Life Month I issue an urgent call to fathers and priests. As Pope Francis wrote in Patris Corde, announcing this year of St. Joseph:
Our world today needs fathers. It has no use for tyrants who would domineer others as a means of compensating for their own needs. It rejects those who confuse authority with authoritarianism, service with servility, discussion with oppression, charity with a welfare mentality, power with destruction. Every true vocation is born of the gift of oneself, which is the fruit of mature sacrifice.
Our modern world denigrates fatherhood, routinely portraying fathers as hapless, weak, self-absorbed, and powerless. So often, too, it is suggested that fatherhood is dull and unimportant, or even worse, destructive. After all, the media tells us, wives don’t love or respect their husbands, and our children don’t love and obey their fathers. They may even resent them, especially when they strive to be strong. So perhaps for many husbands and fathers it is best simply to recede into the fantasy world of work, entertainment, and (all too often) pornography.
Against these lies of the world, which seem to absolve us of the call to greatness, we must resist. St. Joseph may have said little, but he was the furthest thing from weak. It is a deep, but true, mystery that St. Joseph was somehow responsible for forming Christ’s human nature. How closely and lovingly, for instance, the Christ child must have watched St. Joseph in the workshop in Nazareth, learning from St. Joseph how to handle the tools of his trade, growing in strength under St. Joseph’s tutelage.
We speak a great deal of the special dignity conferred on the Virgin Mary, to be the Mother of God, and of how this extraordinary mystery reveals the nobility of motherhood. And yet, we must also recognize that God chose to give to Christ an earthly father, through whom Christ’s human nature would experience the excellence of earthly fatherhood.
Every father participates in this same mystery and is called to imitate St. Joseph. Far too much of this culture of death is traceable to men’s abandonment of the call to fatherhood. In some cases, this abandonment is literal, as when they pressure the mother of their child to abort the fruit of their union, or when they simply walk out on their responsibilities.
How much heartbreak and fear in the world is due to the wounds caused by fathers who have not faithfully lived out their vocations! Tragically, these are often intergenerational wounds, causing each succeeding generation of men to lack the confidence to love and nurture their wives and children. However, the cycle can be broken, by looking to St. Joseph for inspiration.
Heed the Call
In his statement announcing Respect Life Month, Archbishop Naumann wrote, “At times, we may feel uncertain of our ability to answer the Lord’s call. But He invites us to faithfully respond, despite our own fears or weaknesses: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).”
That Scripture passage should be a favorite of anyone involved in the battle to build a Culture of Life. How often we, who are moved with compassion for the innocent children who are dying or for the marginalized elderly and disabled who are increasingly pushed towards assisted suicide and euthanasia, feel utterly inadequate and powerless to turn the tide.
And yet, how wonderful it is to turn our thoughts to St. Joseph, finding one so simple and so unimportant in the eyes of the world, yet who played an integral part in the accomplishment of our salvation. We are, all of us, members of the mystical body of Christ, playing our part. Even if we are personally weak (and we all are!), nevertheless, Christ’s power is made perfect through weakness, if only we have the courage to respond to His call.
“May we,” writes Archbishop Naumann in conclusion, “imitate St. Joseph’s faithful trust and courage as we work to uphold the dignity of every human life. St. Joseph, defender of life, pray for us!”