PORTLAND, Oregon — Joe Herman, a longtime member of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in Astoria, Oregon, was named after his grandfather, not St. Joseph.
All the same, as a child he had a glow-in-the-dark statue of St. Joseph. “I took it to bed with me,” he said with a smile.
He still has that little statue.
Herman — like many other Catholic fathers — has been thinking a lot about St. Joseph this year, which Pope Francis proclaimed the Year of St. Joseph, which ends Dec. 8. The year opened Dec. 8, 2020.
Herman is reading Marian Father Donald Calloway’s book, Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father, published by Marian Press in early 2020, and praying on the insights he’s gleaned from it.
Herman agrees with the scholars who believe that it would do the modern family good to look to St. Joseph for guidance on family life, adopting a more realistic view of St. Joseph and his role in the Holy Family.
“Too many pictures show him an old man,” said Herman, who retired from his masonry business in January. “Too many pictures show a guy who never pounded a nail in his life. You think about it. God’s not stupid. He wants Jesus to have a strong foster father, a man Jesus can look up to.”
Art historians say St. Joseph has often been portrayed as not much more than a background figure in the Holy Family, a doddering old man, even dozing off, a kind of sidekick of Mary and Jesus. That may have been to emphasize Joseph and Mary’s chastity.
Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, writes that St. Joseph’s name was only added to the church’s litany of saints in the mid-14th century.
Pope Francis described St. Joseph as a tender and loving father who worked hard, was obedient to God and didn’t seek the world’s attention.
“St. Joseph was a self-employed contractor,” Herman told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese. “He loved Mary and protected her and Jesus. He took his responsibilities seriously and taught by example. It’s like my dad — if someone gave him back too much change, he’d make it right.”
Herman’s six children are adults now, except for his youngest daughter, born with disabilities, who died at 15 months.
He believes that he and his wife, Jean, got some things right raising them. He laughs at the memory of his youngest son complaining, “You and Mom always stick together.”
Herman’s voice softens when he said that his oldest son, at the end of telephone calls, says, “I love you, Dad.”
Up the Columbia River to Portland, Trieu Nguyen, a father of two daughters and a member of The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland, is pleased the church is highlighting St. Joseph.
Nguyen, who works in child welfare, remembers St. Joseph from the Nativity plays of his childhood — and his girls’ childhoods — and a few other tidbits.
“I’m happy we’re taking a closer look at him,” Nguyen said. “He had a lot of courage to stand by Mary, who was bearing a child who wasn’t his own child.”
Eric Score, a member of All Saints Parish, also in Northeast Portland, wants to look further into what a consecration to St. Joseph would mean.
An accountant and father of two, Score just bought Calloway’s book. “A consecration is like a pledge,” he explained. “To align yourself from a spiritual aspect to follow in his example as much as you possibly can.”
In the book, the priest outlines a 33-day preparation period in Part 1, and includes several readings on the “Wonders of Our Spiritual Father” in Part 2 and several prayers to St. Joseph in Part 3.
Score has been praying a Litany of St. Joseph, something he said brings the saint — who isn’t well described in Scripture — into clearer view: “Joseph, prudent and brave / Joseph, obedient and loyal / Pattern of patience / Model of workers / Pillar of family life / Protector of the church.”
“The beautiful thing about the litany is you contemplate on different aspects of Joseph,” said Score. “His humility really stands out for me. Everything is centered around Mary, and he has to deal with that, in that patriarchal culture. He knew he was caring for the Son of God — what a responsibility.”
Score thinks Pope Francis timed this Year of St. Joseph well, coinciding as it did with what we hope is the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and its lessons for families.
“It was a curse but also a blessing,” said Score. “I’ve never been more involved with my children’s lives … it’s really hard to teach kids.”
He takes comfort in knowing that Joseph and Mary weren’t highly educated people. “It came down to prayer and their relationship with Jesus.”
Or, as Herman puts it, “If you have kids, you have to take care of them.”
Score is prioritizing spending time with his children. “I took my son fishing,” he said. “Just being there and caring is super important.”
He’s thinking about the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as a model for family life.
“One step at a time,” he said. “You have to take action, but you can only do so much. It’s in God’s hands. That gives me hope.”
Hannum is on the staff of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.