In Pope John Paul's thinking - as set out in his 1989 encyclical Redemptoris Custos ("On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church") - St Joseph is set squarely within the plan of redemption. Inserted directly in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Family of Nazareth has its own special mystery.
In this family Joseph is the father: his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring; but neither is it an 'apparent' or merely 'substitute' fatherhood. Rather it is one that fully shares in the authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family.
St Joseph is seen in the Gospels as the humble but exalted instrument of God's great designs in the redemptive Incarnation; he is the spouse, the husband of Mary, the guardian of her honour, lending his name to her Child: "Is not this the son of Joseph?" (John 6:42).
These two aspects are closely related: "... it was from his marriage to Mary that Joseph derived his singular dignity and his rights in regard to Jesus".
Earlier, the Pope had spelt this out, looking at "the redemptive plan, which is founded in the mystery of the Incarnation", in more human terms if you like: "This is precisely the mystery which Joseph of Nazareth shared like no other human being except Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He shared it with her; he was involved in the same salvific event; he was the guardian of the same love, through the power of which the Eternal Father 'destined us to be his sons through Jesus Christ'".
Redemptoris Custos dwells affectionately and reverently upon Joseph's "pilgrimage of faith which was his life". With regard to Our Blessed Lady, "Joseph took Mary in all the mystery of her motherhood", and "with regard to what God asked of him, he showed a readiness of will like Mary's".
In this "pilgrimage" Pope John Paul points out that "the faith of Mary met the faith of Joseph and Joseph was "the first to share in the faith of the Mother of God, and in doing so he supports his spouse in the faith of the divine Annunciation"; "Joseph's faith moved in the same direction; it was totally determined by the same mystery of which, together with Mary, he had been the first guardian"; and "From the time of the Annunciation, both Joseph and Mary found themselves in a certain sense at the heart of the mystery hidden for ages in the mind of God, a mystery which had taken on flesh".
Here I might add the testimony of one of yesterday's outstanding theologians, Fr R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP: "While Joseph walked this earth, he exercised a living faith in keeping with his charity. He was moved by the Spirit of understanding and wisdom commensurately. He was lifted to the highest and simplest form of contemplation, particularly with regard to the Incarnation." He adds: "The secret (i.e., hidden) mission of St Joseph was superior to the public mission of the Apostles ... it required a greater grace; it not only pertained to the order of grace, - it was related to the hypostatic union".
Similarly, according to another great Catholic writer, Jacques Maritain: "[I]t is reasonable to think that Jesus revealed progressively to Joseph and to Mary absolutely all the mysteries of God which He had come in order to announce. In view of their immense mutual love, how would He have been able to not communicate to them, to them first, that which He was to communicate to the Apostles and to all men?"
Redemptoris Custos, however, does not confine itself exclusively to a consideration of Joseph's faith; it also dwells on the fact that Joseph was "a doer". Not a single word of Joseph's is recorded in the Gospels: even at the finding of Jesus in the Temple Mary speaks on his behalf. But Joseph, as we see repeatedly in Matthew's Gospel, "rose up" and did what the Lord had asked of him: going from Nazareth, to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem to Egypt, from Egypt back to Bethelehem, from Bethlehem to Nazareth - "doing became the beginning of Joseph's way", says John Paul II. Indeed: "Already at the beginning of human redemption, after Mary, we find the model of obedience made incarnate in St Joseph, the man known for having faithfully carried out God's commands".
That Joseph is the patron of artisans and all manual workers has been somewhat lost to sight by the fact that the Feast of St Joseph the Worker (1 May), instituted originally to supplement the Solemnity of St Joseph, has been somewhat downgraded in the current liturgy.
The Holy Father points out that St Joseph's example "transcends all individual states of life and serves as a model for the entire Christian community, whatever the condition and duties of each of its members may be".
In Redemptoris Custos, John Paul tells us he has drawn heavily upon the encyclicals of his predecessors, especially of Leo XIII. Even earlier, it was Pius IX who proclaimed St Joseph Patron of the Universal Church (1871): this at a time when the Church was being attacked by anti-Catholic European governments; but in our days, as Pope John Paul has repeatedly pointed out, the Church is under even greater threat - from within.
He concludes this by expressing his "heartfelt wish that these reflections on the person of St Joseph will renew in us the prayerful devotion which my predecessor (Leo XIII) called for a century ago. Our prayers and the very person of Joseph have renewed significance for the Church in our day, in the light of the Third Christian Millennium".