Since Pope Francis declared this the Year of St. Joseph, I have given this figure of our faith some attention. I have invited Joseph into my world and sought his instruction.
January 25th marked the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul. On this day, the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentian community) celebrates its founding. Vincent identified this feast as the one on which he preached the first sermon of the mission. In this year, I have brought Joseph into my thinking as I reflect on the “apostle to the Gentiles.” (You know, Paul was likely around the same age as Jesus.) How might we reflect on Joseph and Paul together?
Well, Paul was a Roman citizen; Joseph was not. Paul was very well educated and multilingual; Joseph was not. Paul traveled widely; Joseph did not. Paul worked with needle and thread; Joseph with hammer and saw. One can hardly imagine a conversation, argument or debate that Paul would not enter; we usually think of Joseph as a less contentious type. It can be easy enough to speak about the differences between these good men. I can describe Paul as a forest fire, and Joseph as a campfire. I could speak of Paul like a flood, and Joseph as a well. Paul would be a hurricane, and Joseph a refreshing breeze. Paul is the “big picture,” Joseph is the day-to-day. You get the idea. You can make your own comparisons and analogies. One, however, trumps all the others: Joseph lived with Jesus and Mary daily for decades; Paul did not.
Recognizing these distinctions does not insist that one was a better man than the other. Both worked within their own world and their own calling. They shared an ancestral faith, and a love of the Lord. Joseph knew Jesus intimately; Paul met him once in an extraordinary encounter. I see Joseph as anchoring Jesus in the past while Paul pursues him into the future.
As much as one could speak about the different roles of these good men, one thing is clear: they both have an important place in the Church. The gifts of each contribute to the whole. Could you imagine their roles reversed? What if Paul were called to be the foster father of Jesus; what if Joseph were summoned to proclaim the Gospel throughout the Empire? Putting Joseph in Antioch causes me to shudder less than putting Paul in Nazareth. No, the Holy Spirit got it right in calling each of these men to his particular vocation.
I can profitably envision them sitting at the same table. Both believed deeply in the one God; each had experienced a divine call and action in an extraordinary way. I expect that they would find each other good company.
Imagining Joseph and Paul at the same time offers some opportunity for musing, but I would not want to allow my imagination too wide a girth. An important lesson for me would hinge on the recognition of our big Church in which room abounds for people of every description. The urbanity of Paul does not oppose the rurality of Joseph. The faith of some good Christian women and men may find a different expression than in my life. I want these others to come to the Lord in their own way. Every Christian shares the Bible, the sacraments, Mary, the saints, and the one true God. Within this commonality, we find our place and make our way to the Kingdom. It worked for both Joseph and Paul. The lives of these two saints can suggest a way for all of us. (I wonder where Vincent would fit between the two. . .)