Today marks the commemoration of the Holy Family. In this feast we are not only confronted with the humanity of Jesus the infant but also the vulnerability of each member of the Holy Family.
For many, it is an occasion which prompts reflection upon the discrete vocations of Jesus, His Blessed Mother and St Joseph. The readings of the Divine Office, like the Gospel reading at Mass, leave us in no doubt of the immediate physical threat to which Christ was himself exposed. It was in the midst of this danger that the Holy Family was called to undertake their flight into Egypt; thereby reaching a location of protection. Soon after, by means of a vision, St Joseph was prompted to return his family to Israel.
Knowing the culmination of the Gospel narrative as we do, it is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate, let alone acknowledge, the physical and emotional demands that this placed upon St Joseph and the Mother of God. The difficulties, fears and anxieties which they undoubtedly felt are obscured from our view. In doing so, do we place too heavy an emphasis upon the sanctity of these three individuals and too little notice of the human peril which they faced? Perhaps if we reflected on the peril to which all three were exposed, we might be confronted with the unwelcome fact that there are as many dangers today which seek to extinguish the life of Christ; even from within the family of the faith community itself.
Family, as St Joseph's actions demonstrate, proceeds not merely from a biological or genetic connection. Rather, it finds its fulfilment and truest expression in a spiritual dedication and emotional commitment; a unity of purpose founded in a shared belief. In the case of St Joseph, his was a spiritual fatherhood. This is no mere metaphor. The Church’s commemoration of the Holy Family comes as a reminder to all of the laity that it is within the family home that we encounter the first church; the place in which the life-giving Word of God is to be proclaimed and protected. But it is also a "family" in which those ordained to priestly ministry have an irreplaceable role. This role calls for the exercise of the spiritual parentage of all of those entrusted to them.
St Joseph stands witness to the simple reality that this vocation of spiritual fatherhood is directed first and foremost, to the protection of the authentic Word of God. That is the protection of the Word of God for the benefit of others. This protection is no mere preservation. It is stewardship which has as its principal objective the creation of an opportunity for others; that they too may enter into a relationship with Him.
In this respect, the life and work of St Joseph may be seen as not merely an affirmation of parental responsibility but a declaration of spiritual fatherhood. For the priesthood, the duty of spiritual fatherhood could not be clearer, nor the need for it in today's world more pressing. As the capacity (not to say ability) of the modern family to transmit the demands of the Faith continues to be threatened, it falls to those dedicated through ordination to adopt the mantle of St Joseph. In the culture of the modern world, such protection is vital if the opportunity of a relationship with Christ is to be preserved. For in our own times, there are many Herods. It may be thought that these are pious thoughts and sentiments; easy enough to express and all too difficult to fulfil. But is this is correct?
Our Blessed Mother and St Joseph stand as living icons of a unity between mind and heart. They also affirm that those who seek peace must, inwardly, prepare for conflict. More fundamentally, they each personify a willingness and capacity to facilitate a right relationship between man and God. What then of the priesthood?
In the words of St John Paul II:
"Each of us who shares by sacramental ordination in Christ's Priesthood must constantly reread this "inscription" of Christ's redeeming service. For we too, each one of us, are appointed "to act on behalf of men in relationship to God."… Here is found the full authenticity of a vocation, of our place in the Church." (John Paul II, "Letters to My Brother Priests" page 155)
How much more then should those who participate in this service invoke the ready assistance of St Joseph and Our Blessed Mother? Perhaps for all of us, clergy and lay, the first step is to utter those words which will be already familiar: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.” By this means we have some prospect of fulfilling our purpose.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.