With St. John Paul II’s help, I’d like to clear up a common misconception about St. Joseph since it’s his feast day.
In a little-known address given on Sept. 21, 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke about the difficulty for many of accepting “the sublime mystery” of Joseph and Mary’s spousal communion. How could a man with the erotic desires of youth have honored Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity?
One way of dealing with this “difficulty,” wrote John Paul II, was “to think of Joseph as advanced in age and to consider him Mary’s guardian more than her husband.” This idea has entered deeply into the consciousness of Christians throughout the centuries, reinforced by countless artistic depictions of St. Joseph as old and grey.
But this approach to the “difficulty” fails to recognize the real possibility of sexual virtue, the real possibility of inner transformation. Imagine the heights of virtue available to Joseph living 24/7 with the Incarnate Word and the Immaculate Conception!
When the Church gives Joseph the title “Most Chaste Spouse,” this does not mean he was fearful or prudish with regard to his masculinity and Mary’s femininity. It means, to use St. John Paul II’s expression, that Joseph, through deep inner purifications, came to experience the “fullness of ‘eros,’ which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good, and beautiful, so that what is ‘erotic’ also becomes true, good, and beautiful” (TOB 48:1).
Virginity and eros are only “contradictory” ideas in light of our lack of virtue, in light of the disintegration that came with original sin. St. Joseph is a model for all of us in what it means to overcome that disintegration and live eros as the power to love as God loves.
As St. John Paul II maintains, we overcome the “difficulty” of Joseph and Mary’s virginal marriage by “supposing that he was not an elderly man at the time,” but by recognizing that “his interior perfection, the fruit of grace, led him to live his spousal relationship with Mary with virginal affection.” And “virginal affection” does not mean “hands off / stay away.” It means, “Come close, let me hold you, let me honor you. I will never violate your promise to God.”
[Did you appreciate this blog post? Sign up for The Cor Project mailing list and you’ll receive the latest blog posts (and more) delivered directly to your email!]