St. Joseph: patron of a Happy Death

By Father Jordan Hainsey:

One of St. Joseph’s traditional titles is patron of a Happy Death. Now that may immediately sound sharp to the mind or heart, leading us to ask: “Just what is so happy about death?” “My mother just died of a stroke.” “My brother was in a terrible accident.” “I lost a close friend in the middle of the pandemic.”

For each of us, when death hits home it’s anything but welcomed or happy.

The term “happy” though when we call upon St. Joseph as the patron of a Happy Death, does not connote the emotion of being glad or even cheerful. It points to something deeper. It’s more about being at peace, being faith-filled, hope-filled.

When Jesus teaches the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they…”, the Greek word he uses is “makarios” — happy. “Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them!” (Matt 5:3-10). This should be consoling to us — God doesn’t discern whether or not he will comfort us in sorrow, but rather promises he will do it. He promises that — if we are happy — that is, if we are faith-filled, hope-filled in those times — he will utterly transform and redeem the situation and ourselves.

Many traditions hold that Joseph died in the presence of Jesus and Mary, in their very arms. The most popular account of this is from a 17th century mystic nun named Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda. From her vision she recounts:

“Then this man of God (Joseph), turning toward Christ, our Lord, in profoundest reverence, wished to kneel before Him. But the sweetest Jesus, coming near, received him in his arms, where, reclining his head upon them, Joseph said: ‘My highest Lord and God, Son of the eternal Father, Creator and Redeemer of the World, give thy blessing to thy servant and the works of thy hand; pardon, O most merciful King, the faults which I have committed in thy service … I extol and magnify Thee and render eternal and heartfelt thanks to Thee for having, in thy ineffable condescension, chosen me to be the spouse of thy true Mother; let thy greatness and glory be my thanksgiving for all eternity.’ The Redeemer of the world gave him his benediction, saying: ‘My father, rest in peace and in the grace of my eternal Father and mine; and to the prophets and saints, who await thee…’ At these words of Jesus, and reclining in his arms, the most fortunate St. Joseph expired and the Lord himself closed his eyes.”

Church mural work, mosaics, and statuary particularly from the 19th and 20th centuries further popularized this scene, concretizing it in the Catholic artistic tradition for centuries to come. When Bishop Maes planned the stained glass for the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, a window depicting this very scene would come to life in the north transept, closest to the 12th, 13th, and 14th Stations of the Cross — a placement not by accident. Bishop Maes was clearly connecting the theme of death to the happy, blessed hope of resurrection.

The tradition of the death of St. Joseph is pious and worthy of much prayer and meditation, but for us it shouldn’t matter if Joseph’s death occurred exactly as Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda relates it, or in a less idyllic way than our Catholic artistic imagination has made it out to be. The core message and truth of Joseph’s death, and his title of patron of a Happy Death, is that he died a blessed, a happy death because Jesus and Mary were at his side. He died with the Savior of the World and the God-Bearer by his side.

Joseph’s holy death reflected his holy way of life. Joseph, the just and upright man, lived his whole life loving and serving Jesus and Mary, through obedience to God’s will. That is what Joseph can teach us and do for us when we pray to him and entrust our friends and loved ones who are close to death, or who have gone before us. His intercession can be the help we need on the pathway to heaven — the place of ultimate blessedness, hopefulness, and happiness.

St. Joseph, pray for us now and at the hour of our death!

May, Mary, and the ’externals’ of faith

By Brad Torline.

A couple of years ago I posted on Facebook that I was looking for one of those “concrete Mary statues that people put in their yards.” I thought a fallen-away Catholic friend might have one they inherited from their grandmother.

Much to my surprise I ended up with one that had been in my family for at least 70 years.

When I asked about the somewhat comical paint job I found out that the statue had stood for a long time near my great-great aunt’s barn and that my grandpa had been encouraged to paint it several times as a child. I took it home, sanded it down and, following in my grandpa’s footsteps, I painted it — this time white.

A couple of days later it was time to do what I had planned all along. I hauled the 40-or-so pound, concrete statue a half mile up two hills to place it at the highest point on my friend’s 60 acre farm. There she stands today, overlooking the Licking River — “Our Lady of Grant’s Lick,” as we call her.  Those of us who hike those trails regularly will often pick wild flowers to crown her with or to lay at her feet.

Our Lady of Grant’s Lick

Why do Catholics do things like this? The world might say we do it because we are superstitious. Non-Catholic Christians might say we do it because we are idolatrous. The truth is we do it because we believe and because we love.

I’ll not bore you with an exposé on the political and ideological pressures that have, for centuries now, sought to force religion out of the public sphere and into the realm of private and preferably internal expression. The fact still remains — public, external displays of religion are increasingly uncomfortable for people today.

In recent decades we have seen this effect on the Church. How many of the Church’s traditions and external expressions have been lost in the last few generations?

I am frequently reminded that “external expression” does not mean “internal adherence.” I am told that, in the past, the Church had great external displays of the faith but that few people truly held the faith interiorly. I’m also told that, back in “the day,” a lot of people had the faith memorized but didn’t really internalize it. Well, nowadays many people still don’t internally believe the faith, and now they don’t have it memorized anymore either.

People are correct when they say that external acts of faith are superficial and useless if they are not accompanied with internal faith of the heart, but with all my heart I believe we, as a Church, acted unwisely when we removed and lost so much of what made the faith tangible. We are physical beings, after all, called to love God with both bodies and soul.

The tangible traditions and expressions — the so-called “smells and bells” — help make the faith come alive and seem more “real.” They give us physical ways to express our spiritual beliefs and our love.

It is an obvious best practice for elementary school teachers to use tangible activities, coloring pages, toys, etc. to help children learn abstract and difficult topics. When the children come around to understanding those things, do we think their understanding is any less “pure” or meaningful because they came to it by way of physical expressions and activities?

Let’s not fool ourselves. We like to pretend otherwise, but adults are basically children that got bigger, so the same principles apply to us. The faith is difficult, especially today. Let’s not be afraid to help ourselves learn it and internalize it with the aid of outward expressions, traditions and activities.

I think the Church is coming back around to this and we are seeing many traditions return. I encourage you to help out with this project.

It’s May — the month of Mary. What a great place to start. Consider planting a Mary Garden this year. Place a statue of Our Lady in a prominent place. Take your family on a hike to pick flowers for Mary.

It may feel awkward at first because, as discussed above, we are conditioned to be uncomfortable with outwards signs of religious belief. But give it a try — not for superstition’s sake, not to earn any special rewards but for the same reason my Grandpa and I painted our Mary statue — because when you believe in and love someone, it’s only natural to want to express it by doing something for them.

Brad Torline is associate director for the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization, Diocese of Covington, Ky.