Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier, who founded the great seminary Sainte-Sulpice (and later the Sulpicians) as a response to the Council of Trent's call for a reform of the approach to training priests in seminaries, entrusted the seminarians of Sainte-Sulpice to the patronage of St. Joseph. The reason, he explained, was that St. Joseph, like priests, was involved in the “virginal begetting of Christ.” To understand this, one must recognize that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was necessary for the Annunciation to take place. In this sense St Joseph plays a real and important, although not biological, role in the begetting of Christ. St John Paul II wrote that “while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary's marriage to Joseph” (Redemptoris Custos #7).
Msgr Olier's concern that priests master the art of the virginal begetting is shared by Pope Francis who tied together unhappiness in a celibate vocation with a lack of spiritual fatherhood, “please: … never any priests with faces like 'chilis pickled in vinegar' — never! … But what is at the heart of this lack of joy? … when a priest is not a father to his community … he becomes sad. … the root of sadness in pastoral life is precisely in the absence of fatherhood…. It is impossible to imagine a priest … who [is] not fertile: this is not Catholic!… Joy, no sadness, pastoral fecundity.” (Pope Francis, Address to novices and seminarians, July 6, 2013)
Essentially, Pope Francis is emphasizing that the joy of the priesthood comes from fulfilling the spousal meaning of the body in making a sincere gift of oneself. This self-gift becomes mystically, virginally fruitful, begetting Christ in souls, and thus engenders a spiritual fatherhood in the priest. What can we learn from St. Joseph about how to live out this essential element of priesthood more fruitfully?
St Joseph models a culture of encounter and tenderness
The first point is the importance of cultivating encounters with certain qualities–encounters that are personal, tender, and open to human suffering. Pope Francis has taught us persistently about this as he has encouraged us to build a culture of encounter. When we have the courage to draw close to others, it forms a people, a family. “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG) #270)
St Joseph was tempted to distance himself from Mary, from her human suffering, but his openness to the Word of God and his courage to reverse his decision and draw close to Mary is an inspiration for priests who might likewise seek to distance themselves. His return to Mary with tenderness, rather than stoning, is likewise an example. And there is no doubt that his decision made his life “wonderfully complicated” and helped to form a people, truly to form the People of God.
Complementarity, the Holy Spirit and virginal fruitfulness
A second quality that is important for spiritual fecundity can be seen in the complementarity of Joseph and Mary and the role of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary could only enter into a marriage because they were male and female. Furthermore, the virginal begetting could only take place because Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. St Joseph clearly did not understand all that was taking place and yet he was willing to draw close to the mystery and discover God in a new way in his virgin bride. The priest opens himself to the same spiritual fruitfulness when he draws close to the mystery of the bridal Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He does this when he preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without this the seeds of faith cannot be planted in hearts, “and how can they believe…without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14) When the priest goes out of himself to plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of his people, watering them with baptism and nourishing them with the tenderness of personal encounter, the Church becomes pregnant with new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Without the bridal Church and without the Holy Spirit there can be no virginal begetting. Pope Francis drew out this analogy in a Wednesday Audience on the Church, “First of all a mother generates life, she carries her child in her womb for 9 months and then delivers him to life, giving birth to him. The Church is like this: she bears us in the faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit who makes her fertile, like the Virgin Mary.” (Sept. 09, 2013) Pope Francis also described the fruitfulness that comes when we are willing to let ourselves be fascinated by the difference, by the complementarity of the other, “When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” (EG #271)
The mysterious nature of virginal fruitfulness
A final point that must be raised is that the pastoral fecundity is not always obvious; virginal begetting is also mysterious. Just as St. Joseph lived for many years in the hiddenness of Nazareth, the priest must often live in the uncertainty of the importance and fruitfulness of all his efforts. He can teach us what Pope Francis has called “a sense of mystery”. “'A sense of mystery' … involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others.” (EG #279)
St. Joseph is the best teacher for us in understanding the mystery of virginal begetting which he inaugurated in his willingness to encounter our Lady with tenderness, in embracing her difference with the power of the Holy Spirit and in rejoicing at the mysterious fruitfulness that burst forth in their lives.
Originally published in the Theology of the Body Institute email newsletter