21 Mar 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 March 2021

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1666) © Christie’s London

A while back an eclectic Spanish art collection was offered for auction by Christie’s in London. The standout item was a life-sized painting of St Joseph and the Christ Child by the 17th-century painter, Bartolomé Murillo, estimated to be worth millions of pounds. With a credible naturalism and visionary otherworldliness, Murillo offers not the elderly gentleman of earlier iconography but a virile, handsome Joseph, resembling the adult Christ. Here he holds the hand of his preschool-aged son to present Him to the viewer. The boy is clearly copying His father’s stance and in perfect parallel the two gaze at us, serious, even sorrowful.[1]

Some of us have great fathers or step-fathers, some more ordinary ones, and still others sadly have had abusive or absent fathers. Joseph was in the first category, if the happiness and holiness of his wife and child are any indication. At a time when people worry both about “toxic masculinity” and wonder what a healthy manhood might look like, the Gospels offer the model of Joseph: a just or righteous man, pious and law-abiding, prayerful and obedient, a dreamer yet practical, steadfast and caring, protective of the ones he loved (Mt chs 1-2; Lk chs 1-2).[2] Though from a noble pedigree – descending from Israel’s patriarchs, kings, priests and prophets (Mt 1:1-16,20; Lk 3:23-38) – he was a humble wood-worker or builder (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3).

When first we meet him, Joseph is betrothed to young Mary (Lk 1:27). Humiliated by finding she is pregnant without him, he would not shame her as well, and so resolved to hide her away quietly (Mt 1:18-19). It took an angel to clear things up. Instead of some lame excuse, the angel proclaimed the doctrine of the Incarnation: “your wife has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20). Great theologians have struggled to unpack this ever since, but the Carpenter simply accepted it on faith and did as he was told; he married Mary and took her son as his own (Mt 1:16-25; Lk 2:4-7,39; 3:23).

We have only glimpses of Joseph at the Nativity, the Presentation, the Flight into Egypt and the Finding in the Temple. He gives the Boy His surname ‘bar-Joseph’ (Lk 4:22; Jn 1:45; 6:42) and adds the Christian name ‘Jesus’, saviour from our sins (Mt 1:21,25; Lk 1:31; 2:21). As an observant Jew, he has his Boy circumcised, makes sacrifice for Him in the Temple, and takes the family up to Jerusalem each year for Passover (Lk 2:21-24,27,39,41). Jesus was obedient to him and under his guidance grew in strength, wisdom and stature (Lk 2:51-2; 4:22; Jn 1:45; 6:42). Presumably he shared with Jesus his craft. Having witnessed what angels, shepherds, magi and priests said about him, Joseph joined Mary in marvelling at it all (Lk 2:33; cf. 2:18-19,51).

From just a few Gospel verses, then, we build up a picture of Joseph and glimpse something of his private life with Jesus, as in Murillo’s painting. We have intimations of the love between step-father and son, and their influence upon each other. Just as the boy imitates the father in the painting, so some of the qualities of Jesus the man – his strength and tenderness, justice but mercy, compassion and obedience – were surely learnt at Joseph’s knee.

In his recent letter, Patris Corde, Pope Francis proclaimed a Year of St Joseph and gave us his own impressions of the man.[3] Speaking from the long Catholic tradition, he recalls that Christians have venerated Joseph with innumerable prayers, feasts, cities, churches, statues and groups dedicated to him, as well as religious orders like our own Josephite sisters of Mary MacKillop. Joseph is Patron of the Church, of fathers, and of unborn children, of immigrants, workers, and a happy death. He is ‘Chaste spouse of Mary’, ‘Guardian of the Redeemer’ and ‘Beloved Father’. “He is Holy Joseph,” St John Henry Newman said, “because his office, of being spouse and protector of Mary, specially demanded sanctity. He is Holy Joseph, because no other Saint but he lived in such and so long intimacy and familiarity with the source of all holiness, Jesus, God incarnate, and Mary, the holiest of creatures.”[4] And so Christians have turned to him as the Egyptians who when hungry were told by Pharaoh “Go to Joseph; do what he says” (Gen 41:55). Ite ad Ioseph!

Reflecting upon the pandemic, Pope Francis notes that the hidden people may not make the headlines but often make the difference – healthcare workers, storekeepers, cleaners, caregivers, transport workers, parents, teachers, pastors, and other essential service workers. “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed – a daily, discreet and hidden presence, an intercessor and support, a guide in times of trouble.” [PC 0] Sts Teresa of Avila, Madeleine Sophie Barat, Peter Julian Eymard and Mary MacKillop all recommended Joseph as a companion when discerning our vocation. St Bernadette called him “the master of prayer”, St Francis de Sales “the model of humility” and St. Josemaría Escrivá “teacher of the interior life”. St Thomas Aquinas said that most saints are intercessors for some class of needs, “but our holy patron St. Joseph has the power to assist us in all cases, in every necessity, in every undertaking.”

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Guido Reni (c. 1640)

Joseph’s hidden role, the Holy Father suggests, following Sts John Chrysostom and Paul VI, was to put himself “at the service of the entire plan of salvation” by turning his “human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of himself” [PC 1].[5] “As the Lord had done with Israel, so Joseph did with Jesus: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand; he was for him like a father who raises an infant to his cheeks, bending down to him and feeding him (cf. Hos 11:3-4). In Joseph, Jesus saw the tender love of God.” [PC 2]  Pope Francis’ beautiful letter is well worth a prayerful read!

In our first reading today (Jer 31:31-34), God promises He will one day make a new covenant with His people, planted so deep in their hearts that they will be His people and He will be their God. In Joseph that promise is at last fulfilled, for he is representative of the Old Testament, told in the genealogies and his association with the Law and Temple. Yet he is also first agent of the New Testament, which opens with the annunciation to Joseph by an angel (Mt 1:1-25). Joseph is situated on the very cusp; he is the hinge between the old covenant and the new. And in him we see at last the fidelity of God and Israel sealed deep in Patris Corde, a father’s heart.

In the days ahead our Gospel text (Jn 12:20-33) will come to fruition: Jesus will be glorified in His death as much as in His life, as He is ‘lifted up’ on the cross; as the divine Seed He will die and be sewn into the ground, only to shoot anew from the tomb, bringing other shoots with Him, so that there is a harvest of many souls. If you are troubled like Jesus in our Gospel because of struggles in your life or your world, know that like Him you are made for this hour and that in persevering faithfully you will be glorified as He was. But like the unborn Lord you have a protector in Joseph. And that means that, like Murillo’s Joseph, you can be the one to present Jesus to others.

St Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, pray for us.

St Joseph, Protector of the Holy Family, pray for us.

St Joseph, Guardian of the Unborn, pray for us!


Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.


I invite Ms Rebecca Gosper, Director of LifeChoice Australia, to address our gathering.

Thank you, Bec, and my thanks to all those that belong to LifeChoice Australia.  My very warm thanks also to Mr Paul Hanrahan from Family Life International, the principal organisers of today’s gathering, to those belonging to other pro-life or pregnancy help groups from around this city, state or nation, to the pro-life politicians (Hon. Fred Nile was with us for Mass), and to anyone from our community willing to stand up for the unborn. We pray today and always for human life at every stage, for pregnant women in distress, for their husbands or partners too, that they may treasure the gift of human life. And I thank God for each one of you: that you care so passionately about this matter and that you’ve joined us in our prayers.

Given certain noise going on outside, it’s perhaps been a good thing to have our own place of peace to contemplate the beauty of human life and to pray to God for all our needs.  It’s a strange situation though, isn’t it, that people are free to stand outside our Cathedral and make as much noise and be as intimidating as they like, but if we went near an abortion clinic and prayed in silence, we’d be arrested, fined and even imprisoned? It seems there’s only one place that’s sacred in our city at the moment, and that’s the abortion clinics.  That has to change, my friends, that has to change. By your prayers and your witness for life, our culture can and will become that great civilisation of life and love that we Christians are called to make it. God bless each one of you.

[1]     “From ancient to modern: a distinguished private collection,” Christie’s 7 December 2016 https://www.christies.com/exhibitions/2016/from-ancient-to-modern-december-2016; Susan Moore, ‘A marcvellous Murillo comes to christie’s,” Apollo 5 December 2016 https://www.apollo-magazine.com/a-magnificent-murillo-comes-to-christies-plus-more-art-market-highlights/

[2]     St Joseph was a just or righteous man (Mt 1:19), pious and law-abiding (Mt 1:25; Lk 2:21-24,39,41), prayerful and obedient (Mt 1:16,20-25; 2:13-15,19-23; Lk 2:4-7,39; 3:23), a dreamer yet practical (Mt 1:20; 2:13-23; 13:55; Mk 6:3), steadfast and caring (Mt 1:18-19; Lk 2:16), protective of the ones he loved (Lk 2:41-50).

[3]    Pope Francis, Patris Corde: On the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church (2021).

[4]    St John Henry Newman, “Triduo to St. Joseph,” Meditations and Devotions https://www.newmanreader.org/works/meditations/meditations8.html

[5]     St John Chrysostom, In Matthaeum Homiliae, V, 3; St Paul VI, Homily, 19 March 1966.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Our celebration falls between the great feast of the Annunciation, when God became a human embryo in the womb of his Blessed Mother, and the solemnity of St Joseph, protector of the unborn Lord and His Mother.

So today is a fitting Sunday on which to celebrate the Day of the Unborn, praising God for the great gift of human life and remembering those who have died without ever seeing the light of day. The inclement weather has somewhat curtailed those commemorations – about which more after Holy Communion.

I welcome concelebrating with me today Most Rev. Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Very Rev. Michael de Stoop, Rector of the seminary of the Good Shepherd, with the priests of the seminary and our beloved seminarians serving or attending.

As this week is the final straight before Holy Week, let’s make the most of the time left for fasting, prayer and charity. Ask God to prepare you for the great feasts ahead and for your final Eastering when we will, in Jesus’ words today, regain our life eternally, following Him out of the grave and into heaven. To everyone present, whether physically or virtually, a very warm welcome!