“Be not afraid.”
It is hard not to read those words without hearing them spoken in Pope St. John Paul II’s thoughtful and convicted voice.
If we approach Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on St. Joseph with an open heart, his words could have the potential to produce fruits similar to those seeds planted and watered by “be not afraid.”
“Patris Corde” (“With a Father’s Heart”), given on Dec. 8, was written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the universal church and accompanied Pope Francis’ call for a year dedicated to the “just man” and “lowly carpenter.”
The letter is worth a read in its entirety.
It’s actually worth at least three, because it wasn’t until my third read through that two phrases jumped out. However, when they jumped out, they actually jumped right off the page. Like a strong, fresh breeze they brought enlightening clarity into the foggy vulnerability and uncertainty hanging heavy all around the ongoing unprecedented circumstances.
“Never be afraid” is the first and its directive is “to let the Lord steer our course.”
The second, just as easily passed over, hidden mid-sentence towards the tail end of a paragraph, is “God always finds a way to save us.”
With poignant reflections, Pope Francis shakes us out of the complacency that sees St. Joseph as reserved, submissive and almost mousy. Going deeper into the Scriptural references to Joseph – verses all too often skimmed over – the pope reveals a strong and striking man, all the while maintaining imitation of him within reach.
My offerings here are a small attempt to till the soil for the Holy Spirit to do his work. My prayer is that sitting with this letter during what remains of Lent, we might allow ourselves to be propelled towards greater devotion to St. Joseph and in that to discover with greater clarity our own call to play “an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
“Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work,” the pope writes, and affirms Joseph “teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses.
“He also teaches us that amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course.
“At times, we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture.”
Did you catch it – that call to “never be afraid?”
Let me repeat Francis: “Amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course.”
Then reflecting on St. Joseph’s obedience, acceptance, creative courage and physical work, the pope marvelously uncovers the head of the Holy Family as resolute, firm yet flexible, detached from all but the essential and perseverant in the face of grave difficulty and even danger.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely need that encouragement and example.
How prevalent so-called “analysis paralysis” can be. With so much information coming at us from all sides, especially considering the pandemic has coincided with an election cycle, it has been increasingly difficult not to get caught in cycles of doubt and second-guessing.
Information, decisions and choices, who to trust or not to trust – life and death itself (or at least life as we have known it) seem to hang in a precarious balance. We’ve been left trying to move forward in a world both familiar and uncertain, stepping out with many of our securities and safety nets still dangling on a distant limb.
Yet, what does Francis tell us about Joseph?
“Joseph did not hesitate to obey, regardless of the hardship involved… In every situation, Joseph declared his own ‘fiat,’ like those of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
As the pope describes how Joseph accepts, he reaches in and connects with our own experience.
“Often in life, things happen whose meaning we do not understand. Our first reaction is frequently one of disappointment and rebellion. Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, take responsibility for them and make them part of his own history.”
Even though the next quote follows as the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, it is worth a pause and its own breath – “Unless we are reconciled with our own history, we will be unable to take a single step forward, for we will always remain hostage to our expectations and the disappointments that follow.”
The Holy Father summarizes, “The spiritual path that Joseph traces for us is not one that explains but accepts,” and expounds, “Joseph is certainly not passively resigned, but courageously and firmly proactive.”
He then slips in – almost as silent and unassuming as Joseph himself – the secret to imitating the man God entrusted with safeguarding the primary protagonists of salvation history.
“Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is,” Pope Francis declares. He then reminds us that as God told Joseph not to be afraid, it is “not with mere resignation but with hope and courage” that we can discover the deeper meaning of God’s mysteries.
“The faith Christ taught us is what we see in St. Joseph,” the Holy Father continues. “He did not look for shortcuts, but confronted reality with open eyes and accepted personal responsibility for it.”
The pope then affirms, “If the first stage of all true interior healing is to accept our personal history and embrace even the things in life that we did not choose, we must now add another important element: creative courage.”
He makes clear that God acts in history through events and people. Joseph himself was God’s miracle as “God acted by trusting in Joseph’s creative courage.” He didn’t have a step-by-step manual in Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth or Jerusalem any more than we have been given a divine blueprint of God’s will for us in years past or the present moment.
“Our lives may at times seem to be at the mercy of the powerful,” Pope Francis acknowledges before deftly declaring the good news with the all-important caveat of our participation.
He continues, “God always finds a way to save us, provided we show the same creative courage as the carpenter of Nazareth, who was able to turn a problem into a possibility by trusting always in divine providence.”
The Holy Father’s letter is both a challenge and an invitation, and I invite you to read and reflect on it with JPII’s “be not afraid” disposition.
The challenge to assimilate Joseph’s trusting and co-responsible obedience – “never be afraid” – and the invitation to imitate Joseph’s decision to cooperate with his unique role in salvation history – are renewed at each uncertain turn with the confidence that “God always finds a way to save us.”