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The Martyrdom Of St. Joseph

by John A. Hammes

In a forthcoming work on Marian meditation, this writer discusses the preliminary role of St. Joseph in our coming to appreciate Mary more, and Her part in bringing us to a deeper understanding of Her Divine Son. It was also mentioned that Joseph, after Mary, was the greatest martyr. In the present article, the writer will attempt to ground the conviction that Joseph's great sufferings were tantamount to martyrdom.


The word "martyr", taken from the Greek, means "witness". It is understood to denote the willingness to give one's life for one's convictions. Usually, a person is not termed a martyr unless physical death ensues. However, it would seem that actual death is not essential, for Our Blessed Lady in Her litany is called the "Queen of Martyrs", though She did not die a martyr's physical death. Her martyrdom was spiritual, involving far greater torment than physical pain.

In his classic work, The Glories of Mary, St. Alphonsus de Liguori treats at length the sorrows and martyrdom of Our Blessed Lady. Citing various Saints and Fathers of the Church, Alphonsus points out that Mary's sufferings were the longest in duration, and the greatest in intensity, of any other merely human being. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as saying, "to have the glory of martyrdom, it is sufficient to exercise obedience in its highest degree, that is to say, to be obedient unto death". For example, even though the story of John the Evangelist's submersion in boiling oil may be questioned today, he was referred to as a martyr because of it. Alphonsus cites other writers on Mary's martyrdom. St. Bernard: "Mary was a martyr, not by the sword of the executioner, but by bitter sorrow of heart." St. Bridget: "the Blessed Virgin, even before She became His Mother, knowing how much the Incarnate Word was to suffer for the salvation of men, and compassionating this innocent Savior, who was to be so cruelly put to death for crimes not His own, even then began Her great martyrdom." St. Anselm: "had God not by a special miracle preserved the life of Mary in each moment of Her life, Her grief was such that it would have caused Her death." Finally, St. Bernardine of Siena: "the grief of Mary was so great that, were it divided amongst all men, it would suffice to cause their immediate death."

The Martyrdom of Mary

Mary's great suffering is Scripturally supported by Simeon's prophecy, "Behold, this child is set for ... a sign which shall be contradicted ... and thy own soul a sword shall pierce" - Lk. 2:34-35. St. Alphonsus points out that Mary's sorrow increased throughout Her lifetime, during which She understood more deeply the love of Her Son for humanity and the degree of suffering He would embrace for its redemption. Alphonsus cites St. Antoninus, who noted that while other martyrs gave their own lives, Mary suffered far more in complying with the sacrifice of Her Son's life, a life She loved far more than Her own. Mary loved Jesus, as St. Laurence Justinian declared, "so much so that the heart of Mary became, as it were, a mirror of the Passion of the Son, in which might be seen, faithfully reflected, the spitting, the blows and wounds, and all that Jesus suffered". St. Alphonsus adds that the martyrs were comforted in their sufferings by the thought of Jesus crucified. For Mary, however, the sight of Her Divine Son on the Cross increased Her anguish.

St. Alphonsus then develops a principle of suffering, quoting St. Albert the Great ... "where there is the greatest love, there is the greatest grief". Suffering is proportional to love. And who can measure the immensity of the love that Mary had for Her Son? She loved Jesus not only as Her Son but also as Her God. Enlightened by Her Spouse the Holy Spirit, Mary grew evermore in grace and in love of Her Divine Child. Let the Saints speak here. Richard of St. Laurence: "since there never has been in the world a love like unto Mary's love, how can any sorrow be found like unto Mary's sorrow?" St. Anselm: "the most cruel tortures inflicted on the holy martyrs were trifling, or as nothing in comparison with the martyrdom of Mary." St. Bonaventure addresses Our Lady, "And why didst Thou also go to sacrifice Thyself on Calvary? Was not a crucified God sufficient to redeem us, that Thou, His Mother, wouldst also go to be crucified with Him?" And that eminent doctor and saint, Augustine, observes, "The Cross and the nails were also those of His Mother; with Christ crucified the Mother was also crucified." It is indeed proper that the Church regards Mary the "Queen of Martyrs".

In our discussion of Mary's martyrdom we have introduced the principle that suffering is proportional to love, that is, the greater the love, the greater the suffering. Two other principles are related to martyrdom. One is that those who love God most and who respond wholly to His Love are invited to share deeply in the mystery of the Cross. Profound love of God draws one deeply into the redemptive plan, and to participation in Jesus' Passion and Death. A third principle is that God gives graces proportional or suitable to the role to which one is called, and the most precious grace is the capacity to love Him. This principle gives depth to the first principle, the depth of suffering as related to the degree of that love. Mary, as Theotokos, God bearer, the Mother of God, was raised to an eminent degree of dignity and greatness, and as such was given an immeasurable grace to love God deeply and intimately. She responded fully to this grace, at every moment of Her life, especially to the concomitant invitation to share in Her Son's redemptive suffering. Her suffering, proportional to Her love, exceeded that of all the martyrs in their pain.

Joseph Martyred like Mary

We now come to a consideration of Joseph. The three principles shown to have supported Mary's martyrdom can be similarly applied to Joseph's sufferings. He, like Mary, was chosen for a special role in God's redemptive plan. Joseph, like Mary, bore a unique relationship with each member of the Blessed Trinity. As Mary was the highly favored daughter of the Father, so was Joseph the highly favored son. As Mary was chosen by the Son to be His earthly mother, so Joseph was chosen to be His foster father. As Mary was espoused by the Holy Spirit, so was Joseph chosen to represent Him as Mary's earthly husband. Many of the fathers and spiritual writers commenting on Joseph have compared him with Joseph, the son of Jacob, of the Old Testament, as related in Genesis (Thompson, 1980, Ch. III). Both had the same name. One was a slave in Egypt, the other exiled there. One found favor with the Pharaoh, the other found grace with the Father. One was the protector of Pharaoh's treasure, the other the guardian of Heaven's treasure, the Incarnate Word and His Blessed Mother. The Pharaoh directed his people to go to Joseph in their need - Gen. 41:55, an instruction echoed by the Church in her teaching concerning Joseph. As the former Joseph gave his people bread in famine, so the new Joseph gave us Jesus, the Bread of Life.

What tremendous dignity and greatness to which Joseph was called! With regard to his sanctity, Pope Leo XIII stated, "... it cannot be doubted that he comes nearer than anybody else to the height of that dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses all other creatures." Venerable Pope Pius IX wrote, "Almighty God, in preference to all of His saints, willed ... the illustrious Patriarch Blessed Joseph ... to be the pure and genuine spouse of the Immaculate Virgin Mary as well as the putative father of His only-begotten Son. He enriched him and filled him to overflowing with entirely unique graces, enabling him to execute most faithfully the duties of so sublime a state." Earlier, this saintly pontiff had proclaimed Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church.

It has been sometimes pointed out that Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest of those born of women - Mt. 11:11. However, as Filas and Thompson have observed, this passage should be taken in conjunction with that of Luke - Lk. 7:28, which has Jesus proclaiming the Baptist as the greatest of prophets. Moreover, both passages are qualified by Jesus' addition that the least born into the kingdom of God is still greater. Thompson and Filas go further to demonstrate that Joseph's dignity is superior not only to that of John the Baptist but to that of the Apostles as well. And we can surmise that as he responded to his role, Joseph received an immeasurable capacity of divine grace to love God.

Study Joseph's Status as Martyr

But what of Joseph's martyrdom? In view of his role, and the divine grace bestowed upon him, Joseph came to love God most dearly and intimately, especially from his constant contact with the Divine Child. In this love he was drawn most deeply into the Divine Plan of redemption. We now come to the second principle related to martyrdom, namely, that those who love God most, and whom God loves most, are invited to share in the Passion and Death of the Son Incarnate. Joseph, being an essential member of the Holy Family, would not be excluded from the suffering that would befall Mary and Jesus. Indeed, the devotion to Joseph's seven joys and sorrows reflects the Church's thinking on this point. And in view of our third principle, that suffering is proportional to love, we can conclude that Joseph in his great love of God suffered deeply in the anticipatory knowledge of Jesus' future suffering and death. His anguish was further intensified by Simeon's prophecy, by which he was given to understand that he would not be able to comfort his beloved spouse and Her Divine Son in their hour of extreme need. In his humility, Joseph always yielded to the Divine Will, in both the circumstances of his own life, and those which lay in the future lives of Mary and Her Divine Son.

Joseph's obedience was that of a martyr, to use St. Thomas' definition of the term. He would have been most willing to substitute his own death for Jesus' if but he could. It is proposed, therefore, that Joseph, in view of the eminence of the role to which he was called and to which he responded, and in view of the proportionality between love and suffering, and in view of the depth of his love of God and the Divine invitation to participate in the Passion and Death of Christ, can be considered a martyr, in the same sense that Mary has been so considered by the Church. Furthermore, in view of his close relationship to Mary and Jesus, as an essential member of the Holy Family, it is further proposed that his martyrdom was second only to that of Mary. This proposal does no injury to the doctrinal teaching of the Church concerning Joseph, and redounds to the greater glory of God.

In conclusion, it is hoped that Joseph's status as martyr will be studied by the magisterium and theologians, eventually to be promulgated as Church teaching. It is time to acknowledge more fully the greatness of one who was both the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, the Son of God Incarnate.