Celebration of St. Joseph, spouse of the Virgin, on 19 March were already widespread throughout Western Europe circa 900 AD, though commemoration of Joseph is certainly more ancient. By the fifteenth century, this 19 March was firmly established as Joseph’s feast in Rome. The Missale Romanum promulgated by Pius V in 1570 in accordance with the Council of Trent extended the the feast to the Universal Church.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1872, after receiving petitions from the whole Catholic world, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church through a decree of the Congregation of Rites (Quemadmodum Deus), and thus in the Martyrology for 19 March we see:
In Judaea natalis sancti Joseph, Sponsi beatissimae Virginis Mariae, Confessoris; quem Pius Nonus, Pontifex Maximus, votis et precibus annuens totius catholici Orbis, universalis Ecclesiae Patronum declaravit.
In 1962, when the entire Roman Rite only still had one Eucharistic Prayer, Pope John XXIII amended the Roman Canon’s first memorial of the saints (Commimicantes et memoriam venerantes) by adding the phrase sed et beati Ioseph, eiusdem Virginis sponsi after mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In one of the last acts of his Pontificate, Benedict XVI approved the request of many faithful that his baptismal namesake be inserted into all Eucharistic Prayers; since this decree was not promulgated (published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis) before the resignation, the decision had to wait for the next Pope’s signature. On 1 May 2013 (Feast of St. Joseph the Worker), the decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship was approved by Pope Francis and published in the AAS.
While veneration of the Blessed Mother was always a perennial trait of Christianity (and rightly so), it is only in the last few centuries that the Church has come to appreciate Saint Joseph as defensor Sanctae Ecclesiae, to the point that today, we invoke his protection in every single Mass of the Roman Rite. Why did Pius IX see fit to give Christ’s earthly father this distinguished appellation, and why has the Church continued to develop this devotion?
We begin with St. Joseph’s namesake, the Patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob. We know that in the Old Testament, Joseph had Jacob’s favor, for which Joseph received from his father a splendid robe that made the other brothers jealous. After beating him up and tearing his robe, the brothers sold him to some Ismaelites, who took him to Egypt as slave of Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard. While in captivity, he earned a fame for interpreting dreams such that even Pharaoh called for his counsel. Joseph deciphered Pharaoh’s dream– signifying seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine– and for his services, was made vizier of Egypt– a powerful man. When the same famine struck Canaan, Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to beg assistance, ironically from the vizier whom they failed to recognize. In short, after pulling their leg for a while, Joseph revealed his identity, forgave his brothers, and secured a spot for the house of Israel in Egypt’s abundance. He became the guardian and protector of Israel, and only upon his death would the Hebrews be thrust into slavery (“then came a pharaoh who knew not Joseph…” –Exodus 1:8).
As almighty God appointed Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob, over all the land of Egypt to save grain for the people, so when the fullness of time had come and He was about to send to earth His only-begotten Son, the Savior of the world, He chose another Joseph, of whom the first had been the type, and He made him the lord and chief of His household and possessions, the guardian of His choicest treasures. (Quemadmodum Deus, Sacred Congregation of Rites)
Joseph, spouse of the Virgin, like his namesake also received dreams. First, upon learning that Mary was withchild, he thought of dismissing her in secret that she might not be shamed, but an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and consoled him; he then did as the angel commanded. Next, after Christ’s birth, Joseph once more saw God’s messenger, who warned him of Herod’s plan to massacre the innocent sons of Bethlehem. Obeying the message, he took Mary and Jesus into Egypt; there the Holy Family remained until Herod died, returning thereafter to the land of Israel (as did the Hebrews), “that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matthew 2:8, cf. Hosea 11:1)
In all these events, Joseph was made “the guardian of God’s choicest treasures”– the Word made flesh and the virgin blessed among all women. Under his protection, Christ and Mary enjoyed a stable home and the young Messiah “grew in wisdom and favor of the Lord”.Mary is often depicted as a type (or figure) of the Church since both carry the mystery of Christ into the world; ancient Israel, too, was seen by the earliest Fathers (and even the evangelist Matthew!) as a type of the Church. The twelve Apostles, that primitive ecclesial community, signified the consummation of the sons of Jacob and the tribes of Israel. The two Josephs, therefore functioned as the closest protectors of both ancient Israel and the ancient Church, and how right and just it is that St. Joseph, the perfection of the patriarch Joseph, be venerated as Patron of the Church! Wherefore today we shirk our Lenten violet and wear solemn white and gold, in glad thanksgiving for the life of Joseph, exemplar father and husband, most chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin, and protector of the Universal Church.