Today is the Feast of Saint Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. It is also Bishop Malone’s birthday- his middle initial “J” stands for Joseph. While I still struggle with Bishop Malone’s leadership (or lack thereof), I am praying for him on his birthday. The bishop is fortunate to have St. Joseph as one of his special patrons. This great saint is also the patron of our Diocese and of the Universal Church.
For being such a crucial figure within the life of Christ, St. Joseph is a surprisingly silent one. Not once in the four Gospels is St. Joseph recorded as saying anything. He is perhaps the greatest example of that old adage: actions speak louder than words. This “righteous man,” as Matthew’s Gospel describes him, did everything that God asked of him including taking a pregnant Mary as his wife and making a perilous escape to Egypt. No matter what the Holy Family was facing, St. Joseph was there to provide for and protect them.
As much as we would treasure a few quotations from St. Joseph, it makes sense that he is a silent figure in the Gospel story. After all, Mary doesn’t have that many quotations in Scripture either. Just as Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart,” so to did Joseph have a lot to ponder. The Angel of the Lord appeared to him several times during dreams in order to convey divine directions. Such dreams must have been startling to say the least! Within a relatively short period of time, St. Joseph lovingly accepted a pregnant wife, traveled to Bethlehem and sought shelter in a stable when no other lodging could be found, made a hasty and hazardous trek with his family to Egypt, and later he and Mary lost their divine Son for three days. That’s a whole lot to ponder!
The Anxiety of Saint Joseph, James Tissot (French, 1836-1902)
St. Joseph offers us a beautiful example of one who listens more than he speaks and contemplates more than he communicates. St. Joseph was a man of silent strength – a valuable combination that our world so greatly needs. In his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Sarah beautifully notes that “there is no place on earth where God is more present than in the human heart. This heart truly is God’s abode, the temple of silence.” St. Joseph seems to have lovingly cultivated the presence of God in his “temple of silence.”
Reflecting on St. Joseph’s silence led me to consider silence of a different nature. So many victims I’ve encountered or learned of are still suffering in silence. For many, they are not at a point in their journey where they are able to speak about the abuse they endured. Still others can speak no more – their lives were ended by drug overdoses or suicide when the pain was too great to bear.
There are other silent victims we rarely hear about: the parents, siblings and spouses of victims. It is hard to fathom the grief that these parents experience. Can you imagine entrusting your beloved child to the care of a priest only to discover years or decades later that this “man of God” raped your son or daughter? What anguish they must experience! I’ve spoken to many parents who are racked by a guilt they struggle to escape. I think of the single mother who was overjoyed when the smiley young priest took an interest in her son – the only boy among several sisters. When she found out what the priest did to her son, she tried to warn the parents at the new parish the abuser was sent to. She couldn’t believe he was assigned to another parish with a school! She is consumed by guilt over her son’s abuse as well as the fear that other children suffered a similar fate.
What if your sibling was abused by a priest? Perhaps they’ve just told you this recently. This news explains some of the challenges your sibling experienced… how they changed at a certain age and never returned to their “usual self.” You wish there was something you could do to help, but your sibling is tangled in a web of addiction and rejects every helpful attempt from you. Other people have experienced even greater trauma when their abused sibling became their abuser. This tragic occurrence happens more often than we would like to think. The cycle of abuse is indeed vicious and so many innocent souls can become caught up in it.
Then there’s the spouse of a victim, who suffers along with their husband or wife as they struggle to free themselves from the trauma of their past. A spouse is there when another nightmare leaves their loved one weeping at 2 am. Or when a memory temporarily renders them immobilized by pain. How their hearts must break to watch their loved one suffering and not be able to stop the pain entirely. Hopefully they know how much their loving presence means to their spouse. Many survivors have told me that they would not have survived various traumatic episodes or experiences without the support of their spouse of other loved one.
So this St. Joseph’s Day, I am thinking of and praying for all victims of clerical sexual abuse – those who have identified as such and those who may always suffer in silence. I hope that they all know how many people support them and pray for them.
I especially love the closing lines of a prayer to St. Joseph, which was composed by Pope Leo XIII:
As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God’s Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven. Amen.
God’s Holy Church is currently ensnared by a great deal of evil. May St. Joseph, patron of our Universal Church, intercede for us in a profound way right now. And may he who knew silence so well be present to all those who suffer in silence.