The Incarnation called for a virgin birth to highlight Jesus’ divine
sonship, but birth in a true family favoured the normal development of
The grace to live both the charism of virginity and the gift of
marriage, which was given to Mary and Joseph, was the subject of the
Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 21
August. Although Joseph did not physically generate the Lord, his was a
very real fatherhood, the Pope said. Here is a translation of his
catechesis, which was the 30th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and
was given in Italian.
1. In presenting Mary as a "virgin", the Gospel of Luke
adds that she was "betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the
house of David" 1:27). These two pieces of information at first
sight seem contradictory.
It should be noted that the Greek word used in this passage does not
indicate the situation of a woman who has contracted marriage and
therefore lives in the marital state, but that of betrothal. Unlike what
occurs in modem cultures, however, the ancient Jewish custom of
betrothal provided for a contract and normally had definitive value: it
actually introduced the betrothed to the marital state, even if the
marriage was brought to full completion only when the young man took the
girl to his home.
At the time of the Annunciation, Mary thus had the status of one
betrothed. We can wonder why she would accept betrothal, since she had
the intention of remaining a virgin forever. Luke is aware of this
difficulty, but merely notes the situation without offering any
explanation. The fact that the Evangelist, while stressing Mary's
intention of virginity, also presents her as Joseph's spouse, is a sign
of the historical reliability of the two pieces of information.
Joseph was called to co-operate in saving plan
2. It may be presumed that at the time of their betrothal there was
an understanding between Joseph and Mary about the plan to live as a
virgin. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who had inspired Mary to choose
virginity in view of the mystery of the Incarnation and who wanted the
latter to come about in a family setting suited to the Child's growth,
was quite able to instil in Joseph the ideal of virginity as well.
The angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said to him:
"Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that
which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:20). Thus he
received confirmation that he was called to live his marriage in a
completely special way. Through virginal communion with the woman chosen
to give birth to Jesus, God calls him to co-operate in carrying out his
plan of salvation.
The type of marriage to which the Holy Spirit led Mary and Joseph can
only be understood in the context of the saving plan and of a lofty
spirituality. The concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation
called for a virgin birth which would highlight the divine sonship and,
at the same time, for a family that could provide for the normal
development of the Child's personality.
Precisely in view of their contribution to the mystery of the
Incarnation of the Word, Joseph and Mary received the grace of living
both the charism of virginity and the gift of marriage. Mary and
Joseph's communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with
the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was
nevertheless a true marriage (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris
custos, n. 7).
The difficulty of accepting the sublime mystery of their spousal
communion has led some, since the second century, to think of Joseph as
advanced in age and to consider him Mary's guardian more than her
husband. It is instead a case of supposing that he was not an elderly
man at the time, but that his interior perfection, the fruit of grace,
led him to live his spousal relationship with Mary with virginal
Leo XIII entrusted entire Church to Joseph's protection
3. Joseph's co-operation in the mystery of the Incarnation also
includes exercising the role of Jesus' father. The angel acknowledged
this function of his when he appeared in a dream and invited him to name
the Child: "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21).
While excluding physical generation, Joseph's fatherhood was
something real, not apparent. Distinguishing between father and the one
who begets, an ancient monograph on Mary's virginity—the De
Margarita (fourth century)—states that "the commitments
assumed by the Virgin and by Joseph as husband and wife made it possible
for him to be called by this name (father); a father, however, who did
not beget". Joseph thus carried out the role of Jesus' father,
exercising an authority to which the Redeemer was freely
"obedient" (Lk 2:51), contributing to his upbringing and
teaching him the carpenter's trade.
Christians have always acknowledged Joseph as the one who lived in
intimate communion with Mary and Jesus, concluding that also in death he
enjoyed their affectionate, consoling presence. From this constant
Christian tradition, in many places a special devotion has grown to the
Holy Family and, in it, to St Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer. As
everyone knows, Pope Leo XIII entrusted the entire Church to his