Venerable Fulton Sheen on the true age of St. Joseph

Excerpt from Fulton Sheen’s ‘The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God’

ANGELO RECCHIA, ‘HOLY FAMILY,’ C. 1854

Fulton J. Sheen – March 16, 2021

Was he [St. Joseph] old or young? Most of the statues and pictures we see of Joseph today represent him as an old man with a gray beard, one who took Mary and her vow under his protection with somewhat the same detachment as a doctor would pick up a baby girl in a nursery. We have, of course, no historical evidence whatsoever concerning the age of Joseph. Some apocryphal accounts picture him as an old man; Fathers of the Church, after the fourth century, followed this legend rather rigidly. … 

But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order better to safeguard the virginity of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus unconsciously made Joseph a spouse chaste and pure by age rather than by virtue. But this is like assuming that the best way to show that a man would never steal is to picture him without hands. … 

But more than that, to make Joseph out as old portrays for us a man who had little vital energy left, rather than one who, having it, kept it in chains for God’s sake and for his holy purposes. To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God. 

Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that Our Lord would prefer, for a foster father, someone who had made a sacrifice rather than someone who was forced to it. There is the added historical fact that the Jews frowned on a disproportionate marriage between what Shakespeare called “crabbed age and youth”; the Talmud admits a disproportionate marriage only for widows or widowers. Finally, it seems hardly possible that God would have attached a young mother, probably about sixteen or seventeen years of age, to an old man. If he did not disdain to give his mother to a young man, John, at the foot of the Cross, then why should he have given her an old man at the crib? A woman’s love always determines the way a man loves: She is the silent educator of his virile powers.

Since Mary is what might be called a “virginizer” of young men as well as women, and the greatest inspiration of Christian purity, should she not logically have begun by inspiring and virginizing the first youth whom she had probably ever met — Joseph, the Just? It was not by diminishing his power to love but by elevating it that she would have her first conquest, and in her own spouse, the man who was a man, and not a mere senile watchman! 

Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste and disciplined. Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love. Just as we would give very little credit to the Blessed Mother if she had taken her vow of virginity after having been an old maid for fifty years, so neither could we give much credit to a Joseph who became her spouse because he was advanced in years. Young girls in those days, like Mary, took vows to love God uniquely, and so did young men, of whom Joseph was one so preeminent as to be called the “just.” Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength and controlled passion. Mary and Joseph brought to their espousals not only their vows of virginity but also two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts. … 

How much more beautiful Mary and Joseph become when we see in their lives what might be called the first Divine Romance! No human heart is moved by the love of the old for the young; but who is not moved by the love of the young for the young? In both Mary and Joseph, there were youth, beauty and promise. God loves cascading cataracts and bellowing waterfalls, but he loves them better, not when they overflow and drown his flowers, but when they are harnessed and bridled to light a city and to slake the thirst of a child. In Joseph and Mary, we do not find one controlled waterfall and one dried-up lake but rather two youths who, before they knew the beauty of the one and the handsome strength of the other, willed to surrender these things for Jesus. Leaning over the manger crib of the Infant Jesus, then, are not age and youth but youth and youth, the consecration of beauty in a maid and the surrender of strong comeliness in a man.

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3 Responses to Venerable Fulton Sheen on the true age of St. Joseph

  1. If Joseph was near to Mary’s age, a teen ager, at the time of the birth of Jesus, then he still would be in his late 40’s thirty years later at the time when Jesus started his public ministry: and it is assumed that Joseph was already dead by that time.
    St. Joseph has appeared to many saints over the centuries and most often as an old man. Saints who died as mature adults sometimes appear as they did at a younger age than the age at which they died, but I am not aware of any saints who later appeared as older than they were at the time of their death. For this reason I think that Saint Joseph was noticeably older than Mary, though not aged at the time of the marriage.

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  2. kathleen says:

    It’s an interesting view Maureen, but I believe St Joseph was probably in his late twenties when he and the Blessed Virgin Mary were espoused. That would make him ten or twelve years older than Mary – a quite reasonable age difference – and therefore he would have been in his thirties and forties when Our Lord was growing up.

    The glorious St Joseph might well have been in his fifties when he died his holy death in the gentle arms of Jesus and Mary. This age would not have been so unusual at that time. What a wonderful patron saint we have been blessed with, who will also intercede for us if we ask him to when the day arrives for us to lie upon our deathbeds!

    Ven. Fulton Sheen’s reasoning that St Joseph was a strong manly young man makes perfect sense to me. In our sex-crazed times, the godly virtues of chastity, celibacy and self-control are neither understood nor valued as they should be. That makes all Christians who struggle to remain faithful to the beautiful virtue of purity, despite the current trends, all the more heroic.

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  3. Today I just happened to open the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska to paragraph number 846 December 25, 1936, here is what Sister Faustina wrote:
    Midnight Mass. During Mass, God’s presence pierced me through and through. A moment before the
    Elevation I saw the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus and the good Old Man [St. Joseph].The Most Holy Mother spoke these words to me: “My Daughter, Faustina, take this most precious Treasure, and she gave me the Infant Jesus.
    Somehow I tend to go with the traditional and mystic verified tradition that Joseph was older, and probably considerably older than Mary and that he most likely died as the scriptures say ” that our life is but 70 years, or eighty for those who are strong”. No offense to Bishop Sheen whose cause for beatification sadly seems to have been delayed. He was a great force for good and good will in our Nation.

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