What the Year of St. Joseph means, and how to gain the indulgences

By Joseph Pronechen/NCR

The announcement that many people have been anxious and longing to hear for several years finally came on Dec. 8 as Pope Francis declared the beginning of a Year of St. Joseph.

The timing was perfect, coming on the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pius IX declaring St. Joseph as Patron of the Catholic Church and on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Joseph’s spouse.

Along with the Pope’s announcement in his apostolic letter Patris Corde (“Heart of the Father)” came a proclamation from the Apostolic Penitentiary about special plenary indulgences that are now available for this Year of St. Joseph. 

More on the exact ways to obtain them in a moment. First, let’s hear what a couple of St. Joseph scholars think.

“It’s beautiful that after 2,000 years the Church celebrates a special year in honor of the humble and hidden Husband of Mary,” Father Larry Toschi, an Oblate of St. Joseph, pastor, and founder of the Holy Spouses Society in California said.

“As Oblates of St. Joseph, committed by lifelong vow to serving the interests of Jesus in imitation of St. Joseph, it brought great joy to our hearts to receive this announcement from Pope Francis, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the 150th anniversary of his being proclaimed Patron of the Catholic Church. After his Holy Virginal Spouse, St. Joseph is the greatest model of sanctity and the most powerful intercessor ever. May this year bring renewal and re-flourishment to our Church and help each of us grow in holiness through imitating him.”

Father Stanley Smolenski, the director of the Diocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope/Our Lady of South Carolina, is also exceptionally happy about the announcement.

“This third millennium has been providentially reserved for St. Joseph,” he said. “The first was Christocentric via the Councils, the second was Marian-focused on her devotions, apparitions and dogmas. That means that the third person of the Earthly Trinity, St. Joseph, would naturally follow.”

“We have seen the importance of St. Joseph increasing in our times with social decay,” he added. “Isodore Isolanis, a 16th-century Dominican, prophesied that ‘The sound of victory would be heard when the faithful acknowledge the sanctity of St. Joseph.’”

Father Donald Calloway, vicar provincial and vocation director for the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception and author of Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father, said, “It’s amazing. My phone is ringing off the hook. I’m getting calls from bishops’ offices around the world.”

They’re telling him, “We want to do the consecration for our diocese ending especially on March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph.” And in a single day since the announcement he got more 300 emails about the consecration.

“We’re setting in motion major things for the world. The book has a huge part in it.”

Huge, too, are the plenary indulgences Rome is offering during this Year of St. Joseph.

Plenary Indulgences for the Year of St. Joseph

All this year until Dec. 8, 2021, the decree from the Apostolic Penitentiary, which is in charge of indulgences, has established that the faithful “following his example can daily strengthen their life of faith in the full fulfillment of God’s will.” They will have “the opportunity to commit themselves, with prayers and good works, to obtain with the help of St. Joseph, head of the heavenly Family of Nazareth, comfort and relief from the serious human and social tribulations that today afflict the contemporary world.”

Back 150 years ago when Pius IX also saw turmoil aplenty, causing him to then declare St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church.

What are these indulgences the Apostolic Penitentiary is bestowing in this Year of St. Joseph per the Holy Father’s decree to “benefit the perfect achievement of the intended purpose?”

We can gain a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions — sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father, “with a soul detached from any sin” if we participate in the Year of St. Joseph in several specific ways that the Apostolic Penitentiary has established for us to gain the plenary indulgence.

As long as we’re in the state of grace one sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and separate prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father are required for each plenary indulgence. According to the most recent Church guidelines on the subject, “it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act.” Yet “it is, however, fitting that Communion be received and the prayer for the intention of the Holy Father be said on the same day the work is performed.”

Here are the many opportunities and ways throughout this Year of St. Joseph, from now until Dec. 8, 2021, for us to gain the plenary indulgence over and over. Fulfilling the above conditions along with performing one of the particular works determined by the Penitentiary office can be done daily. One plenary indulgence per day. Remember, the only living person we can apply it to is our self. And we can apply it to any soul in purgatory. Think how many souls you get help — from relatives to unknowns by asking St. Joseph and Mary to pick out the souls for you.

Here we go:

First, because St. Joseph “invites us to rediscover the filial relationship with the Father,” renew faithfulness to prayer and listen intensely to God’s will, the plenary indulgence is granted if we meditate for at least 30 minutes on the Our Father, or be part of a “spiritual retreat of at least one day that includes a meditation on St. Joseph.”

Second, St. Joseph the just man “urges us to rediscover the value of silence, prudence and loyalty in fulfilling one’s duties.” Because St. Joseph practiced the virtue of justice in a perfectly model way “full adherence to the divine law, which is the law of mercy. So following St. Joseph’s example, we can obtain a plenary indulgence carrying out a corporal or spiritual work of mercy.

Third, St. Joseph’s main vocation was to be guardian of the Holy Family, husband of Mary, and legal father of Jesus. To inspire, enthuse and encourage all Christian families to live with the same “intimate communion, love and prayer” that the Holy Family lived, we can obtain a plenary indulgence for praying the Holy Rosary “in families and between engaged couples.” What a start this is for engaged couples’ upcoming marriage too.

Fourth, considering the feast of St. Joseph the Worker was instituted on May 1, 1955, those can gain a plenary indulgence “who daily entrust their activities to the protection of St. Joseph and all the faithful who invoke with prayer” the intercession of St. Joseph the Worker (or Craftsman) “so that who is looking for work can find a job and work [for] everyone is more dignified.”

Fifth, considering the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt “shows us that God is where man is in danger, where man suffers, where he escapes, where he experiences rejection and abandonment,” as Francis said, we can gain a plenary indulgence if we recite the Litany to St. Joseph (Latin tradition), or the Akathistos to St. Joseph, in whole or at least some of it (Byzantine tradition), or some other prayer to St. Joseph “proper to other liturgical traditions” for the Church persecuted ad intra [interior, from inside] and ad extra [exterior, from outside] and for the relief of all Christians who suffer every form of persecution.”

Sixth, “to reaffirm the universality of St. Joseph’s patronage on the Church,” we can gain a plenary indulgence if we recite any legitimately approved prayer or act of piety in honor of St. Joseph — for example, “To you, O Blessed Joseph”, especially on his feast days of March 19 and May 1, on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (this year on Sunday, Dec. 27), on the Byzantine Rite’s St. Joseph’s Sunday, on the 19th of each month and on every Wednesday, the day dedicated to St. Joseph.

“Wednesday is special to me,” Father Calloway said. “Just like we have the First Saturdays devotion, I think now we’re going to see an increase of attention to the First Wednesday of the month.” At the same time “we have the incentive to remember that every Wednesday” is dedicated to St. Joseph.

Father Calloway reminds that under these prayers to St. Joseph, we “can also do get the indulgence by doing the Consecration to St. Joseph.” Earlier this year the Apostolic Penitentiary gave him a letter granting that anyone who does the consecration can gain a plenary indulgence.

In Light of the Health Crisis

The Apostolic Penitentiary has also taken into account the worldwide situation regarding the health crisis. The office stated the “gift of the plenary indulgence is particularly extended to the elderly, the sick, the dying and all those who for legitimate reasons are unable to leave the house, who with a soul detached from any sin and with the intention of fulfilling, as soon as possible, the three usual conditions, in their own home or where the impediment holds them, they will recite an act of piety in honor of St. Joseph, trust in God the pains and discomforts of their life.”

Furthermore, for people’s fulfillment of getting divine grace, the Penitentiary “earnestly prays that all priests endowed with the appropriate faculties, offer themselves with an available and generous spirit to the celebration of the sacrament of Penance and often administer Holy Communion to the sick.”

St. Joseph’s Time Has Arrived

This Year of St. Joseph is ready to draw down graces upon us through the intercession of St. Joseph. Exactly 103 years after he appeared in the last Fatima apparition with Mary, and as he held the Child Jesus with whom he jointly blessed the world, St. Joseph is ready to bring this downpour of grace after grace upon us — if we accept and follow and ask and pray. What an unbelievable gift from heaven.

Father Calloway thinks each diocese is probably going to organize some specific conferences on St. Joseph. He also thinks “regional events are going to spread in the world,” including “talks on the family, talks on manhood … it’s going to be huge.”

As St. Teresa of Ávila said, “To other saints it seems that God has granted to help us in this or that need, while I have experienced that the glorious St. Joseph extends his patronage on all.” This year St. Joseph wants us to believe that and act upon that.

St. Joseph painting by Bernadette Carstensen

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.