St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass

 Now that Pope Francis has directed that St. Joseph’s name be added to the other three eucharistic prayers, it’s worth recalling how the saint’s name was introduced into the Roman Canon by Pope John XXIII.

At the discussion of the schema on the liturgy at the first session of Vatican II, at least three bishops proposed that St. Joseph’s name be added to the Canon of the Mass. One of them was Bishop Peter Čule from Mostar, Yugoslavia, whose health had been seriously compromised by his having been sentenced to eleven years of hard labor in one of Tito’s show trials in 1948. As he made his plea for St. Joseph at the Council, he wandered and began to repeat himself, and Cardinal Ruffini, who was presiding that day, finally interrupted him: "I ask you please conclude your very pious sermon. I am sure that we are all very devoted to St. Joseph,” a remark greeted by laughter in the council hall. This rude treatment of a bishop who had suffered severely for the faith under the Communists is said to have irritated Pope John and prompted him to announce three days later, on November 13, 1962, that he had decided that St. Joseph's name was to be inserted into the Canon. For at least 150 years petitions had been sent to Rome for this action, the most recent of which, presented in six volumes to the Pope in March 1962, appears to have persuaded John XXIII to intervene.

Reactions to this move by the Pope were varied.

Robert Kaiser quoted one theologian as saying, "Half the world doesn't even believe in God and we worry about St. Joseph." Yves Congar used it as an occasion to raise questions about modern Catholic devotionalism. In his Council diary he wrote:

The problem is not the fact of having put St. Joseph into the Canon: he is worth far more than Saints Chrysogonus and John and Paul, who may not even have existed. The problem is rather that, while the Council is in session, and when that Council is discussing the liturgy, the Pope, on his own authority, decides something (the appropriateness of which is at least questionable). Good Pope John keeps on combining some lovely gestures with others that are regrettable or retrograde.

Karl Barth had fewer difficulties however, saying that he himself preferred to compare the Church to St. Joseph rather than to the Blessed Virgin.

Joseph, in my opinion, in his relation to Christ, played the same role as the Church should exercise. The Roman Church, I know, prefers to compare her role to that of Mary, which was more glorious. She brings the Gospel message to the world in the same way that Mary gave us the Christ. But the comparison is fallacious. The Church cannot give birth to the Redeemer, but she can and must serve Him with discreet and humble zeal. This was specifically the role of Joseph, who always remained in the background, leaving all the glory to Jesus. This must also be the role of the Church if we want the world to rediscover the splendor of the Word of God (quoted in Antoine Wenger, Vatican II. Volume I: The First Session (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1966), p. 72).

Douglas Horton, dean of Harvard Divinity School and delegate-observer of the International Congregationalist Council, faithfully kept a very informative diary in which he made this record:

One of the signs of the vitality of this old Roman church is (as I have observed before) the delight that its priests take in telling stories on themselves and the ways of Rome. The current saying that is floating about is to the effect that, now that St. Joseph's name has been included in the canon of the mass, we shall presently have promulgated a doctrine of the assumption of the blessed St. Joseph, to parallel the doctrine of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary--that is, of course, direct assumption into heaven--and this on the theological basis that the family that prays together stays together! (Vatican Diary 1962, p. 128.)

(It may be necessary (sigh) to explain the joke. “The family that prays together stays together” was one of the slogans of the Family Rosary Crusade launched by Fr. Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., a notable part of popular Catholic consciousness before the Council.)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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