By: Leonora Butau
Leonora Butau sends this article ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Fatima 'Miracle of the Sun' which takes place this Friday, 13 October 2017.
A sweltering heat wave had hit Portugal, with temperatures rising to 40 degrees, on the weekend of a family pilgrimage to Fatima in June this year. The heat was intense, but as my husband and I only had a day there, we were determined to make the most of our precious few hours, heat or no heat. So we armed ourselves with bottles of water, fanned and squinted our way through the day and became experts at spotting any shaded areas remaining among the crowds of pilgrims gathered at this vast and impressive shrine. Whilst we mingled and prayed with the throngs of pilgrims, I observed some walking on their knees in penitence, undeterred by the searing heat. I saw others clutching their Rosaries and praying either in groups or alone, and I watched as others still carried candles of various sizes to light next to the Chapel of Apparitions; a chapel which marks the exact location in the Cova de Iria where Our Lady appeared to three Shepherd children: Servant of God, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Sts Jacinta and Francisco Marto, a century ago.
Providentially, the Mass we planned to attend, contrary to what we believed, was scheduled to take place in this chapel; a chapel modest in appearance but major in historical and spiritual significance. Once we realised that Mass was not taking place in the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, as we had initially thought, we scurried as fast as we could to the Chapel of Apparitions and found a place to sit only a few metres away from the iconic crowned statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Afterwards, we reflected that the Cova de Iria is a place where 70,000 people had witnessed the great "miracle of the sun" on 13th October 1917, which caused awe in some and a sense of terror in others. This event was described by a journalist present on that day:
"Before the astonished eyes of the crowd the sun trembled and danced. Suddenly it seemed to fall until it almost reached the earth, but then it stopped, slowly making its way back into the sky."
Later, a certain thought struck me and remained with me for days and weeks after this pilgrimage; namely, that as we approach the 100th anniversary of this miracle, there is one person intricately involved in this event, who has, so far, not received enough of our attention – St Joseph. This thought was further validated after I spoke to a group of fervent Catholics who responded with surprise at the mention of the apparition of St Joseph in Fatima. It was something they either had not been previously aware of or given much thought to.
A description of the apparition of St Joseph, which took place whilst the crowds witnessed the great prodigy of the miracle of the sun, is provided by Lucia in her Memoirs:
"After Our Lady disappeared into the immense distance of the firmament, we beheld St Joseph with the Child Jesus and Our Lady robed in white with a blue mantle beside the sun. St Joseph and the Child Jesus seemed to bless the world, for they traced the Sign of the Cross with their hands."
Whilst much has been written on the apparitions of Fatima, not much has been said about the significance of St. Joseph's presence. "Why is this?" I found myself asking.
Perhaps it is to do with St Joseph's silence? St Joseph does not offer the world any words at Fatima, in line with his silent witness throughout history. Indeed, no word uttered by him is recorded in the Gospels. As St John Paul II reflects in Redemptoris Custos, the very silence of St Joseph has a special eloquence and points to his profound interior life. The Gospels tell us what St Joseph does, drawing us, it seems, to also focus and dwell on his actions. In Fatima, St Joseph appears alongside Our Lady, with the Child Jesus in his arms, as the Head of the Holy Family, and he does something very significant: he blesses the world.
Devotion to St Joseph received great impetus from the great Carmelite reformer, mystic and Doctor of the Church, St Teresa of Avila and the very first convent she founded in Avila is named after him. We read the following about St Joseph in her Autobiography: "I know by long experience what blessings he can obtain for us from God. I have never known anyone who was truly devoted to him by particular services who did not advance greatly in virtue: for he helps in a special way those souls who commend themselves to him."
The end of nineteenth century and the twentieth century saw calls for renewal in the veneration of St Joseph. The sublime dignity of St Joseph, as the earthly father of Jesus and spouse of Mary, and his powerful patronage, was greatly honoured and promoted by Bl Pius IX. At a particularly painful time in the Church's history, when all appeared to be lost, Pope Pius IX not only raised St Joseph's feast on March 19th to a Solemnity, but he also commended the Church to him and declared him the "Patron of the Universal Church" in a decree given on December 8 1870, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a document given on this day, Quemadmodum Deus, he states: "The Church has always most highly honoured and praised blessed Joseph next to his spouse, the Virgin Mother of God, and has besought his intercession in times of trouble."
Other popes have also encouraged the faithful to commend themselves to St Joseph's care and intercession, with Pope Leo XIII writing the first encyclical letter on St Joseph, Quamquam Pluries (On Devotion to St Joseph), promulgated on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, 15 August 1889. From this point, all papal documents on St Joseph would be issued on a Marian feast, highlighting the union of St Joseph with his Holy Spouse. Exactly 100 years after Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, St John Paul II issued the apostolic exhortation Redemptorist Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer). In it he mentions St Joseph's unique and privileged role as "the Guardian of the Mystery of God" (RC 2) and he addresses some central issues of our time: marriage, fatherhood, work and the interior life. The letter ends by asking St Joseph to "obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
A week after our memorable pilgrimage to Fatima, we went on a second short weekend pilgrimage. This time, far from the scorching heat of Portugal, we were greeted by grey skies and intermittent rain, instead of throngs of pilgrims and the vast concrete space of the Fatima shrine grounds, we were surrounded by a few acres of open land where a number of sheep peacefully grazed and bleated. We were at St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, site of the National Shrine of St Joseph – a mere hour and a half drive from home. There, an aura of silence welcomed and surrounded us. As four generations of my family stood in front of the statue of St Joseph, crowned by Cardinal Manning with special permission from Pope Pius IX, I was reminded that St Joseph is popularly regarded as patron and protector of families. Indeed, the Litany of St Joseph names him the "Pillar of Families."
When considering the enormous challenges the family is facing in contemporary society, including the crisis of marriage and fatherhood, we might be justified to be in a state of alarm. It seems providential, then, that the world be given St Joseph for these times. Just as Joseph, son of Jacob, was appointed by God to rescue people from famine in their time of hunger and crisis, the saints and recent popes invite the faithful to "Go to Joseph" (Gn 41: 55) and entrust themselves to him with confidence.
In Fatima, Our Lady told the little Shepherds: "In the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph". The apparition of St Joseph suggests that he has a vital part to play in this. Isn't it time that families and individuals turn to this powerful "silent giant" to ask for his fatherly blessing and to beseech him – just as many turned to the Joseph of old in their time of need – to lead us safely to his Son, the Bread of Life?
Pope Leo XIII attached to his encyclical Quamquam Pluries, a special prayer to St Joseph to be said in the month of October after the recitation of the Rosary:
To you, O blessed Joseph, do we come in our tribulation, and having implored the help of your most holy spouse, we confidently invoke your patronage also.
Through that charity which bound you to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God and through the paternal love with which you embraced the Child Jesus, we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood, and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.
O most watchful Guardian of the Holy Family, defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ; O most loving father, ward off from us every contagion of error and corrupting influence; O our most mighty protector, be propitious to us and from heaven assist us in our struggle with the power of darkness; and, 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 holily, and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven. Amen.
St Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church and Pillar of Families, pray for us.
Leonora Butau is a wife, mother, and bioethicist and visiting lecturer at St Mary's University, London.
Read more about Fatima here: www.fatima.pt/en/home