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Forgotten Customs of St. Joseph

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Along with St. Patrick, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Annunciation, the feast of St. Joseph, foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ and patron of the Universal Church, falls during Lent. Yet, despite the necessity of maintaining Lenten penance in the form of fasting and abstinence, St. Joseph’s Day still provides amble opportunities for celebrating our Catholic heritage.

The Church celebrates St. Joseph a few times during the year: March 19th, Wednesday preceding the Third Sunday after Easter (up until the 1955 changes), and May 1st (starting with the 1955 changes).

Who is Saint Joseph?

St. Joseph is one of the greatest saints. His life is recorded partially in Scripture, where we see a man dedicated to the Lord, a man eager to do the will of God.

What we know of St. Joseph comes from the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. And what the Scriptures tell us is that St. Joseph was a silent servant of God. St. Joseph owned little possessions, but he was a descendant of David and full of the grace of God. There is not one recorded sentence spoken by St. Joseph, but the Gospels are clear that he acted kindly towards Mary and Jesus. He cared for them when Herod sought to kill Our Lord, and after the threat passed, he quietly passed away. For that reason, he is frequently recognized as the patron of a peaceful death. In the words of Pope Leo XIII: “Workman and all those laboring in conditions of poverty will have reasons to rejoice rather than grieve, since they have in common with the Holy Family daily preoccupations and cares.”

According to tradition, St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, watches over and guards the Church. Numerous saints also had devotions to St. Joseph, including Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Gertrude, Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Alphonsus and Saint Teresa of Avila.

St. Joseph is truly the universal protector of the Church. In The Man Nearest to Christ: The Nature and Historic Development of Devotion to Saint Joseph, Fr. Francis L Filas recounts the origin of devotion in the United States to St. Joseph. As you will see, this devotion predates the foundation of the country:

On the North American missions, the name of Saint Joseph appeared frequently. In Canada, he was regarded as patron of the land ever since it was called New France. In 1633, Saint John de Brebeuf founded the first mission among the Hurons and dedicated it to Saint Joseph. The first Algonquin mission was likewise placed under his care. Both the Recollect Fathers and the Jesuits often named islands and rivers in his honor. In 1675, Fr. Allouez called Lake Michigan Lake Saint Joseph. At Montreal the Sulpician Fathers followed in the steps of their founder, Fr. Olier, by inspiring the faithful to turn to the spouse of Mary in their need. The Ursulines and Grey Nuns always paid him exceptional veneration[.]

Why have a Devotion to St. Joseph?

St. Teresa of Avila answered it best:

To the other Saints it appears that the Lord may have granted power to succor us on particular occasions; but to this Saint, as experience proves, He has granted power to help us on all occasions. Our Lord would teach us that, as he was pleased to be subject to Joseph upon the earth, so He is now pleased to grant whatever this Saint asks for in heaven. Others whom I have recommended to have recourse to Joseph, have known this from experience. I never knew any one who was particularly devout to him, that did not continually advance more and more in virtue. For the love of God, let him who believes not this make his own trial. And I do not know how any one can think of the Queen of Angels, at the time when she labored so much in the infancy and childhood of Jesus, and not return thanks to Joseph for the assistance which he rendered both to the Mother and to the Son.

It is piously believed that the following eight promises are granted to all who have a devotion to St. Joseph.

  1. God will grant special graces to those that do not know me, to have a great devotion to me.
  2. God will bless all who are married and the blessing in their family will be without limit.
  3. Those married and without children will be blessed with offspring.
  4. God will give special graces to be delivered from temptations and the attacks of the devil.
  5. They shall have a good and happy death.
  6. They shall overcome their trials and tribulations.
  7. God shall grant them immediate help when they invoke my intercession, for the demons have extreme dread of the invocation of my name.
  8. For all those who embrace a St. Joseph cenacle, they shall obtain a more fervent love for Jesus and a true devotion to Most Holy Mary.

St. Joseph’s Day as A Holy Day of Obligation

The first catalog of Holy Days comes from the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234, which listed 45 Holy Days. In 1642, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull “Universa Per Orbem” which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days as well as the principal patrons of one’s one locality. St. Joseph’s Day is on that list.

However, due to dispensations, differences ranged drastically as to which days were kept as holy days throughout the world. In some parts of the world, St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th was a Holy Day of Obligation whereas in others it was not. For instance, St. Joseph’s Day was a Holy Day of Obligation in Quebec in the late 1600s and also in the British Colonies in what is now the United States of America. It was also a holy day of Obligation in what is now Florida, among other places. But changes abounded as the number of holy days gradually weakened over the centuries.

At America’s birth, the Holy Days of Obligation, in addition to every Sunday, were as follows: the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, Ss. Peter and Paul, Assumption, and All Saints. St. Joseph’s Day had ceased being a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States. However, it remained a holy day in some other parts of the world.

In 1911, Pope St. Pius X issued Supremi disciplinæ which drastically reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation in the Universal Church to only eight. St. Joseph’s Day did not make the list. Shortly thereafter in 1917, however, Corpus Christi and St. Joseph were added back by his successor, bringing the total to ten. The ten currently observed on the Universal Calendar are the same as from 1917.  Yet not in the United States.

As for the Holy Days observed in the United States, the Catholic Encyclopedia in referencing Supremi disciplinæ noted, “Where, however, any of the above feasts has been abolished or transferred, the new legislation is not effective. In the United States consequently the Epiphany and the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul are not days of precept.” The same is true of St. Joseph’s Day in the changes in 1917. While the 1917 change did not add St. Joseph’s Day back to the list of Holy Days of Obligation in the United States, it did elsewhere.

Presently, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malta, Spain, and the Diocese of Lugano in Switzerland keep St. Joseph’s Day as a Holy Day.

Fasting and Abstinence on St. Joseph’s Day

Since St. Joseph’s Day falls during Lent, it coincides with the traditional Lenten fast which traditionally required 40 days of fasting and 46 days of abstinence from meat. Per the 1917 Code of Canon Law,Friday abstinence is still required on St. Joseph’s Day even where it is kept as a Holy Day of Obligation. And would the fast of Lent still be observed? The answer is unequivocally yes.

The question of whether Holy Days of Obligation abrogate the requirement of Friday abstinence outside of Lent is mentioned in the 1917 Code:

On [Sundays] or feasts of precept, the law of abstinence or of abstinence and fast or of fast only ceases, except during Lent, nor is the vigil anticipated; likewise it ceases on Holy [Saturday] afternoon (1917 Code, Canon 1252 § 4).[1]

The 1917 Code is explicit – feasts of precepts do not remove the requirement to fast or abstain during Lent. The only way that the obligation would be removed during the season of Lent would be if a dispensation would be specifically offered by the lawful Church authorities for a particular day.

It must be further noted that the removal of the obligation of penance on Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent only applies to areas that observe the day of precept. It is not based on the Roman calendar, as affirmed by the Commission on the Code in a 1924 article in the American Ecclesiastical Review. Hence, when January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, falls on a Friday, it is still a mandatory day of abstinence in America and France and other places where it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. In contrast, Canada, Rome, and places that keep it as a Holy Day do not have to observe fasting and/or abstinence on that particular Friday. This, however, only applies to Holy Day of Obligation outside of Lent. And this change only started with the 1917 Code – beforehand, it was still a day of abstinence on Fridays regardless if it was a day of precept or not, unless a specific dispensation was issued by the Pope himself.

In 1954, Pope Pius XII issued such a decree granting bishops the permission to dispense from Friday abstinence for the Feast of St. Joseph which that year fell on a Friday. A March 26, 1954, article of The Guardian elaborates: “Bishops throughout the world have been granted the faculty to dispense their faithful from the law of abstinence on the Feast of St. Joseph, Friday, March 19. The power was granted in a decree issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, which said it acted at the special mandate of His Holiness Pope Pius XII. The decree published in L’Osservatore Romano made no mention of a dispensation from the Lenten fast.”

As such, St. Joseph’s Day did not permit the faithful to eat meat on Fridays in Lent unless such a specific dispensation were offered, which was very rarely done. Likewise, to those who maintain the 1917 Code’s requirement to also fast all forty weekdays of Lent – which was observed since the Early Church – St. Joseph’s Day remains a day of fast. Surely St. Joseph would want us to produce worthy fruits of penance during this holiest season as we prepare for the Pascal mystery.

Unfortunately, the 1983 Code of Canon Law which aligns with the many Modernist changes in the Church weakly states:

The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (1983 Code, Canons 1251 – 1252).

Italian Cultural Customs for March 19th

St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th, despite being in Lent, is full of cultural customs in honor of St. Joseph. Fish Eaters explains:

St. Joseph’s Day is a big Feast for Italians because in the Middle Ages, God, through St. Joseph’s intercessions, saved the Sicilians from a very serious drought. So in his honor, the custom is for all to wear red, in the same way that green is worn on St. Patrick’s Day.

Today, after Mass (at least in parishes with large Italian populations), a big altar (“la tavola di San Giuse” or “St. Joseph’s Table”) is laden with food contributed by everyone (note that all these St. Joseph celebrations might take place on the nearest, most convenient weekend). Different Italian regions celebrate this day differently, but all involve special meatless foods: minestrone, pasta with breadcrumbs (the breadcrumbs symbolize the sawdust that would have covered St. Joseph’s floor), seafood, Sfinge di San Giuseppe, and, always, fava beans, which are considered “lucky” because during the drought, the fava thrived while other crops failed[.]

The table – which is always blessed by a priest – will be in three tiers, symbolizing the Most Holy Trinity. The top tier will hold a statue of St. Joseph surrounded by flowers and greenery. The other tiers might hold, in addition to the food: flowers (especially lilies); candles; figurines and symbolic breads and pastries shaped like a monstrance, chalices, fishes, doves, baskets, St. Joseph’s staff, lilies, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, carpentry tools, etc.; 12 fishes symbolizing the 12 Apostles; wine symbolizing the miracle at Cana; pineapple symbolizing hospitality; lemons for “luck”; bread and wine (symbolizing the Last Supper); and pictures of the dead. There will also be a basket in which the faithful place prayer petitions.

It should be noted that traditionally St. Joseph’s Tables, even when transferred to Sunday, were always meatless. For centuries, even Sundays in Lent were days of abstinence – just not fasting.

The Zeppole

Zeppole, also known as sfinge or St. Joseph’s Day pastry, is a traditional Italian pastry that is often associated with the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th. Zeppole come in various forms, but the most common type is a deep-fried dough ball or ring, resembling a small doughnut. The dough is typically made with flour, water, eggs, sugar, and sometimes ricotta cheese, resulting in a light and airy texture. After frying, zeppole are often coated with powdered sugar or drizzled with honey, providing a sweet and indulgent flavor. A vegan alternative can also be made in keeping with the ancient Lenten fast which was vegan.

On St. Joseph’s Day, zeppole are a popular treat enjoyed by families and communities. It is a customary practice to set up temporary stalls or visit pastry shops where zeppole are sold. Some regions have their own variations of zeppole, with specific ingredients or shapes unique to the local tradition.

The way zeppole are eaten on St. Joseph’s Day can vary, but the most common practice is to share them with family and friends. They are often served as a dessert during festive meals or as a snack throughout the day. Families may also participate in the “lucky fava bean” tradition, where a dried fava bean is hidden in one of the zeppole. The person who finds the bean is believed to receive good luck.

In addition to the sweet zeppole, there is also a savory version known as “zeppole di San Giuseppe” (St. Joseph’s fritters). These savory zeppole are typically filled with ricotta, anchovies, or other savory ingredients, providing a contrast to the sweet versions commonly associated with the celebration.

The Eastertide Solemnity of St. Joseph’s Patronage

While many Catholics should be familiar with the annual Solemnity of St. Joseph, Foster Father of Jesus Christ, celebrated annually on March 19th, fewer are likely familiar with the Eastertide Solemnity of St. Joseph. Instituted by Pope Pius IX’s decree of September 10, 1847, the Eastertide Solemnity of St. Joseph is celebrated on the second Wednesday after the Octave of Easter. 

According to Father Francis X. Lasance, it was instituted during the hostile occupation of Rome by the troops of the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel II. The Pope proclaimed St. Joseph the Patron of the oppressed Household of the Faith, entrusting to St. Joseph the defense of Holy Mother Church.

When Pope St. Pius X reformed the liturgical calendar to restore the Sunday Offices to prominence over those of the Saints, the second Feast of St. Joseph was moved to the Wednesday preceding the Third Sunday after Easter. In 1911, the Feast was raised to a Double of the First Class and laterassigned an Octave. It is a Common Octave, so the Octave may or may not be commemorated on the intra Octave days depending on the rank of the feasts that occur during the Octave. While this feast day is not in the 1962 Missal, it is still kept by priests who celebrate Holy Mass according to the pre-1955 reforms.

However, the Eastertide Joseph celebration had also a third placement. At the time of the writing of his illustrious Liturgical Year 15 volume set, Dom Guéranger observed that the feast of St. Joseph during Eastertide was said on the Third Sunday after Easter. Here is an excerpt from this feast:

The Easter mysteries are superseded today by a special subject, which is offered for our consideration. The holy Church invites us to spend this Sunday in honouring the Spouse of Mary, the Foster-Father of the Son of God. And yet, as we offered him the yearly tribute of our devotion on the 19th of March, it is not, properly speaking, his Feast that we are to celebrate today. It is a solemn expression of gratitude offered to Joseph, the Protector of the Faithful, the refuge and support of all that invoke him with confidence. The innumerable favours he has bestowed upon the world entitle him to this additional homage. With a view to her children’s interests, the Church would, on this day, excite their confidence in this powerful and ever ready helper.

St. Joseph the Worker

With the advent of the 1955 Calendar, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of “St. Joseph the Worker” on May 1 (moving the feast of “Saints Philip and James” from May 1, where it had been since the sixth century, to May 11th). Instead of adding this as a third annual celebration of St. Joseph, Pius XII suppressed the aforementioned Eastertide Solemnity of St. Joseph. The May 1st feast presents an excellent opportunity to recall St. Joseph as a worker who labored for good despite trials. May 1st is also May Day, the obligatory Communist holiday. Thus St. Joseph’s feast under the title of Workman is very much set against the Communists so that we may have a heavenly patron, guide, and father who himself knew hard work and discipline and yet who would never have approved of Atheistic Communism. In this, Pius XII was following his immediate predecessor, Pius XI, who placed the Church’s whole struggle against what he called the “Satanic scourge” (Communism) under the Patronage of St. Joseph.

We too must become holy and remember to offer up our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings each day in a Morning Offering Prayer. This is worthwhile to also call to mind on the Eastertide Feast of St. Joseph.

We can also recall and share why Communism is always incompatible with Catholicism.

The St. Joseph Scapular

While many Catholics are hopefully familiar with, and enrolled in, the Brown Scapular, most are likely unaware that there are many other Scapulars in the Church (e.g. the Red Scapular, the Black Scapular, the Green Scapular, etc.). All of these scapulars have specific requirements, promises, and symbolic meanings.

The St. Joseph Scapular is a gold and violet-colored scapular with a white cord. On the front is an image of Joseph holding the child Jesus in one arm and a staff of lilies in the other. Underneath are the words, “St. Joseph, patron of the Church, pray for us.” On the back of the scapular is the papal crown under a dove, symbolizing the Holy Ghost. Underneath those are the Cross, the keys of Peter, and the inscription: “Spiritus Domini ductor eius” (The Spirit of the Lord is his Guide).

The scapular is to remind us of St. Joseph’s virtues (humility, modesty, purity); to remind us to pray to St. Joseph, asking him to pray for the Church; and to assist the dying since St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death.

In addition to the above benefits, there is a plenary indulgence for those who confess, receive Holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father on the following feast days: 25 December, the day of investment of the scapular, 1 January, 6 January, 2 February, 19 March, 25 March, Easter, Feast of the Ascension, 15 August, 8 September, 8 December, 3rd Sunday after Easter, and at the time of death. It is recommended also to say 5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Marys and 5 Glorias before the Blessed Sacrament at these times.

Prayer to St. Joseph for the Observance of Sundays and Feast Days as taken from the 1910 Raccolta:

Most Glorious Patriarch, St. Joseph, obtain, we beseech thee, from Our Lord Jesus Christ a most abundant blessing on all who keep festival days holy; obtain for us that those who profane them may know, in time, the great evil they commit, and the chastisements which they draw down upon themselves in this life and in the next, and may be converted without delay.

O Most blessed St. Joseph, thou who on the Lord’s day didst cease from every labour of thy craft, and with Jesus and Mary didst fulfill the duties of religion with most lively devotion, bless the pious work of the sanctification of feast-days, erected under thy most powerful patronage; cause it to spread to every home, office, and workshop, so that the day may soon come when all the Christian populace may on feast-days abstain from forbidden work, seriously attend to the salvation of their souls, and give glory to God, who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.

Editor’s note: for more on customs, see this book by the author:

[1] Emphasis added. Translation taken from THE 1917 OR PIO-BENEDICTINE CODE OF CANON LAW in English Translation by Dr. Edward Peters.

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