Young Saint Joseph
or Old Saint Joseph
You may have noticed that there are two competing versions of Saint Joseph in Catholic art and devotion. One is the "gray-haired grandpa Joseph" and the other is the "young handsome Joseph."
Why is this? The two versions relate to the Catholic teaching that our Immaculate Lady is a perpetual Virgin. So then, if our Blessed Mother was the most beautiful lady to have ever lived (something taught by all the saints and lately by Saint Pio), how then did Saint Joseph preserve himself from inordinate passions toward his virginal bride?
There are two ways to account for this. One way holds that he was already an elderly man and therefore did not have the "vigor" of his youth. The second is to hold that although St Joseph was a young man, he had been supernaturally sanctified in the womb and confirmed in grace for the entirety of this life.* Since he controlled his passions perfectly, he did not have these inordinate desires for his virginal bride.
Readers of this blog know that I zealously hold and defend the latter position: St Joseph, as Head of the Holy Family and on account of his intimacy with the Holy Family, was sanctified and confirmed in grace his whole life long.
No doubt, Saint Joseph was conceived with original sin, but like John the Baptist (and the Prophet Jeremiah), he was sanctified in the womb. Saint Frances de Sales, Bernardine de Bustis, Francisco Suarez, Jean Gerson, Isidoro Isolano, Cornelius a Lapide, and Saint Alphonsus Ligouri also hold that Saint Joseph was sanctified in his mother's womb and preserved from all sin. This entails that all members of the Holy Family were sinless: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
The most ancient artistic representations of Saint Joseph depict him as a youth. Saint Jerome defends the "young Joseph belief" as the traditional belief of the Church and that held by Christians in the Holy Land in the 4th and 5th centuries. Saint Jerome also explicitly says that Saint Joseph lived and died as a virgin (not a widower). This also confirms to the belief of the early Fathers Saint Athanasius (d. 373) and Saint Gregory Nazianzus (d. 390) who taught that Joseph, like Mary, was a perpetual virgin and not a widower.
The "old Joseph belief" comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of Saint James (read it here at NewAdvent), which describes Joseph as an old widower who "adopts" the youthful Blessed Virgin Mary through the mechanism of matrimony. Yet this document was repeatedly condemned in the early Church and while it contains truth, it is not to be trusted in every regard - especially regarding the age of Saint Joseph.
So then, I find the evidence tipping toward the "young Saint Joseph" theory. The fact that art depictions before the fifth and sixth century show Joseph as a youthful man further confirm that this is the original and ancient belief of the universal Church.
Saint Joseph, Protector of Two Treasures, pray for us.
ad Jesum per Mariam,
PS: The mystic Maria Agreda states that Saint Joseph was 33 years old when he married the Immaculate Virgin Mary. This would place Joseph about 19 years old than sweetest Mother Mary.
* "confirmed in grace" is a term to describe the miraculous preservation from sin - even deliberate venial sin. The Blessed Virgin Mary obviously had this gift, as did St John the Baptist. It is also piously held that the Holy Apostles received this gift on the day of Pentecost.
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