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Ite Ad Ioseph

On the intercession of patron saints.


When I was a child, my mother impressed upon me that, by virtue of my christening, I have an indelible relationship with Saint Joseph. It must have been early in my life when my mother told me the full story behind my name, the why, because it has stuck with me ever since I can remember. It was not for the ordinary or often trite reasons people choose names: not because Joseph was my father’s or my grandfather’s name (a venerable tradition), nor because it was on a top ten list of baby names that year, nor because it was cute.

My mother learned of her pregnancy in late 1997, at which point little over two years had passed since they had first immigrated to Chicago from Poland. Their fatherland was freed from the communist repression of the Soviet yoke, but the transition period in the Nineties was terribly hard on many. Alcoholism and unemployment were rampant: the disorientation that came with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc wreaked havoc and Poland’s turn to the democratic West was not the romantic vision of liberal democratic idealists. My parents were spared many of these unfortunate miseries, and, like a large chunk of Polonia in the preceding decades, they looked toward the United States as a land of opportunity. They won the visa lottery and moved across the Atlantic with my nine-year-old brother in tow, to join some of our extended family in Chicago.

They settled on the northwest side of the city, but my mother’s workplace at that time was an hour-and-half drive to northwest Indiana. In the early months of her pregnancy, she told me, these commutes were tearful, prayerful, and morning sickness–filled journeys to work through Chicago rain and snow. Only a few weeks before, her obstetrician had confirmed that she was pregnant. But the next words to come out of his mouth would continue to haunt her. The doctor asked nonchalantly, “So, are we doing an abortion?” Such a question— which, as too many women can attest, is never just a question, but tacit or explicit encouragement—struck a deep nerve. How could someone so casually and without cause, much less the doctor tasked with the care of her and her unborn child, ask her this? She forcefully rejected such an “option” out of hand. For her it was never an option to begin with, and she never wanted to hear mention of it again.

A few weeks later, she had once again gone to the obstetrician for a regular screening, check-up, and lab tests. Soon after, she received a call back mentioning some irregularities had appeared in the blood tests. When she saw the doctor again, he broke the news: the blood tests seemed to indicate there was a high likelihood her child—that I—would be born with some sort of congenital birth defect, possibly Down syndrome or spina bifida. The obstetrician hastened to add that it was still early. These were the early weeks of pregnancy and tests could be wrong. (He hadn’t dared to again put forward the question of an abortion, not after her initial fury towards him.) For several years, when starting her physical therapy career in Poland, my mother had worked with disabled children. She wondered, was this the cross God had intended for her all along?

While in the hospital chapel, the invocation of Saint Joseph came to her lips, and she was moved to entrust her unborn child to Saint Joseph. She pleaded with Saint Joseph for healing and a healthy pregnancy—promising to name her newborn Joseph if he were a boy, Josephine if she were a girl. The next weeks were filled with tears, trying moments, and many prayers. She prayed that she would accept the cross if that was what God willed of her but begged for a healthy child.

Several weeks after the irregularities first appeared, any evidence of congenital abnormalities had disappeared. In May of 1998, I was born healthy at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, delivered by a doctor named Joseph, alongside the attending nurse, Josephine. I was later christened Joseph Paul. Today, when I reflect upon this, I do not think any of it was a coincidence. Divine Providence looked upon my mother and me in the womb favorably through the intercession of Saint Joseph.

It is, of course, nothing novel for Catholics to ascribe a deep meaning and weight to the names by which they christen their children, just as generation upon generation through all time chose names for their progeny replete with meaning. But, for us, the names we draw from the communion of saints are also a gift of patronage, of heavenly intercession. Our patron saints reign in glory in the eternal kingdom, the state that we hope for ourselves in the time to come. To that end, we look to them, in particular, as our celestial intercessors, praying that they may deign to look upon us with mercy and win for us special favor in this time and in the kingdom to come.

Perhaps I risk the perception of conceit in reflecting on my own patron saint, especially one as great as Saint Joseph. What precious words could do justice to the patron of our Church? At the same time, it is in a certain sense lamentable that today we don’t seem to fully recognize the place of our patron saints in our spiritual lives; we often look to other saints for intercession whose virtuous lives, miracles, and histories may have resonated with our own and pulled us towards devotion. This is not to say there is anything wrong with looking to the fullness of the communion of saints for intercession—to the contrary, this is necessary for a complete spiritual life. But patron saints, whether we give them their due or not, are omnipresent in our lives, joined with us by that indelible mark that we received in the rite of baptism and through which we became sons and daughters of the Church.

I’ve found this to be the case in my own life. I would first read the phrase Ite ad Ioseph only in adulthood, engraved on a statue under the feet of my patron, but in truth it was what my mother had always taught me: “Go to Joseph.” In childhood, she would often remind me to pray for Saint Joseph’s intercession for whatever was on my mind. Oftentimes she would give me a nudge to remind me to go by our parish’s Saint Joseph statue after Mass, to say a quick prayer or simply cross myself in front of it.

That phrase, Ite ad Ioseph, comes from Genesis, where the Pharaoh speaks of the Joseph of the Old Testament, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Yet, the popular phrase still works all the same for our Joseph, because, as biblical exegetes through the ages have noted, the Joseph of the Old Testament may be seen as prefiguring the spouse of the Virgin Mary. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said in a sermon:

We may draw a parallel between him and the great Patriarch. As the first Joseph was by the envy of his brothers sold and sent into Egypt, the second Joseph fled into Egypt with Christ to escape the envy of Herod. The chaste Patriarch remained faithful to his master, despite the evil suggestions of his mistress. St. Joseph, recognizing in his wife the Virgin Mother of his Lord, guarded her with the utmost fidelity and chastity. . . . His predecessor kept a store of corn, not for himself, but for the whole nation; our Joseph received the Living Bread from heaven, that he might preserve it for his own salvation and that of all the world.

This is to say, the full verse in the Old Testament teaches us a little bit more: Ite ad Ioseph: et quidquid ipse vobis dixerit, facite—“Go to Joseph: and do all that he shall say to you.” Saint Joseph had heard my mother’s prayers in those tempestuous days, so it seems especially right that what I owe him is an open and meek heart today, to hear the voice of Our Lord, through his earthly father reigning in glory of the kingdom to come. As the concluding words of Pope Leo XIII’s Prayer to Saint Joseph, composed for the encyclical Quamquam pluries, teach us:

To thee, O Blessed Joseph . . . Shield each one of us with thy unceasing patronage that, imitating thy example and supported by thy aid, we may be enabled to live a good life, die a holy death, and secure everlasting happiness in Heaven. Amen.

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Joseph Paul Barnas is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. His writing has also appeared in University Bookman and Athwart.