2016-06-30
ST. LOUIS--The name St. Joseph seems to be all around us. Cities in Missouri, Illinois, and at least five other states bear his name. At least 27 Catholic churches in the St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., dioceses are called St. Joseph. Schools and hospitals bear his name. In this region, thousands of Christians are given the name of this first-century Jewish carpenter in baptism as a first, or, even more commonly, as a second name.

Until now there have been few books about him.

Most Christians can identify Joseph as Mary's husband. He's Jesus' stepfather, the man with a beard, and usually a lantern, in the Christmas Nativity scene.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke say he was a descendant of King David and a carpenter. Joseph acted on his dreams. In one dream, he was told not to divorce Mary because the Holy Spirit was the father of the child in Mary's womb. Both writers stress that Mary was a virgin.

After the Magi visited the newborn Jesus, Joseph dreamed that he was to get up immediately and flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. The family rushed to escape the jealous Palestinian King Herod's edict to kill all male newborns who might be the Magi's "king of the Jews." Joseph makes his last appearance in Scripture when Jesus, then 12, is lost after the family visited the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many people want to know more about Joseph.

"People are always calling our archives asking for information about Joseph," said Sister Charline Sullivan, archivist at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet motherhouse in Carondelet, Mo. "The reality about Joseph is that he is sort of in a vacuum--the silent saint."

Sullivan has stacks of prayers and hymns but few books about Joseph.

Since 1837, when her order arrived in this area, its sisters--410 live in the region today--always encouraged interest in Joseph. Many Christians, especially Eastern Orthodox Christians and Catholics, venerate Joseph.

Revived interest in men's spirituality among many denominations has made Joseph the topic of men's retreats and church study groups. Most secular and Christian bookstores in St. Louis have no books on Joseph.

"People ask for books on Joseph because he is such a good example for living day in and day out," said Michael Murphy, book buyer at the three Catholic Supply stores here.

Now, a company owned by Protestants in Texas--Summit Publishing--is publishing a book on Joseph and male spirituality. It was written by a priest and amateur archaeologist from O'Fallon, Mo.

The Rev. Gerald Joseph Kleba said he wrote "Joseph Remembered" because there are few examples of compassionate, yet fearless men in a culture that prizes machismo.

"There is so much quality writing about women's spirituality and so little for men," said Kleba, 58, an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church-Dardenne.

"Men can feel lost. And as women become more confident, the men feel even more lost. Men want to be able to look at someone and say, 'I want to be like that.'"

They can learn compassion from Joseph, Kleba said. When Joseph found Mary pregnant--knowing he was not the father--he had the right to divorce her. He could have had his revenge as she was stoned. But Joseph later bravely led Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

Kleba's interest in the carpenter began when he was in grade school at Resurrection School in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighborhood. The sisters always said, "Go to Joseph" when [students] were concerned about something. In 1954, Kleba, then in seventh grade, "went to Joseph" and prayed about his wish to become a priest. That year, his parish completed a new church with a terra cotta statue of Joseph by Kirkwood sculptor Hillis Arnold, the priest said as he was interviewed in his childhood parish church this week.

After Kleba was ordained a priest in 1967, Kleba began to bring Joseph out of the "dim shadows into the center stage" as he counseled couples preparing for marriage. He talked about Joseph as he helped young men trying to support and spend time with their families. Annually on March 19, Joseph's feast day, and again on May 1, the feast of Joseph the Laborer, he would preach about Joseph.

With the help of biblical scholars, archaeologists, the Jewish Talmud, and the Dead Sea scrolls, Kleba learned more. The Greek word tekton--translated as "carpenter" in English editions of the New Testament--has a wider meaning of handy, skilled craftsman. Joseph probably made plows, pulleys, and tool handles. He would have been good at measuring before carving scarce wood into an oxen yoke so it would not chafe and slow the animal. In the Jewish Talmud book of Levy: 336, Kleba found a reference that suggested if the rabbi in a town was unavailable, the carpenter should be consulted.

"So, Joseph would have been considered a wise man," said Kleba. Joseph was on Kleba's mind when he volunteered on an archaeological dig during a sabbatical in Israel in the 1980s.

Even the skilled trade would not assure a family economic stability. In the 10 years Kleba was pastor of St. Bridget of Ireland Catholic Church downtown, adjacent to the old Pruitt-Igoe housing project, he saw government projects could run up costs and transform communities for the worse.

In the 10 years he was pastor of Visitation Catholic Parish in St. Louis' The Ville neighborhood, he saw neighbors unable to sell houses because banks refused to grant loans there.

Kleba considered those community observations as he studied new reports of an archaeological dig last year of a first-century palace at Sepphoris, a half-hour walk from Nazareth. In Kleba's story, he imagines the government project might have hurt Joseph's business.

Kleba also studied the fourth century writing called the "Protevangelium of James," which says that Joseph was a widower before he married Mary. That would explain how the gospels consistently call Mary a virgin but then refer to James, Joses, Judas, and Simon as Jesus' brothers, Kleba said. Gospels also mention Jesus' two never-named sisters. If Joseph had been a widower, those six people could be Jesus' half brothers and sisters.

Some scholars believe that the six were the biological children of Mary, but Kleba rejects that. After studying the Dead Sea Scrolls descriptions of the Essenes, a Jewish celibate ascetic sect, Kleba suggests that Mary and Joseph may have remained celibate because of the sect.

Kleba completed the manuscript of his book in May while serving as an associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Clayton, Mo.

Joseph is not mentioned in Jesus' public life, which began when Jesus turned 30. In those days, a man was old at 40. With a creative ending, Kleba suggests that the Magi's gift of the myrrh, an embalming spice, was used to prepare Joseph's body for burial.

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