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Joseph of Nazareth. In search of his true face

A book by Monsignor Mauro Viani

In these last months, I have often met with Bishop Mauro Viani. He was a particularly valuable guide for me for some studies I was carrying out. Don Mauro, that’s what I called him more than thirty years ago – and that’s what I still call him today – is a presbyter of the Archdiocese of Lucca, who for many years was a parish priest and teacher of social moral theology at the Interdiocesan Theological Study, and currently holds the position of Judicial Vicar and Canon Penitentiary of the cathedral church.

We meet in his study, and in our moments of pause, my interest in books and curiosity leads me to peek at his bookshelf, where many volumes are on display: books on theology, canon law, but also spirituality; some of them written by him himself, on issues of law, social morality and bioethics.

A few days ago, during one of our meetings, Don Mauro had to leave for a few minutes and I immediately took a short break. Through the window with the glass ajar, a ray of sunlight illuminated the room. Abandoning the computer, the technical tool of my labour, I got up from my chair to stretch my waist and headed as I usually do to the book shelf. This time, however, my attention was drawn to something else. Next to the bookcase, on a small table, lay a small volume: a familiar face, a title prominently displayed and at the top the author’s name in a smaller font.

I took it in my hands, looked at it carefully: Joseph of Nazareth, searching for his true face. And the author? That very priest friend of mine, Mauro Viani.

“When did you write this book?”, I asked Don Mauro, who had just returned, noticed my discovery and smiled.

‘It came out recently,’ he replied. He was silent for a few moments, then added: ‘But it is a simple, popular book, it has no theological or literary pretensions. In writing it, I simply tried to compare the figure of the carpenter from Nazareth, and also of his particular family, with the reality of today. I wanted to make it clear that the problems, the difficulties he faced in caring for the exceptional people God had entrusted to him, resemble many workers today who struggle to make ends meet, to educate their children, and to deal with the problems of daily life.

Then, with a resolute manner, he invited me not to waste time and put me back by the computer to finish the revision of my research.

That book, however, had interested me and even in the following days the image on the cover often appeared in my mind: after all, the person of Saint Joseph has always fascinated me. I could not stay, and as soon as I was able, I went to the city’s Catholic bookstore to buy it. The truly derisory price, at the time, made me doubt the literary value of that book. That same evening, however, after work, I wanted to start reading it. Strangely enough, I could not tear myself away from reading it and, page after page, I immersed myself in that distant world. Distant yes, but also topical: the references and comparisons the author made to concrete facts of today’s life seemed to illuminate even that of the humble carpenter from Nazareth.

I thought to myself: Don Mauro’s book could also be useful for my research: in fact I was dealing with the problems of the world of youth, the rights of minors and the difficult conditions in which many of them are forced to live today, in particular youth work, the discomfort of unaccompanied minors and immigrants in general. I was struck to learn that Joseph too, with his wife and child, experienced the difficult condition of being a refugee in the land of Egypt for some years.

I then proposed to talk about it, when the opportunity arose, with Don Mauro

I returned to see him some time later. As always, he welcomed me cordially. It was after lunch and even, knowing my habits, he wanted to offer me a coffee. As I sipped it, enjoying its aroma, he said:

“Are you still writing something interesting and would you like to discuss it with me this time as well?”

“Today I would like to talk a little about your book where you describe the life of St Joseph. I bought it and, I must tell you honestly, I read it with keen interest. Every time I had to suspend reading, I almost regretted it”.

Don Mauro began to smile and, shaking his head, commented under his breath: ‘There are better books on St Joseph than the one I wrote, I assure you.

However, he seemed happy to talk a little with me about this subject and invited me to sit down at the kitchen table, perhaps fearing that I might find other books in the study and want to comment on them too.

I then asked him some questions that I had prepared, and I saw that he was willing to listen to me and answer them

“You are an expert in canon law and theological subjects, may I ask you, Don Mauro, what prompted you to write a book on the figure of Saint Joseph?”

“The idea of writing something on the groom of Mary and the guardian of Jesus was truly accidental: it came to me during a move, while I was arranging some objects. By chance I found in my hands an old picture of St Joseph, with a very moth-eaten frame, which had belonged to my family. I looked at it carefully for a long time: it depicted a very old man, with white hair and beard, and little Jesus in his arms. I then began to wonder why he was almost always – at least in depictions of the past – depicted like that. The gospels tell us nothing about his age. And so I asked myself some questions: Do I really know Saint Joseph? What do we really know about him? Apart from the canonical gospels, what do the other writings say?”

“It seems to me that the gospels, as far as I know, speak little about the person of Saint Joseph, and do not describe his figure much. Unlike popular piety, which has always had veneration for the putative father of Jesus”.

“Your observation is true. There are few evangelical references to the person of Saint Joseph. We only know something about him from the gospels of Matthew and Luke where the childhood of Jesus is mentioned. The fourth gospel, that of John, mentions his name only once, and Mark does not speak of him at all. Furthermore, the gospels do not report any words spoken by him”.

“You mentioned earlier that in addition to the gospels there are also ‘other writings’ that speak of him: what is this about?”

“I was referring to the apocryphal gospels (that is to say hidden, set aside) which, on the other hand, extensively sketch this beautiful figure, presenting him as an elderly man, a widower, with children from a previous marriage, but these are writings that are later than those recognised as inspired by the Church, born in a gnostic context. In my book I have in fact tried to explain something about these texts, in some respects, they are interesting’.

“What documents then did you draw on to write a life of St Joseph?”

“I based myself on the few things written by the evangelists Matthew and Luke. It is true that they are scarce, but in their simplicity they make us realise that this wonderful figure was an ordinary person, a young man, a simple craftsman to whom God wanted to entrust his most precious treasures: his divine Son and the virgin Mary. After all, she too, his bride, was a very young girl from Nazareth”.

“As you narrate the life of St Joseph, you often interrupt the story and relate current cases. I remember, for example, that father who lost his job and does not know how to support his family, the young groom assailed by doubt, those two parents who no longer understand their son …”.

“These real situations that I have encountered, which are very common and which I have recounted in the book, have helped me to better understand the true face of the Nazareth carpenter, which was precisely the purpose of my research. Indeed, Joseph also experienced fatigue, the precariousness of work; he experienced uncertainty and doubt; he struggled to defend the life of the infant Jesus; he experienced the situation of a refugee and later the difficulty of understanding his adolescent son, but proud to be his first teacher. But all this Joseph experienced in the knowledge that he was responding to a call from God that he gradually sought to understand. Of course, that face remains unknown in many ways’.

I had no further questions to put to him. It was getting late. Before leaving my friend who had kindly answered my questions, I wanted to congratulate him and tell him that his book had really interested me.


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