The Seven Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph (Part 1)



Thanks for joining us for this special Year of Saint Joseph presentation from Relevant Radio: 19 on 19th.

Welcome to our January edition of our 19 on the 19th series in honor of Saint Joseph. During this Year of Saint Joseph, we are proud here at Relevant Radio to bring you a special spiritual reflection on the 19th of every month that is also 19 minutes long. Isn’t that cool?

My name is Father Matthew Spencer and I am the Provincial Superior of the Oblates of Saint Joseph. I am so honored to be invited to share a few reflections for you during this series. In fact, for the next three episodes of 19 on the 19th I’m going to be joining you to discuss probably my favorite devotion to St. Joseph. And I say ‘probably’ because pretty much every devotion to Saint Joseph I’m game with and on board with. But this one has a very special place in my heart. In part because it also has a very special role in the history of our Church.

So let’s look at the Seven Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph.  And as an overview, the way we’re going to approach this over the next few episodes is we’re going to today discuss the history, the format, even some of the mechanics of how we pray this devotion together. And then we’re also going to begin a short meditation on the 1st sorrow and joy of this devotion.

In February, we’re going to be looking at the next three sorrows and joys. And in March, we’ll be looking at the remaining three sorrows and joys. So together, these three episodes will form a cohesive whole of how we approach this devotion. So first, let’s look at a little background here.

This particular prayer looks at different aspects of the life of Saint Joseph, in particular challenging, difficult, even sorrowful moments in his life, but also it offers us the opportunity to look at the joyful result of his faithfulness to God.

We’re going to be looking at one of those in a moment. But let’s step back here and say where did this idea come?

You may be familiar with a very similar devotion, the Seven Sorrows of Mary. The Seven Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph though did develop almost independently, although I shouldn’t say that completely because there’s obviously parallels here. You might have heard a particular account that Father John da Fano popularly shared in the 16th century. He was an Italian Capuchin. He published a devotion called the Seven Our Fathers of Saint Joseph. And in an appendix to that work, he described an account of Saint Joseph speaking to these two shipwrecked monks who had been off the coast of Flanders. Their ship had fallen apart, perhaps because of the storm. They grabbed on to the flotsam and jetsam that was leftover, holding on to who knows what, planks maybe, and survived.

And in the account of Father da Fano these two monks received a special devotion, a special command of Saint Joseph, advising them to pray seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys daily in honor of his sorrows.

That’s the most famous account of these devotions, but I do want to make the point that that the idea of meditating on the sorrows and joys of Saint Joseph actually precedes Father da Fano’s devotional by over a millennium.

When you read Saint John Chrysostom in the 4th century, he describes the life of Saint Joseph concretely in terms of a life that is characterized by sorrows and joys.

And so we see that from the earliest times in our Church, people recognized in the life of Saint Joseph these moments, this dynamic between difficult things and also very blessed things. Sorrowful moments as well as great joy that comes after his trust in the Lord.

The Sorrows and Joys then, as it grew and became much more widespread, was formulated more officially by Venerable Gennaro Sarnelli who lived in the 18th century. And then various popes have attached indulgences to this particular devotion over the years. So in the early part of the 19th century, Pope Pius VII granted an indulgence to it. Gregory XVI, a little bit later added some indulgences to the seven Sundays in honor of the Seven Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph. Pius IX, who was a great devotee of Saint Joseph as well, expanded these indulgences. All the way up to Pius XI, who in 1932 and 1936 discussed or reflected upon these Sorrows and Joys and attached more indulgences to them.

So you can see that in recent years this particular devotion has not only become much more widespread, it’s become recognized in the Church in a very formal way and validated by the Church as an efficacious and beautiful form of prayer. I hope that helps convince you to say you should start praying the Seven Sorrows and Joys in your own life as well.

Now how do we do it? Traditionally the Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph are prayed on Wednesdays or also on a series of Sundays together. My recommendation to you though, is to get into the habit of praying the Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph every Wednesday. Okay, Wednesday is the traditional day that we remember Saint Joseph on, just as Saturdays we remember our Blessed Mother. On Sundays, of course, we remember the Resurrection of our Lord. Well, on Wednesdays the Church invites us in a special way to look to Saint Joseph.

You can pray them in a family, which is a beautiful way to do it. You can pray them as a couple. You can pray them in your parish, which I very strongly recommend. Maybe you can speak with your pastor and say ‘Hey, especially during the Year of Saint Joseph that Father Matthew guy invited us to ask you to consider adding this devotion.’ Maybe after daily Mass. Maybe before. Maybe there are other opportunities to do it. The idea is to make this an ongoing part of our prayer life.

You can also, by the way, do it alone.

Maybe you’re not able to get to Mass. Maybe you don’t have family nearby. Don’t fear, just as you can pray the Rosary both in a group as well as on your own, the Seven Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph you can certainly pray on your own.

Let’s look at the way it’s prayed.

Usually there are introductory prayers that you can do. Certainly you begin with the Sign of the Cross. Sometimes there are prayers recited beforehand, but the core elements of this is a two-fold, beautiful, dynamic prayer that in the first paragraph of each of each sorrow and joy describes the particular Scriptural moment that we’re considering. And in the second paragraph of the prayer implores the help of Saint Joseph for some aspect of our life.

We’ll see that when we when we look at the first sorrow and joy, but the reason I want to mention this two-fold paragraph, it’s a really, really beautiful format that you can recognize as you pray it. But it also lends itself very well to pray with one another. So oftentimes the leader will pray the first paragraph, recalling the Scriptural aspect of this sorrow and joy. And then the people would respond with the second half of it. If you’re doing it with only one other person, then you could alternate that as well. And if you’re doing it by yourself then you would recite or pray silently both paragraphs.

Furthermore, it’s actually common to include other prayers after each sorrow and each joy. In other words, after you pray that first paragraph describing the Scriptural event and then you pray the second paragraph, describing the particular prayer request you have to Saint Joseph, some people will pray together an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. Some people pray just one Glory Be. So you can see there’s some flexibility there.

Personally, I enjoy praying it straight through without those particular additional prayers, not that those are bad whatsoever. The more time you spend in prayer, then the better off you’re going to be, certainly, but there’s a certain rhythm that emerges when we pray the sorrows and joys together.

And to me I love the real focus on Scripture that we get when we pray the Seven Sorrows and Joys sequentially.

OK, we’re going to look at the first sorrow and joy, but in order to do this, I want to read a passage from Matthew 1, the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s right at the end, it begins at verse 18. So if you have your Bible, you can pick it up and follow along. I will be reading from the New American Bible translation.

This follows the genealogy that Saint Matthew gives us right at the beginning of his Gospel, and this is the text, of course, that describes what we call the Annunciation to Joseph. You know of the Annunciation to our Blessed Mother. We celebrate it every March 25th.

Did you know that we also have in Annunciation to Joseph, an Angel who comes to Joseph and announces what God intends for him and what God desires of him? Let’s read this together. Matthew 1:18 and forward.

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.

We could write a book about this passage. So let’s not pretend that we’re going to be able to exhaust in any of these sorrows and joys all of the different points of reflection, especially in 19 minutes I might add. But I do want to share with you a few points before we pray together the sorrow and joy of Saint Joseph here. The first is notice Joseph and Mary are already married. This is very important to remember. In Jewish culture at the time of Mary and Joseph the couple would be betrothed, married formally, officially, ratified, married. Legally husband and wife, and then later they would move in together.

That is to say, Joseph and Mary have already been married. And that’s very important, of course, for the Incarnation because Jesus wants to come into a family that has been prepared for him by God the Father.

So Joseph contemplates what he learns, probably from Mary herself. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how he came to know that she was with child, but the most logical explanation is that she told him about this incredible news she had received.

And Joseph, being uncertain about his role, even filled with awe that that he would be married to the Mother of the Savior, felt himself unready. He knew, being a righteous man, that this was the most important event in all of salvation history, or at least along with the life of Christ and His passion, death, and resurrection. So Joseph decides to divorce quietly. Can you imagine the sorrow that he must have felt?

He is already married to the most beautiful creature that God has made. Hands down, full-stop, he’s married to the perfect creature. And then he determines that he has to divorce her quietly in order to allow God to work with Mary.

He doesn’t realize yet, of course, that God still wants him as part of the Holy Family. The anguish and sorrow of that is unimaginable for most of us, but we try and grasp what that would mean for him.

And then, of course, as the Angel comes and explains to him what his role will actually be, the joy that must come. I’m sure a little bit of also trepidation, I’m sure a little bit of uncertainty continues. Thinking, ‘Well, can I do that? Am I up to that task?’

Well, with the grace of God, he certainly is.

And so in his great joy he hears the words of the Angel. And then notice in verse 24, when Joseph awoke he did as the Angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

Immediately. He didn’t wait. He didn’t say, ‘OK, next week I’ll do that. Next month I’ll do that.’ No, he heard the voice of God and he did it. That, my friends, is a very important lesson that we will always need to reflect on more deeply. So here we listen to the prayer, this first sorrow and joy.

The leader recites:

Chaste lover of Mary, how overwhelmed you were when you thought that you would have to end your betrothal to her. But when the Angel of God came to you in a dream, you were filled with awe to realize that Mary would be your wife and you would be the Guardian of the Messiah.

And all respond:

Help us Saint Joseph, help our families and all our loved ones to overcome all sadness of heart and develop an absolute trust in God’s goodness.

As we pray the Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph, one very important aspect of this is to apply the teaching moment that we get from the life of Joseph to our own lives as well. It’s one of the essential aspects of prayer, but certainly of Scripture and of the Seven Sorrows and Joys of Saint Joseph – that as we pray and as we as we contemplate the life of Saint Joseph, we also use it as a sort of mirror to look at our own life.

To look at ourselves and to say, ‘What are the sorrows that I’m experiencing? What is this sadness? Are there moments like Joseph had here as he thought that he would have to end his betrothal? Are there moments like that in my life – moments when I need to learn to develop this greater trust in God’s goodness and ultimately be invited to see and witness God inviting me to enter into the great mysteries that He desires of me?’

So you’ll see as we move on to the next sorrows and joys at our next episode – you’ll see that this is an important dynamic. That as we pray we don’t just read Scripture and leave it there. We read this summary or pray the summary of Saint Joseph’s life. But then we offer to God our own needs.

We ask that He also transform all of our sorrows into joys, and that He make us more grateful for the joys that indeed we do have in our life. Beautiful, isn’t it? Beautiful. We’ll see that even more deeply in our next time together in February. So until then, my friends, stay close to Saint Joseph. Always be turning to him during this Year of Saint Joseph, and May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Fr. Matthew Spencer is an Oblate of St. Joseph and former host of St. Joseph's Workshop here on Relevant Radio.