BREATHING ST. JOSEPHLaurence Tiblis
Breathing St. Joseph
Fr. Joseph A. Skelly, CM, the founder of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal (CAMM) and builder of Mary’s altar at The Miraculous Medal Shrine, was steeped in the devotions of his era. Just glancing at the surface, it might not seem obvious. But when you look a little deeper, it’s clear that this man named after St. Joseph was influenced by him.
There are no stories or detailed history about Fr. Skelly’s childhood. However, we have enough information to paint an impressionist picture of what it must have been like. For example, we know that in his youth, Fr. Skelly was a member of St. Vincent’s parish and was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
At church, he would have witnessed the rise in piety toward St. Joseph. (In mid-1847, (Bl.) Pope Pius IX established a feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph, and in 1870, the pope declared him the Patron of the Universal Church.) At school, he would have absorbed the Sisters’ devotion to St. Joseph, even if subconsciously. Their original rule, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century, exhorted them to model themselves after St. Joseph and his hidden virtues by being “one in service of each other, and one in the service of the neighbor without distinction for whom they will try to have cordial charity, as Saint Joseph had for his dear spouse and for the Savior Jesus.” Instructed by the Sisters for eight years, Fr. Skelly must have seen countless examples of how they lived out their mandate.
When Fr. Skelly entered the minor seminary in 1888, he would have become immersed in St. Vincent’s devotions to the saints. In his conferences and letters, St. Vincent upheld the Blessed Mother’s spouse as a model of religious life, intercessor for all their projects, and initiator of their congregation’s growth. He also referred to St. Joseph as the Head of the Holy Family, the Head of the Seminary household, and the Spiritual Father of the Seminarians. Even today, more than 400 years later, St. Joseph remains the Seminarian’s patron; he and St. Vincent de Paul are invoked daily at the end of the vocation prayer, “O Hope of Israel.”
As a seminarian, Fr. Skelly probably read the 1889 encyclical about St. Joseph from Pope Leo XIII. In this encyclical, St. Joseph was promoted as the solution to the attacks against the Church, the weakening of faith, and “the lawlessness” the world was experiencing. The Holy Father encouraged the faithful to a greater devotion to St. Joseph―one that would “engraft itself upon [their] daily pious practices.”
Maybe Fr. Skelly also followed the building of the Basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona, which was started in 1882, or, closer to home, the first, small Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, built by St. André Bessett in 1904.
While that’s only speculation, we know that in 1912 Fr. Skelly was asked to raise funds for the building of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. In each appeal letter, he included a small Miraculous Medal. The response was beyond anything he could have imagined, so Fr. Skelly founded CAMM in 1915 to thank Mary for blessing his efforts. Not surprisingly, Fr. Skelly established St. Joseph as the Patron of CAMM. And the Seminary in Princeton? Its gothic, Queen of the Miraculous Medal Chapel has its altar, and the entire wall behind it, dedicated to St. Joseph.
St. Joseph’s emblem is carved in the altar, with Custos Christ (Guardian of Christ) and Sponsus Mariae (Spouse of Mary) on both sides. Behind the altar is an exquisite marble reredos with three scenes from his life: the marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Nativity of Jesus, and the death of St. Joseph—in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
In a sense, those three scenes depict what the essence of our lives should be: living and dying surrounded by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It certainly describes Fr. Skelly’s life; St. Joseph permeated the air that he breathed. Astute and perceptive, he wouldn’t have carried his devotion to the foster-father of Jesus blindly into his adulthood. Instead, he would have thoughtfully discovered ways to “engraft” it onto his life.
In this Year of St. Joseph, let’s honor the Head of the Holy Family by doing the same.
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