Authentic Authority: the Joseph Option

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He co-authored two bestselling books with Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB. He is the author of Through the Heart of St. Joseph.


What does authority look like in the Joseph Option? Pope Francis gave a picture of this when he described Nazareth as the School of St. Joseph: “During the hidden years in Nazareth, Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father. That will was to be his daily food (cf. Jn 4:34)."

Joseph had no small task. It was his responsibility to teach Jesus to do the will of the Father! At first, that seems overwhelming, but as we press into it, we discover how ordinary God’s will really is. When Joseph asked Jesus to do His chores and complete certain tasks necessary for their carpentry projects, when he asked Him for a cup of cold water, or when they went together to visit a sick neighbor, in each case they were doing the will of the Father. At the same time, we know that Joseph would not abuse his authority and ask of Jesus anything unnecessary or purely selfish, let alone sinful. Here we see a richer understanding of obedience as St. Benedict also understood it. Obedience is not just carrying out commands, but more broadly it involves accepting reality. Obedience to the Father’s will accepts rainy days along with droughts. In humble, silent obedience, we trust that God will give us whatever we need in order to do what He wants us to do (see 2 Cor 9:8). 

When we think about Nazareth as a school where the teachers and pupils are all living out the virtues of obedience, silence, and humility, it gives us a picture of the kind of environment we can create if we take the Joseph Option. In such a place, there are superiors (e.g. abbots, mothers, fathers, business owners, managers, etc.) who must make decisions, but the decisions are made with care, forethought, and reverence for those who must carry them out. And for their part, the pupils carry out the master’s instructions with trust and love. In this way, as St. Benedict described it, there are rules, carefully laid down to amend faults and safeguard love, but never anything harsh or burdensome. 

In a monastery, it is more obvious why we need an abbot and regulations, but one might question why the sinless Son of God and His sinless mother needed such structures in Nazareth. Therein we discover that human mediation is part of God’s perfect plan, and so it is also part of the Joseph Option. St. Benedict was not only creating remedies for sin but was also implementing a divine pattern in his communities. It is a divine principle for God’s love to be communicated through creaturely mediation. Although God could accomplish everything directly, He chooses to work through fragile human vessels (see 2 Cor 4:7). Thus, even if a monastery or a family were to be filled with saints, there would still be a role for order and authority under a leader. The hierarchy of mediation that reaches up to God Himself is part of the divine design and not merely a governance structure for sinful men. The divine pattern is always an inverted triangle, however, with the greatest being on the bottom in order to serve the least, as Jesus repeatedly insisted with His Apostles (see Matt 20:26, 23:11; Mark 9:35, 10:43). 

Sometimes, in Christian practice, a devaluing of human relationships and human mediation can develop. Those who are struggling are sometimes dismissed by the strong to go and find God directly in prayer as if He would prefer to substitute a spiritual solution or even work a miracle rather than work through a human response to a human problem. Sometimes people even piously challenge the suffering not to need human support by claiming that God should be enough for them. The correction of St. James still applies, however: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” (Jas 2:15–16). As Jesus told the Apostles, “You give them something to eat” (Matt 14:16). Although God could have saved us in a different way, He chose to save us through the human flesh of His Son, born into the human marriage of Joseph and Mary. Jesus learned in childhood that His Father would provide bread, and so in the beginning of His public ministry, He could resist Satan’s temptation to bypass human mediation by turning stones into bread. God continues to prefer human and angelic means to mediate His grace.  

In the Joseph Option, the one who has authority also has the responsibility to provide for the others. It is the challenge for those in authority to learn a way of tenderness that most easily communicates divine tenderness to those in their care. 

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Though he speaks no words in Scripture, St. Joseph’s message to us is resounding: he wants to lead us to Jesus. In Through the Heart of St. Joseph, Fr. Boniface Hicks reveals the path St. Joseph has laid.