December 2010

Go to Joseph.  By Richard W. Gilsdorf. Edited by Patrick F. Beno. Star of the Bay Press (distributed by Catholic Word, W5180 Jefferson St., Necedah WI 54646; www.catholicword.com; 800-932-3826). 160 pages. $8.95.

In the Holy Family there exists what might be called a hierarchy of familiarity. First and foremost in this “earthly trinity” is Jesus, the Son of God, the central figure not only of the Christian religion but of the history of mankind. A close second, at least for Catholics, is His mother, Mary. In a distant third place, and overshadowed almost entirely by the other two, is the elusive figure of Joseph, Mary’s chaste husband and Jesus’ earthly father.

Who was St. Joseph? Scripture isn’t much help, and offers little more than a basic sketch: A descendant of the House of David, he was a carpenter of meager means and is described fleetingly as “a just man” (Mt. 1:19). His most memorable actions are to heed the messages delivered to him by angels in his dreams. Beyond that, Scripture is silent. Joseph himself is silent too: not a word of his is recorded in Scripture.

According to the late Fr. Richard Gilsdorf, this “mystery of silence” has a “divinely intended purpose.” His book Go to Joseph, edited by Pat­rick Beno and released posthumously, is an attempt to plumb the knowledge of the Church in order to help bring the nebulous figure of St. Joseph into focus — that makes it a short book. Fr. Gilsdorf also aims to debunk some of the popular myths and even heresies about St. Joseph that have arisen in the absence of sufficient reliable historical data, especially those found in the “ravings of the apocrypha,” such as that Joseph was a decrepit, senile widower when he was espoused to Mary, or that he had numerous children from an earlier marriage, or that he possessed a miraculous flowering staff that allowed him to overcome Mary’s other suitors. Along the way, Fr. Gilsdorf provides a solid defense of the traditional teaching regarding Joseph’s virginity.

Fr. Gilsdorf identifies the Old Testament Joseph, who saved the Israelites by bringing them to Egypt, as the biblical type of the New Testament Joseph, the “patriarch of the New Covenant,” who brought the Savior out of Egypt. With the aid of the various saints, popes, and Fathers of the Church, as well as a few Church-approved private revelations, Fr. Gilsdorf fills out the picture of the Holy Family’s daily life and elucidates Joseph’s exclusive mission to rear, educate, and “defend and protect the living Bread of Heaven for the life of the world” as He grows into manhood. Fr. Gilsdorf captures Joseph’s silent strength as he fulfills this crucial role: “By natural law, Jesus was subject to them [his parents] in His human nature, but not of course, in His divinity. Indeed, in all scriptural references, Joseph is head of the Holy Family and first in authority…. But this unheard of authority (to command God!) was the source of Jo­seph’s humility. He knew better than anyone that, in this family, he was the least in sanctity and dignity. All the faithful, in turn, recognize with awe that, next to Mary, Joseph is the greatest and most glorious of the saints.” As such, Joseph provides men with an “unsurpassed model of fatherly watchfulness and care,” and, even more, “the paternity of Joseph is the supreme and most perfect mirror of God the Father.”

Fr. Gilsdorf doesn’t heap superlatives upon St. Joseph without reason. Although he is often relegated to the status of a footnote in biblical studies (he disappears altogether from the Scriptures after the finding of Jesus in the temple) and devotional practices, the Church exalts this saint. In his December 8, 1870, decree Quemadmodum Deus, Bl. Pope Pius IX declared Joseph the “Patron Saint of the Church Universal.” On August 15, 1889, in his encyclical Quam­quam Pluries, Pope Leo XIII said Joseph “should be regarded as the protector and defender of the Church.” It’s interesting to note that these dates are also major Marian feast days: December 8, the Immaculate Conception (promulgated in 1854); August 15, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (promulgated in 1950). Pope Benedict XV named Joseph “Patron of Workers” in 1920, during the ascendancy of worldwide communism; Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1955, as a direct response to the challenge of that nefarious political philosophy. Not coincidentally, Joseph appeared in the final apparition at Fatima on October 13, 1917, holding the child Jesus in his arms and blessing the world. Joseph is also the patron of a happy death, of Canada, and, naturally, of fathers.

What of the “divinely intended purpose” of the silence of Scripture about the life and person of St. Joseph? “One obvious reason,” writes Fr. Gilsdorf, is so that “all persons of all places and times can apply the basic facts to their own individual lives,” and so that “families of all ages can more readily imitate the essential virtues of the Holy Family.”

Though it suffers somewhat from a cumbersome footnote/end­note scheme, Go to Joseph is han­dy for meditative and devotional purposes and as a means to grow closer to the man who truly lived in the Real Presence of Christ. Why is this important? As Bishop David L. Ricken writes in the Foreword, “Devotion to St. Joseph strengthens families, sows vocations to holiness, strengthens our commitments to justice, and safeguards our relationship with Christ.” Not only do we have a Blessed Mother looking down upon us from above with love and care, we have a blessed father, her chaste spouse, doing so as well. Isn’t it time we got to know him?

All proceeds from sales of Go to Joseph go to the support of Wyoming Catholic College, an institution of higher learning founded in 2005 by Bishop Ricken (who gave the book an imprimatur), formerly the ordinary of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and currently the bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin — Fr. Gilsdorf’s hometown and the site of his priestly ministry.

- Pieter Vree



The Harrowing Escape.  By T.J. Smith. Tate Publishing (127 E. Trade Center Terr., Mustang OK 73064; www.tatepublishing.com). 328 pages. $23.99.

The Harrowing Escape.  By T.J. Smith. Tate Publishing (127 E. Trade Center Terr., Mustang OK 73064; www.tatepublishing.com). 328 pages. $23.99.

The Sinister Realm.  By T.J. Smith. Tate Publishing (127 E. Trade Center Terr., Mustang OK 73064; www.tatepublishing.com). 360 pages. $23.99.

The lure of adventure/fantasy fiction lies in a fascination with faraway, seen and unseen worlds popularized by lavishly produced films and computer games. T.J. Smith capitalizes on our culture’s enthusiasm for this genre with a frantically paced trilogy fraught with horror and a spectacular cast of misbegotten, cross-species monsters.

Book One: A World Away introduces hero Dan Clay, a high-school senior and all-around good guy beset by bullies in a small town. Spooky Eldritch Forest is situated nearby — a wilderness where Dan’s older brother William disappeared 13 years earlier. During a full moon, Dan wanders into the forest, passes completely through a large oak tree, and lands in a parallel world. He quickly returns through the tree and meets Sam, a homeless former philosophy professor who has also been to the other side. According to Sam, the “forest in the other world, the one through the tree, in addition to being dark and ominous, is also infested with bloodthirsty creatures, a diabolical castle, and the Reclaim­ers.” The Reclaimers are fifty men who were condemned to Hell after committing horrific crimes, but Hell was too good for them, so they were transported to the parallel world. (Apparently, what happens in Hell doesn’t always stay in Hell.) These half-men, half-serpent monsters lure ailing humans to their castle with offers of perfect health — but only if they take up permanent residence. The storyline sets up the rescue of William, who is believed to be in the castle.

Dan confesses his rescue plan to Fr. James, his parish priest, but withholds it from his parents, both of whom are banal, one-dimensional characters. (Most of the players could use more complexity.) Sam, Dan, and teenaged friends Jimmy and Cindy enter the other world with an abundance of feel-good camaraderie. The travelers are aided by a tree nymph, a sort of Tinker Bell, but suffer attacks by trees and a three-headed saber-toothed tiger with “maggot-infested fur…and oversize ears diseased with worms.” The parade of fiends continues with giant frogs spewing flesh-eating tadpoles. Whiffs of Greek and Celtic mythology arise through depictions of Sam as an elderly wizard on an underworld voyage. The horror becomes non-stop with strikes from gigantic water snakes, centaurs, snails, forest moles, three-foot-long spiders, prehistoric birds with burrowing stinkbugs, killer weeds, and one-eyed fanged trolls with second eyes in their tails. Deliverance always arrives at the last minute, and throughout it all, the group’s diet and camping protocols receive exquisite attention.

The wayfarers finally enter the castle and spy half-human, crustacean-like men: “Part crayfish, part human, and part fish, each beast walked upon eight legs, while displaying two oversize anterior claws and a pair of probing antennae.” Escape is by dumbwaiter to a dungeon, wrapping up Book One.

Book Two: The Harrowing Escape concerns conflict within the fortress. Castles, of course, are steeped with the mystical, the long-ago, and the far-away, and Smith makes the most of this environment. The dungeon is home to a friendly satyr (half-man, half-goat) in a toga. Salvus is a good satyr who has served for 200 years as a musician for the Re­claimers. (Who knew that a goat-man could be so chatty, chummy, and caring?) The group leaves this hellhole through secret passageways to search for William. The freak show proceeds apace through laborious accounts of hand-to-hand combat with giant wasps, lizards, gargoyles, centipedes, and harpies. Dan and his group’s deeds of derring-do do not disappoint.

The homefolks finally rescue William after lengthy, weirdo escapades in the castle, and proceed back to the real world, encountering new beasts — attacking shadows, hookworms, flying swordfish, a dragon, a griffin, 200-pound spiders, and African Toe-Biters. Holy water puts down seed-spitting flowers.

At the portal they are greeted by St. Michael the Archangel himself; he had given them cover all along the way. The kicker comes when the monsters leave the netherworld and arrive at the Clay home, setting in motion a series of horrific events that urge readers on to Book Three.

Book Three: The Sinister Realm follows the sojourners (now including Fr. James, William, and a workman) after they are cast through a mysterious oak on the parish lawn into seven different underworld caves. The caves (not the parallel world) are replete with even more elaborate hellions visiting unspeakable tortures upon innumerable victims. After suffering themselves, the visitors finally gather together and realize that they and the souls in each specialty cave are in Hell, being punished for one of the seven capital sins — pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, or sloth. Consider the hapless Jimmy, possessor of a big appetite and a bit of extra weight: His body was invaded by nine monstrous tapeworms (one with its tail dangling out of his mouth) in the Hell of gluttony. Tortures for the other vices are equally inspired.

Smith continues constructing the terrors of this Hell through a series of graphic, vicious cruelties. At this point, if it wasn’t grasped earlier, readers understand that the savagery of Smith’s inferno is created to instill fear of Hell and Purgatory. (Purgatory was long taught as Hell with a term limit.) Our gang eventually runs into Lucifer, and readers will not easily forget the odiousness of this nightmare encounter. Certainly the stick has its uses, but in these books, the carrot is hard to find.

These fables give Hollywood’s most explicit horror movies a run for their money. Horror mixed with spirituality and religion is easy to find in literature and film, but this trilogy’s excesses are wearying and may elicit only cynicism from some readers. Although simply and plainly written, these books are not for kids.

- Mary McWay Seaman





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