Francis decrees special Catholic year for St. Joseph, father, ‘unnoticed’ worker, December 2020

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Dec. 8 decreed a special year dedicated to St. Joseph for the global Catholic Church, offering the 1.2 billion members of the faith an opportunity to obtain indulgences as the world continues to undergo the “grave tribulation” of the coronavirus pandemic. The special year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the 1870 naming of St. Joseph as patron of the universal church, will run through Dec. 8, 2021. Francis announced the move with an unexpected decree from the Vatican’s apostolic penitentiary, which was accompanied by a letter from the pontiff.

In the papal letter, titled Patris Corde (“With a Father’s Heart”), Francis says he had been thinking about the move for some time but his desire to decree the special year “increased” as the pandemic unfolded. The pope compares Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, to the many unheralded essential workers keeping society afloat in times of social distancing and remote work.

“Each of us can discover in Joseph — the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence — an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble,” writes the pontiff. “Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”

The decree from the apostolic penitentiary offers a plenary indulgence to Catholics who choose to take part in the special year in one of six outlined ways. Although such Catholics are obliged, as usual, to also make a confession, receive the Eucharist, and pray for the pope’s intentions, the decree recognizes that some will be unable to do so in line with pandemic social distancing measures.

“In the current context of the health emergency, the gift of the plenary indulgence is particularly extended to the elderly, the sick, those close to death and all those who for legitimate reasons find it impossible to leave their homes,” the decree states, suggesting such persons can obtain the indulgence by having an intention to fulfill the requirements “as soon as its possible.”

The six ways Catholics can celebrate the year include:

  • Meditating for at least 30 minutes on the Our Father prayer;
  • Undertaking a work of spiritual or corporal mercy in the example of Joseph, who is called a “just man” in Matthew’s Gospel;
  • Reciting the holy rosary among your family or with your partner;
  • Entrusting your daily work to the protection of Joseph, or invoking the intercession of Joseph in trying to find employment;
  • Reciting the Litany of St. Joseph, or making another similar prayer, on behalf of persecuted Christians; and,
  • Making an act of piety in honor of Joseph on the 19th of the month or on Wednesday, the day traditionally dedicated to the saint’s memory.

In Catholic teaching, an indulgence is the remission of the eventual punishment due for sins that have been confessed and forgiven. A plenary indulgence, which can only be granted in various ways outlined by the Vatican, involves the remission of all of a person’s eventual punishment.

Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, Francis had previously announced the offering of special plenary indulgences to any Catholic affected by the virus, to healthcare workers and their families, to those who pray for the end of the epidemic, and to those who die without being able to receive final rites.

Theologians told NCR that the earlier decree, announced March 20, showed a seemingly unprecedented level of pastoral care for those who suffer from the virus.

Francis’ new letter describes Joseph as a father who was beloved, tender, obedient to God, accepting, “creatively courageous,” a hard-worker and “in the shadows.

The pontiff also notes that the saint is traditionally described as a carpenter, “who earned an honest living to provide for his family.”

“Saint Joseph’s work reminds us that God himself, in becoming man, did not disdain work,” states Francis. 

“The loss of employment that affects so many of our brothers and sisters, and has increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, should serve as a summons to review our priorities,” the pope continues. “Let us implore Saint Joseph the Worker to help us find ways to express our firm conviction that no young person, no person at all, no family should be without work!”

[Joshua J. McElwee ( is NCR Vatican correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]


Mark Day has once again contributed to important critical analysis of the controversy around St. Junípero Serra as he did with his April 2019 obituary article on Bishop Francis Quinn.

It is Quinn’s 2006 homily of apology at Mission San Rafael, with members of the Miwok tribes present, that stands tall over against the demonization via exorcism performed by the San Francisco Archbishop at Mission San Rafael, on Oct. 12, 2020 — and made worse by the very this-worldly pursuit of the protestors who are now facing serious criminal charges. 

The Catholic Church needs to develop a deep culture of apology rather than pandering to the self-righteous cult of demonology. Over the last 75 years, the German nation has made powerful moves in this direction to atone for the Third Reich’s sins. Would it not be appropriate to move from arguing over the veneration of Serra to building a memorial, on church property, to the precious Native lives lost and damaged, something approaching the scale and intent of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe? Then our discussions of Serra’s legacy, in the context of the church’s role in the New World can begin again.

Pacifica, California


Thank you for your excellent article by Mark Day. I believe the “exorcisms” are a smoke screen to avoid working towards reparation and healing of our Native people who have been so brutally treated over the course of history. Seeing photos of the archbishop “exorcising” these sites reminded me of President Donald Trump grandstanding with a Bible recently in front of a church. It proved of no value and only added to the great divide and obstacles to healing our country.

Pasadena, California


Regarding the controversy over St. Junípero Serra, I don’t think it is a case of comparing the colonizing mindset of his time with our present facing of our past enslavements. What we should be examining is what Catholicism and Christianity have done to the message Jesus gave to his disciples to take to the ends of the earth, to love God and one another as Jesus demonstrated.

Ever since Catholicism became legitimized by Constantine as the law of the land and became associated with power, prestige and wealth it has increasingly become corrupted to the point we see today with the sexual abuse scandal and clericalism as the latest identified corruptions. The Catholic Church must be cleansed of this sin through public repentance and penance.

Salina, Kansas

As a white Christian priest who has stood with Native American protestors of St. Junípero Serra’s canonization, let me say that the first task of a Christian leader ought to be to sit down and listen to the stories of the Native peoples. In doing so, bishops might have learned to say, as I did, that if Pope Francis canonizes Serra he will be making war on indigenous peoples everywhere. And that Serra statues are to indigenous memories what confederate statues are to African American memories. They might read three-time Pulitzer prize winning author Elias Castillo’s important book, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, and learned that the first outsider to visit one of Serra’s missions was a French sea captain, who compared the sounds of the whips and other mission activities to the slave plantations he had visited in the Caribbean. 

What needs exorcism is the sins of the marriage of empire and church whose traumatic invasions and toppling of indigenous cultures has haunted indigenous peoples the world over for centuries. Francis should burn the Doctrine of Discovery documents in St. Peter’s Square as a public act asking for forgiveness. They don’t teach these things in Opus Dei seminaries, however, so no doubt Archbishop José Gomez has some further study to do. Such study should precede hate-filled, ignorant-filled and silly exorcisms of statues. Since when is a statue worth more than a human life — and tens of thousands of human lives? 

Vallejo, California


Five years ago, the Paris Agreement was adopted by governmental leaders: a compromised result of long negotiations and worldwide public pressure. The Paris Agreement is not ideal, but it’s an important tool to push governments to move from words to action.

Unfortunately, in the last five years, governments failed targets laid out on Dec. 12, 2015, and here we are today — on the eve of the Climate Ambition Summit, where governments are supposed to present their implementation plans (the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) — to shout again that more ambitious and imminent steps are needed.

After months of coping with COVID-19, another ecological alarm is ringing loud and clear: The overexploitation of natural resources is having devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, we have a big job to do; despite the COP26 postponement, commitments and climate action cannot be delayed.

The lockdown measures in many countries “paused” business-as-usual: our economy, our consumption, our traveling, our frenetic lifestyles. Never before has industrial civilization taken such a “break.” Some have been even “celebrating” the unusual decrease in emissions, but soon scientists warned us that this is just a tiny downturn on the long-term emissions graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve to reach the Paris Agreement’s goals. We need an entirely different movie, not just to press pause or play it in slow motion!

While we pause our lifestyles to slow during the COVID-19 crisis, it has been impossible to “pause” the permanent state of climate crisis lived by the world’s most vulnerable and poorest communities.

The pandemic in 2020 was just one more threat to the hundreds of millions of people hanging by a thread because of floods, invasion of locusts, droughts and tropical cyclones. We should dedicate all the media space available to report those stories, often ignored. We will give them space here.

Five storms hammered the Philippines in 30 days between October and November: from Typhoon Molave (locally named Quinta) on Oct. 25 to Vamco (Ulysses) on Nov. 23, which came less than a fortnight after the season’s strongest storm, Typhoon Goni (Rolly).

Throughout 2020, East Africa has been seeing its worst swarms of locusts in many decades, with devastating effects on agriculture and food security for the local population. The Brazilian Amazon rainforest is still on fire, with an increase of 13% in the first nine months of the year compared to last year.

What did we learn from the pandemic that could foster more ambitious and urgent climate action?

First of all, the health crisis confirmed the failure of the current dominant economic system. The pandemic outbreak of another zoonotic disease — such as COVID-19 — is one more example of the encroachment of human activity on nature’s boundaries. The harmony in our relationship with creation is broken.

And, as we repeatedly stated within the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, created by Pope Francis to express the church’s care for the whole human family facing the pandemic, there is no healthy humanity on a sick planet. Climate ambition must therefore restore a peaceful coexistence of nature and humanity on our planet.

Secondly, we have witnessed that governments have the power to halt certain economic activities to put the health of people first. In a year that started with a profound crisis of multilateralism and a lack of trust in intergovernmental cooperation, political leaders managed to find historic compromises during the COVID-19 emergency, such as the European recovery fund.

Climate ambition therefore means enhancing collaboration across countries within international processes, supporting each other’s efforts, such as industrialized countries financing poor countries’ adaptation to climate change.

In our rich societies, the restrictions of the lockdown brought many of us to discover a more sustainable way of living, supporting local food production, avoiding useless traveling, caring for each other by offering neighborly services to the quarantined and the sick, and showing solidarity online, on balconies, and in protests.

Children display their drawings from the balcony of their home in Thessaloniki, Greece, April 18, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drawings in Greek read: "I want spring back" and "We stay home," Greece's national slogan during the pandemic. (CNS/ReutersChildren display their drawings from the balcony of their home in Thessaloniki, Greece, April 18, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drawings in Greek read: “I want spring back” and “We stay home,” Greece’s national slogan during the pandemic. (CNS/Reuters/Murad Sezer)

Climate ambition therefore means moving toward a more sustainable way of living “so that others could simply live.”

We also learned that the most essential work in our globalized civilization, such as food production, health care, education, the manufacturing of essential goods, and the preservation of our ecosystems, is borne by the most disempowered people — often women, people of color and indigenous communities.

The pandemic landed on an already profoundly unequal society. Moreover, already vulnerable people doing essential work were further deprived of essential social services, exposed to more violence and oppression, laid off with little notice or expected to work overtime in unsanitary conditions.

The people daily paying the price of inequalities are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Climate ambition therefore means protecting the rights of and empowering the most vulnerable, as well as learning from their traditional knowledge and spirituality of care for creation.

Many policy proposals to address the pandemic were clearly guided by economic interests and foundationally ignored the common good. These measures simply aimed to “go back to normal,” instead of building back better, instead of preparing to be resilient to future crises.

And today, five years after the Paris Agreement was adopted, we will not tolerate wasting any more time or accepting long-term promises. The new normal must start now. We cannot come out of a global crisis as we were before and miss the opportunity to change course. We cannot miss the momentum: We clearly see the systems behind the crisis. Siloed environmental, economic or health reforms will not tackle the root causes of the problem.

We need a clear, holistic approach, policy coherence across sectors and at all levels, that can join forces to shape a new paradigm where people and planet are the central priority. Because we know that the path we were going on full speed is just perpetuating inequalities and ecological collapse.

So where do we stand today on our road map to 2030? There are steps toward the Paris goals to celebrate (for example, efforts on divestment from fossil fuels by many institutions, bans on single-use plastic in some regions, the initiation of processes towards “green deals,” based on a vision of interconnectedness across different agendas, etc.).

In many of these, local actors clearly played a key role. This is a sign that change can only happen if local communities are leading or participating.

Unfortunately, science is telling us that too little has been done — and too slowly — to truly confront the climate crisis, especially in the most vulnerable regions. We have almost reached a mean temperature increase of 1.2 degrees Celsius globally.

While measures for a just and sustainable recovery are debated, “growth at all costs” remains the mainstream mentality of the majority of political leaders, and societies remain trapped in a “throwaway culture.”

Today, and this coming year, is an opportunity, while we build plans for a just and sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery, to assess where each country’s commitment stands, to look at those 2015 agreements and honor the Paris commitment.

The moral call to conscience at this moment could truly bring about an unprecedented decade of transformation. These are the essential ingredients for true ambition:

  • Climate pledges should be rooted in a moral imperative to save people’s lives and protect their rights;
  • Climate pledges should be based on the emissions reductions recommended by scientific data to avoid extinction;
  • Climate pledges should include measures to address and limit the social and economic effects of the transition on the most vulnerable parts of society worldwide;
  • Climate pledges should look beyond business-as-usual to alternatives that follow the cyclical nature of ecosystems (e.g., supporting the circular economy, sustainable food systems such as agroecology, etc.);
  • Climate pledges should protect and learn from traditional knowledge, especially from Indigenous people, the first guardians of Mother Earth.

It’s complex, but it’s possible. It is our responsibility to hold leaders accountable for the implementation of their climate action.

Five years ago, in the streets of Paris, we learned that it’s crucial for all of us — for civil society movements, church actors, communities, youth, media and scientific bodies — to work together to contribute to bringing about a decade of restoration toward 2030, a decade of jubilee, a decade that can inspire, can empower change, a decade that has already started.

[Chiara Martinelli is senior adviser at CIDSE, an international coalition of Catholic social justice organizations.]

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