By Deacon John De Gano
Many years ago, while watching Iron Chef, I heard one of the judges describe the minimal use of an ingredient in a competition as “the shadow of” (the eel). At the time I laughed, thinking that this was a cop-out or excuse for not being able to taste the ingredient, but with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Patris Conde, describing one of the traits of St. Joseph in the same way, I have come to realize its meaning in my life.
My dad was a gentle man who, after his three sons had grown, would sit quietly in his recliner chair after dinner and do the crossword puzzle or drive over to the Senior Center once a week to play Bridge. But when we were young, he filled our summer vacations with trips and adventures up and down the West Coast, visiting state and national parks, 20 of the 21 California Missions, and two World’s Fairs that we fondly remember even to this day.
Dad always took an interest in our activities, helping us with our homework, serving as an assistant scout master, volunteering to chaperone school field trips, and teaching us how to do woodworking, pouring cement, and painting around our home.
We always thought this was normal family life and dismissed our friends’ comments about how “cool” he was. My brothers and I were oblivious to all the time and attention he was lavishing on us.
That is, until the last field trip he and I took together, to Disneyland. I was in Junior High and was anxious to do my own thing… and as soon as they were finished taking a head count at the little park in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, I told him I wanted to go off with my friends. He said “okay.” He’d be at the bench if I needed anything. And I began my first adventure without him. Every hour or so, we would pass where he was on our way to one or another “land” and I’d see him just where he said he’d be (perhaps talking with another parent) and I would keep on going. I didn’t even stop to have lunch. When the day was drawing to a close and we were to reassemble, do a head count before boarding the buses, I was shocked to find him surrounded by six or eight of my classmates, deep in excited conversation with him. They were telling him all about their experiences and he was listening and laughing that it seemed he was having a wonderful time… Without me!
Jealousy came over me and I wanted to scream, “He’s my dad!” But his smile of recognition stopped me in my tracks, and I realized that I had taken his love and attention for granted. And in so doing, I had learned a valuable lesson about life. Each of us, by just being our authentic selves, can be a positive “shadow” for someone else, making even total strangers feel loved, respected, and valued by just listening to them.
St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was just this sort of a parent. Joseph was a righteous man, plied his trade and protected his family. And while the Scriptures do not record any of his words, his shadow continued to guide his stepson, Jesus, and serve to support Mary, his spouse.
It is on account of Joseph’s accompaniment that Jesus grew in wisdom and maturity, learned a skill alongside his stepfather and would forever be “shadowed” (referred to as “the carpenter’s son” because of the good reputation Joseph had within the community where he lived and worked) long after Joseph’s passing.
Joseph’s fatherly love must have warmed Jesus’ heart (as my dad’s did mine) so that he felt he had to leave Nazareth in order to chart his own course and that, as Jesus matured, he recognized Joseph’s privileged role as a shadow parent for his Heavenly Father.
May we be so blessed as to recognize our Heavenly Father’s shadow in all those we encounter and are ministered by (whether culinary chefs or amusement park popcorn vendors on Main Street) all along our way home to the Promised Land and be proud to say, “I am my Father’s beloved son or daughter.”
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Riverside.