Seeing things that aren’t there signifies either poor eyesight or unclear thinking. But not seeing things that are there is equally deficient. It is a tricky business, in other words, to see the signs of our lives correctly.
Our Faith tells us that our eternal and invisible God works His loving providence through the persons, events and circumstances of our everyday lives. For “those who have eyes to see,” then, the power of God ought to be detectable. Consider, for example, a recent story involving St. Joseph, my son, and me—and whether or not I was seeing something (or someone) who was there.
In February 2020, my 18-year-old son, Dominic, and his cousin traveled to Kenya for a few months of mission work among orphaned children. The trip began wonderfully—welcoming people, grateful children and, for these young men, a broader vision of this world and God’s work in it. But then the COVID-19 pandemic began to gain traction. By mid-March, the entire world was gearing up for lockdowns, quarantines or worse. Borders were closed; airline flights were canceled; people were close to panic. In short, uncertainty reigned, and I began to wonder: Would my son and nephew be trapped in a foreign country as the pandemic continued to take hold?
But by God’s providence (a theme I will be returning to in this story), I had the foresight to employ the services of a travel agent, rather than my usual on-the-cheap, do-it-yourself online purchase. With the help of the travel agent, I was able to change tickets so that the boys could depart on March 19—the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus. This is the same St. Joseph who, as many readers know, is the patron of the Diocese of La Crosse—and Patron of the Universal Church, so named by Pope Pius IX exactly 150 years ago. In short, I saw (or thought I saw) in the March 19 date a sign that God, through the intercession of St. Joseph, would bring my son and his cousin home amid such chaos. “St. Joseph, pray for us!” was a common prayer in the Carstens household during the days leading up to the March 19 return from Africa.
But things didn’t go according to plan—at least not my plan.
The first of three flights of their return trip went well, a jaunt from rural Kenya to that nation’s capital, Nairobi. But at the Nairobi airport, there was a problem with their tickets from Nairobi to Frankfurt, Germany. Some inexplicable glitch or other circumstance had rendered their tickets (in hand) no longer valid.
I don’t mind admitting that this father’s heart skipped a few beats when I received the phone call from Dominic in the Nairobi airport. The most complicated and convoluted session of phone tag ensued, involving individuals in Kenya, Wisconsin and Germany (headquarters of their airline). Across three continents, a furious volley of phone calls took place involving children, parents, travel agents and a cast of other minor and major players in the drama. But when it was all over, the boys were still in Kenya, with no tickets and no plan B.
“Hey, St. Joseph! What’s happening?” I wanted to ask. “And why? My plan was all in place: on your feast day, you were to lead my son back to me. I could see this. Why couldn’t you?”
Well, so much for this father’s plan. Instead, thankfully, another paternal plan was about to unfold, and in ways my little mind would never have guessed.
It began with the excellent people at Fox World Travel in Greenfield, Wis., to whom I will be forever grateful for finding the proverbial needle in a haystack (and doing so while the haystack was on fire)! Fox World found a flight home for my son and nephew. Rather than the original flight, where the boys would change planes in Frankfurt, this flight went from Nairobi to Dubai, then directly to Chicago. But here’s where the story takes another interesting turn: While Frankfurt was a COVID-19 epicenter in March 2020, Dubai was at that time COVID-free. It was as if these fathers—God the Father and St. Joseph—were calling my son home not out of Germany but “out of Egypt” (Mt 2:15), or at least flying close to it. Maybe St. Joseph was on the case after all.
HEY, ST. JOSEPH!
MY PLAN WAS ALL IN PLACE. I COULD SEE THIS: WHY COULDN’T YOU?
The boys waited 48 hours for their flight to depart—even as the world’s frenzy over the pandemic grew in pace with the pandemic itself. Yet, the boys continued to enjoy the hospitality and fellowship of their mission hosts. As Dominic would later relate, these last days in Kenya were among the most memorable of an already memorable, if abbreviated, stay.
In the end, the boys returned home to Wisconsin without further incident on Sunday, March 22—not St. Joseph’s day but, as it happened, the Lord’s Day. They were safe, healthy and grateful to be back. As for their father, he had found a new respect for St. Joseph.
God asked St. Joseph to shoulder great responsibility: to care for Jesus and Mary, even when the Father’s plan was not entirely (or perhaps remotely!) clear. For example, St. Joseph finds his betrothed with child, yet he trusts the dream-message of an angel. When he is asked to return to Bethlehem for the census, he watches in awe as the world’s population increases by at least one more when his child is born in a barn. Yet, St. Joseph still trusts. In haste, he gathers mother and child for an unexpected detour through Egypt as Herod hunts his son, and still he trusts God’s plan.
Did I see God’s presence and providence at work as St. Joseph brought my own son back to safety? I admit that, at the time, I did not see it clearly. But as I think back upon this episode, the working of God and the intercession of St. Joseph become clearer. I hope it is a vision, and a lesson, that will stand before my eyes for years to come.
As we continue to celebrate the sesquicentennial of St. Joseph’s title of Universal Patron and continue our own local celebration of his patronage, may we all be inspired to “Go to Joseph.” And as our Lent continues its journey through the desert, may St. Joseph lead us into Easter’s promised land.
Director of the Office for Sacred Worship
Published March 2021 Catholic Life Issue