Salute to a 'Silent Saint'

Interview by Dan Valenti

Father Anthony ("Tony") Nockunas, MIC, has been a member of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception since 1949. Father Tony, 80, has served the Marians in many assignments over the years. Presently, he lives and works on Eden Hill, where he ministers to pilgrims. Father Tony is the proverbial wise elder, who has used his varied life experiences for the good of God and to serve man.

How did your devotion to St. Joseph begin?
As a boy, but my devotion to Mary was stronger. I grew up on a farm in Lithuania, one of eight children. I didn't have specific ideas about religious life, but the Lord had a plan. My mother was a devout Catholic, more than my father, who had to work the farm. Lithuania suffered from great atrocities. The Russians occupied the country until the Germans invaded in 1940 and threw the communists out. In 1944, the Russians drove out Germany. I witnessed gunfire between the two armies in a battle near our farm. The Germans used the farm as a field hospital.

At what point did your faith life include a priestly vocation?
Later. I left Lithuania in 1944, when I was about 16. That year I went to stay with my aunt's family in Germany. I stayed through April 1945. It was a rough life, but we had enough to survive. I think because of the impermanence resulting from the war, I started paying attention to the things that last. That's when my vocation began, although I still didn't know it. High school is when my spirituality began to develop.

Is that when St. Joseph came into the picture?
Yes. Gradually, as I desired to serve God as a priest, I became attracted to St. Joseph and the mission God gave him. Joseph's call came directly from God, as I sensed about my calling. The Scriptures tell us St. Joseph was thinking about divorce. In doing so, Joseph wasn't thinking of himself. He was thinking about God and Mary. When he learned Mary was pregnant not by him, Joseph didn't want to offend God, and he didn't want to hold Mary up for insult and ridicule. He thought the honorable solution was divorce. But then Joseph had a dream that came from God, and he believed God. Joseph said "yes." I learned from this and also said "yes."

How else did St. Joseph influence you?
I've admired St. Joseph for his industriousness as a faithful provider of his family. He worked as a carpenter, and in private revelation, we learn about his goodness, for example, not charging for work if someone had no money. My devotion to St. Joseph made progress when I became a student at a seminary in Rome. At that time, I joined a confraternity that prayed for those who were dying. This brought me into a greater relationship with St. Joseph, because he is the patron saint of a happy death.

Why is he patron of the dying?
He had Jesus and Mary at his side when he died! What could be better? [Father Tony Laughs.] Scripture does not mention Joseph's death, but tradition and inference hold that he died before Jesus and Mary. The Gospels contain several references by others to Jesus' relatives and mother, where these people make no mention of Joseph. He only appears during the childhood of Jesus.

Did helping the dying appeal to you on an emotional level?
That's a good way of saying it. In the seminary, I learned to pray in Latin and began praying regularly to St. Joseph, true spouse of Mary and foster father to Jesus. My prayer included a request for intercession on behalf of those who would be dying on that particular day or night. Almost 60 years later, I still pray this way and each year offer a Mass for the dying.

The Gospels don't say much about Joseph. Why?
It's true. Saint Joseph is one of the "silent saints." He doesn't utter a word in the Bible. I think he was a quiet man. He had an inner strength that comes from great faith. We know of his deep faith because of the
way he could discern and trust the voice of God, who spoke to him in dreams. He knew Jesus was special because the angel told him in a dream that the boy was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph believed this.

What other qualities do you see in St. Joseph?
Saint Joseph lived his spirituality. He was a workingman and provided for Mary and Jesus. He also remained open to God's instruction, listened to the Old Testament prophets, and prayed the Psalms. I have no doubt he was industrious, fair, and good. He's the patron saint of workers.

He seems a courageous man.
I agree. When I counsel people with family problems, I recommend they pray to St. Joseph. The same with refugees. When I worked as a parish priest in Plano, IL, we had many Hispanics who had left their countries and who needed help. I would refer them to St. Joseph, because he, too, was a refugee. He took Jesus and Mary [out of Judea and] into Egypt to escape danger. That took great courage. I think I know, because I myself am a refugee from communism.

Is there anything else to add?
One last thing to remember about our devotion to this special saint. Sometimes when we think of the Holy Family, St. Joseph gets forgotten. Everyone would profit greatly by including St. Joseph in daily prayer.

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