The roots of the devotion to the Holy Spouses, Mary and Joseph, are best documented by the history of the Feast of the Espousals,4 which predates by centuries the current Feast of the Holy Family. Although never extended to the universal Church calendar, this feast has longstanding and widespread usage in many particular liturgical calendars. Proposed by John Charlier Gerson at the Council of Constance in 1416, the Feast of the Betrothal of Mary Most Holy and St. Joseph was adopted by 1482 for the Cathedral of Chartres (celebrated on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Advent), in 1517 by the Annunciation Nuns founded by Joan of Valois, in 1537 by the Franciscans (celebrated March 7), and soon after by other religious orders, such as the Servites (celebrated March 8) and the Dominicans (celebrated January 22). In 1684 Innocent XI permitted its celebration in the empire of Leopold I, and later also in Spain. In 1725 Benedict XIII did the same for the Papal States, setting the date for January 23.
During the last two centuries various particular permissions have been given to celebrate the feast, usually on January 23 and occasionally in February, on November 26, or even the Last Sunday after Pentecost. On December 12, 1840, permission was granted also to the United States of America. The extent of usage merited its inclusion in editions of the pre-Vatican II Roman Missal for January 23 in the section for particular places, pro aliquibus locis.
Some of those who received approval for local observance of the feast were: the Dioceses of Lausanne, Geneva, and Perpignan, the Benedictine nuns of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Kingdom of Saigon, the Province of Oregon, the Diocese of San Donnino now Fidenza, the Province of Quebec, the Archdiocese of Fribourg, St. Martin’s Monastery in Portugal, the Diocese of Cordoba Argentina, the Diocese of Rio de Janeiro Brazil, the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, the Capuchins, the Swiss-American Benedictines, the Augustinian Canonesses of the Congregation of Notre Dame at Épinal France, the Hungarian Cistercians, the Dioceses of Kotor in Yugoslavia, and Como, Pinerolo, and Matelica in Italy, the Pious Society of Devotees of St. Joseph in Barcelona, the Diocese of Huesca, the Cistercian Nuns of Segovia, St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, Marello’s Oblates of St. Joseph, the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, Murialdo’s Congregation of St. Joseph, the Diocese of Zacatecas, Mexico, and the Piarist Church of the Espousals in Vienna Austria.
St. Joseph Marello (1844-1895) lived and promoted a spirituality of humility and charity based on that of the Holy Family of Nazareth. He founded the Oblates of St. Joseph to imitate Mary’s husband in service to the interests of Jesus. He reflected upon the fact that the greatest saints of all time, Mary and Joseph, lived an ordinary, hidden life, and that sanctity therefore consisted in daily expressions of love in family life, work, and prayer. He introduced the Feast of the Betrothal among his Oblates, who have always held it in great esteem, and who on February 21, 1921 obtained from the Sacred Congregation of Rites the indult to celebrate it with the rank of major double.
In 1961 the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued an instruction that removed from particular calendars numerous particular feasts, including the Feast of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph, except in places where the feasts have a special connection with the place itself. In the post Vatican II period of liturgical renewal, the feast is again being permitted for particular liturgical calendars. By Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship on May 18, 1989, the Oblates of St. Joseph obtained permission to celebrate on January 23 “The Holy Spouses Mary and Joseph” with the liturgical rank of “Feast,” and full proper texts, including a proper preface.
In our times when marriage is so under attack, the renewal of the family could well be served by the incorporation of the Feast of the Holy Spouses into the particular calendars of individual Dioceses, religious congregations, and countries throughout the world, and eventually by introduction of the feast into the liturgical calendar of the Universal Church. This can occur as popular devotion to the Holy Spouses grows, leading the faithful to petition celebration of the feast.