Share this story

 | By Sister Pam Smith

Invisible People and a Special Saint for March

Over the years I’ve seen and spoken with a number of invisible people. No, I’m not aping “The Sixth Sense” star Haley Joel Osment’s oft-repeated line: “I see dead people.” And, no, I didn’t spend early childhood with imaginary friends; and for sure I’m not a saint having visions and locutions.

What I’m talking about are people who go unnoticed. Time and again I’ve heard colleagues remark that no one was in the school building after 9:00 p.m. Well, actually, the janitor was. For a time I taught English and religion at a Catholic high school in northwest Indiana. The convent was attached to the school, so after a basketball game or play practice, it was easy enough to head over to the school’s copy room and run off tests. The janitor made the rounds of the building with his large mop and ring of copious keys, yet somehow it was easy to ignore him.

What I learned, once we struck up regular conversations, was that he’d had a dramatic near-death experience in the Army. It left him with a vivid and deeply personal relationship with the Lord Jesus and a conviction about the reality and splendor of heaven. His insights into God, the world situation and people in general were much more profound than my own.

Then there were the two ladies serving food and checking meal tickets at a university dining hall in Pittsburgh. I spent the early 1990s at Duquesne and often spent 12 hours a day on campus. The ladies and I exchanged pleasantries as I lingered over an extended lunch or supper while reading, making class notes and correcting papers. Twenty years later I attended a conference in the city and on a break, I trudged uphill to Duquesne, cruised through the library and the bookstore, visited the chapel and stopped in the dining hall for coffee. The same two ladies were there. One told me that the other was over 80 years old — and she was likely nearly that — and they were still working because Social Security wasn’t that great and they needed to keep busy. She was shocked that I remembered them. Meanwhile, I remained grateful that they had warmed a sometimes lonely stretch of my life.

We have the tendency not to notice and acknowledge waitstaff clearing tables, cashiers in grocery stores, attendants at toll booths, auto mechanics, trash collectors and other routine — now known as “essential” — workers. A pause to look them in the eye, exchange banter and a thanks can often reveal downright amazing people with unique histories.

Somehow I think St. Joseph must have been like one of these invisible souls. He gets an honorable mention in our eucharistic liturgies: we have March 19 as his solemnity and the month of March has a traditional novena dedicated to him. On May 1, we revisit him as we celebrate St. Joseph the Worker, but we know very little about him.

He has often been dubbed “Joseph the Silent” because Scripture records not a single word spoken by him. The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer his genealogy, and we know that he responded to messages God sent in dreams. Other than that, we see him more implicitly than explicitly as the protective husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus. He’s dutiful and unassuming. Just once during Jesus’ adult life is he referenced, and that is in a question about Jesus: “Is he not the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:55).

What we realize when we step back is that Joseph has had counterparts throughout salvation history and has them today. They are the hidden holy ones who go about their lives with quiet fidelity, respond and adapt to whatever comes their way, and through their unknown prayer and attention to God’s will and Word exercise tremendous spiritual leverage in our world. They somehow have borne the life and goodness of God for us and to us.

Though St. Joseph took on herculean responsibilities, he was content to stand in the background and let his wife and son be at the forefront. Because of this, an almost invisible man gets a nod from us this month. Perhaps, in celebrating him, we can remember to tune in to the invisible people in our workaday world. One or another of them may be a secret saint — and well worth talking to.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at