A friend of mine who is a Jewish convert to Catholicism was startled a few years ago to find a statue of St. Joseph in the curio cabinet of Jewish relatives and asked about it. They shrugged and said that when they were in the process of buying their new home that their real estate agent had given them a St. Joseph home-selling kit. The instructions they were given included displaying a statue of St. Joseph in the newly purchased home once St. Joseph's "mission" was complete, so they did.
No one really knows why or how St. Joseph became the patron saint of real estate sales. The urban legend investigator, Snopes.com, offers some theories. The practice is widespread enough that we here at Catholic Answers get questions all the time from inquirers wondering if it is okay to bury a statue of St. Joseph in their yard in hopes of buying or selling a house. One inquirer was particularly incensed at a practice she considered disrespectful to St. Joseph:
Every Catholic bookstore I visit has St. Joseph kits to help sell a house. It contains a St. Joseph statue with the instructions to bury the statue of St. Joseph upside-down in the backyard but it also says the person using it can choose where and how to use the kit. This to me is the seller's way of diverting any "bad" feelings any desperate homeowner may feel during this offensive practice.
How in the world can St. Joseph, the father of our Lord, head of the household in the Holy Family, be treated with such blasphemy? I tell the owners of the Catholic bookstores that this action is wrong and they ignore me. Can you try to justify this disrespect? Why is this allowed in places where we search for knowledge, hope, and instruction? I now prefer to visit any Christian bookstore over our Catholic bookstores. They are to me sacrilegious pits!
I sympathized with her outrage, but perhaps she was being overly harsh toward Catholic bookstores, a harshness that evidently had her preferring Protestant bookstores where the materials sold are even less compatible with the Catholic faith.
Catholic spirituality is incarnational, meaning that it encompasses both body and soul. Catholics don't just pray with their minds, they pray with their bodies, as can be seen at Mass with the various bodily postures we assume during the liturgy (e.g., standing, sitting, kneeling). Likewise our private devotions can be incarnational. If a Catholic chooses to bury a statue of St. Joseph as a form of physical prayer to the saint for his intercession in selling a house, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not blasphemous or sacrilegious, but an authentic form of Catholic folk piety. St. Andre Bessette, as but one example, once buried a medal of St. Joseph on the site where he hoped to one day build an oratory in St. Joseph's honor, a prayer that was answered.
That said, such a practice can shade off into superstition. If the person burying the statue thinks that the very action of burying the statue (or burying the statue in a certain position) will guarantee a positive result, that is not an authentic expression of trust in God and St. Joseph's intercession, but is instead superstitious:
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God (e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary). To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition (CCC 2111).
It should go without saying that it is all the more superstitious for a non-Christian to take up the practice of burying a statue of St. Joseph simply because there is an assurance that the act will "work." It cannot be called a form of Christian prayer for someone who is not a Christian to engage in the external act alone absent any kind of Christian faith. Of course, culpability for superstition can be mitigated by a lack of knowledge and a willingness to treat a Christian devotional item respectfully (as was the case with my friend's relatives), but it is still a more clear-cut case of superstition when a non-Christian buries a statue of St. Joseph in hopes of gaining a house.
I think that some manufacturers of these kits do encourage a superstitious use of the statue. This is a fair point to make to Catholic bookstore owners. But perhaps a gentle, positive attitude and constructive suggestions for change (e.g., stocking inexpensive St. Joseph statues that can be used for a multitude of devotional purposes instead of prefabricated kits that "guarantee" results) would be more likely to influence change than the dismissal of a Catholic bookstore as a "sacrilegious pit." Even when the offensive words are not used, a contemptuous attitude can color a presentation of concerns and undermine the possibility of success.
St. Joseph is not the only saint whose image is treated in this fashion. I have heard claims from some Catholics that the way to find lost items is to take a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items, and put him in the freezer until your lost item is found. Then, once you have regained your lost item, you are supposed to give a donation to the poor (of whom St. Anthony is also a patron). Presumably, St. Anthony will be so desirous to be released from deep freeze and for money for his peeps that he will quickly return to you whatever it is that you lost. And, it is supposed, more quickly than he otherwise would had he not been frozen and bribed.
Awhile back, some readers responded to a blog post I wrote on why I pray to Bl. Teresa of Calcutta for parking spaces with instructions that I should instead pray to St. Frances Cabrini—not with my own words, but with the formula "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, please find a spot for my little machine-y." Given that the blog post included a caution that "we should never forget that the saints are not heavenly bellhops who respond to summons," it was ironic that I was advised to summon Mother Cabrini with a rather sophomoric bit of doggerel.
Why do people do things like this?
I think part of it is a desire to find a surefire way to get what we want. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten questions from people frantic because they are afraid they have prayed a novena "wrong." Or they want to know why the Blessed Virgin has not delivered on her promise not to leave unaided those who pray the Memorare.
Of course, the wording of the Memorare is not intended to oblige the Blessed Mother or God to answer prayers in exactly the manner specified by the supplicant—anymore than it is St. Joseph's obligation to be a real estate agent, or St. Anthony's obligation to find lost items, or St. Frances's obligation to find parking spaces. Prayer of any kind is supposed to be a statement of utter trust, said with the knowledge and faith that God, the Blessed Mother, and the saints will always answer the prayers of the faithful, even if the answer given is not the one for which the supplicant hoped. St. Therese of Lisieux said this about prayer:
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.
Sometimes we don't get the exact answer to prayer that we hoped for. In such cases, it is possible that the saints did help in a particular trial, even though we may not have recognized their assistance. Perhaps the saints obtained the grace to carry a burden with courage and patience. Perhaps they even obtained the grace for someone to delve more deeply into the Catholic faith and find out how to pray in a more devoted manner. By all means, we should continue to pray to the saints for specific intentions. But we should also remember Jesus' own example of prayerful supplication for the relief of trials:
Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done (Luke 22:42).