I thought this week I’d have a little fun with Famous Catholic Friday and profile not only our first Saint, but one of the most enjoyably odd Saints of them all: Joseph of Cupertino.
Catholic Credentials: An incredibly devout, humble soul; a Franciscan priest; lived a life of extreme penance.
Nerd Credentials: Possessed real-life superpowers, including the ability to fly, read minds, and heal; that’s gotta count for something.
Giuseppe (Joseph) Desa de Cupertino was born on June 17th, 1603 in, well, Cupertino, Italy to an extremely poor family. His father died shortly before he was born, which allowed his mother to inherit his debts, obliging her to give birth to Giuseppe in a stable (sound familiar?).
When he was eight years old, young Giuseppe had an ecstatic vision: a sudden perception or understanding of the Divine that leaves the viewer insensible to everything around him. Unfortunately, he had it while he was at school, in the middle of class. No word on what the teacher did to him once he finally came out of it, but his classmates, seeing him gawp at mid-air, nicknamed him “Bocca aperta” (“open mouth”). Needless to say, this did not help his popularity. But then again, Giuseppe was never very popular, being a skinny, awkward, hot-tempered child. He was also somewhat lacking in intellect. These days we might call him ‘developmentally disabled.’ His teachers called him stupid (teachers were allowed to be honest in those days).
He was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but when he was seventeen he determined to join the Order of Friars Minor Conventuals (a branch of the Franciscan Order), probably to the relief of both his irascible and long-suffering mother and whatever poor soul was engaged to teach him shoemaking. The Friars turned him down for being too stupid. He tried again, this time with the Capuchins, who accepted him. They soon came to regret it. Giuseppe couldn’t do anything right. He would fail at even the simplest tasks (“Giuseppe, take this pile of dishes into the rectory.” *CRASH*). He kept forgetting what he was supposed to do. He meant well, but his stupidity made him a menace to the whole community.
Think “Gomer Pyle O.F.M.Cap” and you’ll be in the right ballpark.
|Also starring Francesco Suttano as Father Carrettiere|
After eight months, the Capuchins decided to send Giuseppe away while there was still a Capuchin order to be sent away from. His mother was not at all pleased to have him back menacing her house with his attempts to help, so she dragged him back to the Convent of La Grotella (where he had been rejected the first time) and badgered the abbot (who happened to be her brother, and hence was heartily afraid of her) to take him on as a lay brother. Reluctantly, they did so, setting him to work in the stables where, presumably, he could do the least amount of damage.
Giuseppe resolved to try harder this time (he really didn’t want to be sent home to his mother again), and set about learning his tasks. Slowly, his work improved and he became humbler and worked to control his temper. He also began what would become a life-time of austerity and penance; he would impose seven ‘Lents’ a year on himself (meaning he would take the season of Lent, a forty-day period of penance and fasting, and repeated it seven times each year. He probably would have done more, but he ran out of year). During these times he would only eat on Thursdays and Sundays (among other things).
His hard-work and penance paid off; four years after being admitted to La Grotella, his superiors were impressed enough in his improvement to have him study for the priesthood.
Giuseppe’s piety was more than sufficient, but his knowledge was…less than sufficient. But he studied hard, and by some sort of miracle his examinations happened to revolve around the few things that he managed to learn (forget flying: this is the real miracle of his life). So, he was made a deacon and, three years later, a priest.
In between diaconate and the priesthood, odd things began to happen. His bouts of ecstasy, which had been happening steadily since he was eight years old, became more frequent. It became so almost anything that reminded him of God could set them off: church bells, an image of the Blessed Mother, or a reading from scripture. I can only imagine how he got through the Divine Office and Mass every day; the only thing that could bring him out of an ecstasy once he was in it was a command from his superior (I can just picture it: “Credo in unam deum…” “Giuseppe!” “Pater Omnipotentem…” “Giuseppe!”). When I say the only thing, I mean the only thing; even sticking him with needles or burning him with candles couldn’t rouse him once he got going (though he had to ask his fellow friars to stop doing that, as it left scars that he would only discover afterwards).
But then things got really interesting; he began levitating while in ecstasy. While saying Mass or praying he would frequently end up kneeling three or four feet above the ground. On one occasion, while attending Christmas mass, he flew straight to the top of the high alter and knelt there while carols were sung. On another occasion he passed some workers were struggling to raise a thirty-six-foot stone cross into place. So, Giuseppe took the massive cross and simply flew it into place. Yet another story tells of him meeting the Pope (either Urban VIII or Innocent X, no word on which) and bending down to kiss the Holy Father’s feet. At which point both Giuseppe and the astonished Pope began to levitate (I can only imagine what happened next: “sorry, Your Holiness: I do that sometimes”). Sometimes when he and his brethren went out to beg, Giuseppe would suddenly end up in a tree.
His levitation was of great interest to everyone else, naturally, but not so much to him. To him, it was just one of those ‘things;’ the point wasn’t that he could fly, the point was that he serve Jesus.
And flying wasn’t his only superpower either. He could heal people by touching them. He could read minds (his fellow friars would sometimes go up to talk to him, only to find that he knew both what they were about to say and what they weren’t telling him). He also could talk to the animals (just imagine it!). Once he sent a sparrow to a nearby convent of nuns to “help with their singing.” Later, after one of the sisters shooed it away, he dropped by and was told that the bird hadn’t returned. “Quite right,” he said. “He didn’t come to you to be insulted! But I will try to make amends on your behalf.” Not long after, the bird returned.
I suppose I should talk a little about miracles here. It may seem far-fetched to us that Giuseppe could fly while contemplating heavenly things. Perhaps, but the question then becomes why? Why is it so hard to believe? True, men do not usually fly, but no one’s claiming that they do; they’re just claiming that this one did, and there seems to be good evidence to support them. He was witnessed to fly at least seventy times during his life, often by large crowds. The stories about him flying didn’t emerge centuries after his death, but during his lifetime. He lived in a sophisticated, well-ordered society, mid-way between the Renaissance and the ‘Enlightenment’
Regarding this last point occasionally invoked explanation that people ‘back then’ were more apt to believe miracles because they knew little or no science, well, that’s bunk. For one thing, ‘people can’t fly’ is not an advanced scientific idea that we have only recently begun to understand; everyone who saw St. Joseph fly was entirely aware that he really shouldn’t have been able to do that. A man is not more apt to believe that someone can fly because he doesn’t know the principles of aerodynamics. If anything, he’s less likely to believe it. People may have been more apt to see the Hand of God in the world while St. Joseph lived, but they were hardly more apt to accept reports of a flying monk during a time when neither man nor anything he made could fly.
And that’s another thing; we call them ‘Miracles’ because they are things that don’t seem to follow the ordinary laws of nature. Knowing more of those laws doesn’t make miracles more unbelievable. If anything, it makes them more likely (since the more we understand of how nature works, the more apt we are to notice when it doesn’t work the way we expect it to). Faced with reports of St. Joseph’s miracles, we can conclude one of two things; that a large number of both lay and religious people (including the Pope) decided to enter into a conspiracy of lies about this random, rather stupid priest for the sole purpose of putting one over on the believing public, or the man actually did levitate. From what we know, those really are the only two explanations. Saying “it was a long time ago and people were stupid back then” isn’t skepticism: it’s snobbery.
Giuseppe’s levitating caused problems both for him and for the order. People kept flocking to see the flying friar, which rather spoiled the monastic seclusion. Not to mention having one of the congregation (or even the priest) suddenly go into a trance and take off into the sky was a somewhat disruptive event to occur during Mass or prayers. It got to the point where Giuseppe’s brethren responded to the miracles with less “Praise be to God for this sign!” and more “Oh, no; not again!” So, for over thirty years they tried to keep him hidden. They moved him from one convent to another, trying to keep the crowds away (quite apart from the spectacle, he was an excellent confessor who inspired many people to live truly Christian lives). But people kept finding out where he was, somehow, and then they’d have to move him again. Giuseppe was given his own private cell and chapel and had to take his meals alone.
Despite this seclusion, Giuseppe remained irrepressively cheerful all his days. His ecstasies and flights became more frequent as he grew progressively more and more detached from the Earth and developed a Heavenly perspective. He said that all the wars and troubles of the world were nothing but the “play battles of children with pop-guns” (this was right in the midst of the thirty-years war). Finally, at the age of sixty, after a severe period of fever and near-constant ecstasy, Giuseppe died on Sept. 18, 1663. A little over a hundred years later, in 1767, Pope Clement XIII canonized him a Saint. Today, he’s the patron of pilots, air-travelers, astronauts, and the mentally-challenged.
St. Joseph reminds us that God does not necessarily ask for intelligence or even basic competence; He only asks for faith and love. St. Joseph had that faith and love in spades, to the point that he was gifted to see things that the greatest scholars on Earth could never comprehend. He was so unbounded by earthy concerns that he couldn’t even be bothered to obey the laws of gravity. In this way he also shows us that the concerns, trials, and problems that plague as are, really, not worth troubling over. Seen from a Heavenly perspective, they’re nothing more than temporary inconveniences; just like gravity.
St. Joseph of Cupertino, Pray for Us!
P.S. for an only semi-historical, but very entertaining look at St. Joseph’s life, try to track down The Reluctant Saint, starring Maximillian Schell and Ricardo Montalban.
Vive Christus Rex!