St. Joseph of Cupertino
(1603 - 1663)
Conventual Franciscan Mystic

By

Fr. Peter F. Mallin, O.F.M. Conv.

 

St. Joseph Cupertino is one of the most interesting and richest examples of a Christian mystic.

 

He is known as the "Saint of flights".

 

Students from all over the world ask his help as patron of students, especially in times of exams.

 

Catholic aviators and paracutists of NATO elected him their patron because he is the "Saint of flights".

                LETTER OF THE MINISTER GENERAL on St. Joseph of Cupertino


During the many times I have traveled up and down the coast of California, I come across many names of saints that dot the landscape. There are saint-names for towns, counties, and even just inconspicuous spots for weary tourists. I often wondered if people who traveled the same route ever noticed them as well, and if they ever took the time to find out who these individuals were. I remember the words of Pope John Paul II at the conclusion of a Papal Mass in San Francisco in 1987: "California is blessed to be in communion with the saints and in communion with the angels!" There happens to be only one Conventual Franciscan saint who has a town in the United States named after him, and that is St. Joseph of Cupertino. His name, and others of our Franciscan movement, pays tribute to the continued Franciscan and Catholic cultural influence which makes up the state of California.

 

Joseph had a very difficult life almost from the moment he was born, and right up until the time of his death. His father, Felix Desa, was a carpenter in the village of Cupertino on the Apulia peninsula within the Kingdom of Naples. He was known locally as a good-hearted and charitable man who would often be the guarantor of the debts of his neighbors who were unable to pay. As a result, he was often driven into debt himself. At the time of his death, his wife Francesca Panara was pregnant with the future saint. She was also incapable of assuming her late husband's responsibilities to his creditors. When she could no longer pay the debts of her husband, the creditors drove the young mother-to-be from her home, and she was forced to give birth to Joseph in a stable on June 17, 1603. (Later biographers of the saint would take note of the similarities between the circumstances of Joseph's birth with that of both Jesus and St. Francis!) Joseph's early education was from his mother who taught him the virtues of faith and good religious example. He took it to heart as he grew older, visiting church frequently and often praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later, young Joseph attended school and a number of stories circulated about his experiences. One in particular tells how, whenever Joseph heard the organist play hymns, he would lapse into some kind of trance, with his eyes raised to heaven and his mouth wide open. This happened so many times that his classmates' nickname for Joseph was Bocca aperta, or "open mouth!" His school days were cut short when he developed a painful ulcer on his back which left him bed-ridden for five years. During this time, his devoted mother would carry him to church each morning. Joseph bore his illness with incredible patience. To pass the time, he would dream about the saints from the stories his mother read to him, and the one who made the greatest impression upon him was St. Francis of Assisi. The seeds of his Franciscan vocation were planted during this time. The discomfort of his disease was eventually relieved by a local hermit who anointed the sore with oil which burned near a statue of Our Lady of Grace. Out of gratitude, Joseph increased his love for God and resolved to serve the Church.

 

As the years passed, Joseph engaged in several occupations, including selling vegetables and working as a shoemaker. But these were just temporary tasks to prepare him for his ultimate ambition: to become a Franciscan priest. He first thought of joining the Conventual friars where he already had a number of relatives as members, including his uncle Father Francis Desa. However, his own uncle was not supportive of Joseph due to his lack of education. Then, Joseph went to the Capuchins to be admitted as a lay-brother. He was accepted and sent to their novitiate at Martina Franca in 1620, and took the name of "Stephen". He was sent to work in the kitchen, but since he often fell into his trances as his soul became enraptured with Divine Love, he broke dishes and tipped over pots. His superiors thought he lacked proper concentration and was a habitual daydreamer; and so dismissed him from the novitiate. This caused Joseph great disappointment, and he later said, "It seemed to me as if my skin was torn off with the habit and my flesh rent from my bones!" When he returned home to Cupertino, he found a not-so-welcoming family to greet him. His priest-uncle, Fr. Francis Desa, ridiculed him as "good for nothing" and at first refused to have anything to do with him. His mother scolded him as well. Another priest uncle, Fr. John Caputo, criticized him even more severely for his seeming lack of effort in all he had undertaken. To make matters even worse for Joseph, his father's creditors were seeking to have Joseph sent to debtor's prison for his father's debts. Joseph found some assistance from one of the other friars of the Order who hid him in a small attic of the Church for six months. His uncles finally took pity on Joseph, and after seeing his persistence, invested him with the habit of a Franciscan tertiary. This allowed Joseph to live as a Franciscan ... and it also placed him under ecclesial law which protected him from debtor's prison. Joseph excelled as a Franciscan by begging for the needs of the friary, and by being always first to serve the sick.

 

When his uncle Fr. Francis Desa learned that Joseph was secretly studying at night, he became impressed and proposed that he be accepted as a candidate for the Conventual Franciscans ... and the priesthood! He entered the Order as a novice at Grottella and kept his name as Joseph. He continued to grow in holiness and exemplified the virtues of humility, patience and obedience. However, Joseph continued to find studies very difficult, and was often rebuked for making slow progress. The time came for examinations that would lead him to the deaconate, followed by the priesthood. The first exam took the form of reciting and commenting on a passage of Scripture. Joseph grew anxious and prayed to Our Lady of Grottella for help. At the exam, the bishop opened the Gospel and asked Joseph to comment on the verse from Luke 11:27: "Blessed is the womb that bore you!" To Joseph's surprise, that was the only passage that he managed to master during his long preparation. For his final examination to the priesthood, Joseph was unfortunate to have an examiner known for his severity, Bishop John Baptist Deti of Castro. All of the candidates gathered at Poggiardo for the exam, and Joseph spent the night in frantic prayer. But once again, Divine Providence intervened. The examination began the following morning as scheduled, but was interrupted by an important matter which demanded Bishop Deti's immediate attention. It forced him to cancel the rest of the exam and depart. However, since all the friars he examined did well, he assumed all of them were as well prepared, and dispensed the rest of them. Among those who passed but was never examined was Joseph! He joined his classmates for Ordination to the Priesthood the next day, March 18, 1628.

 

Joseph continued to grow in holiness and the grace of his Franciscan vocation, especially through a life of poverty and prayer. He performed menial tasks around the friary, such as gardening, looking after the animals, cleaning their stalls, and helping in the kitchen. Joseph also had time for deep meditation and was often found wandering in a daze, winding up in different places in the friary unaware of how he got there. On October 4, 1630, the town of Cupertino held a procession on the feast day of St. Francis. Joseph was assisting in the procession when he suddenly soared into the sky and remained there hovering over the crowd of people looking on at this spectacular sight. When he came down and realized what had happened, Joseph became so embarrassed that he fled to his mother's house to hide from the crowds. This was the first of his many flights, which earned him the name, "The Flying Saint". Needless to say, his life changed dramatically after this incident. They also continued and seemed to become more frequent. In fact, his 'flights' were so frequent that his superiors would not permit him to take part in community exercises for years on the belief that it would cause too great a distraction for the members of the friary. But Joseph could not contain himself. On hearing the names of Jesus and Mary, he would simply go into ecstasy and would remain there until a superior commanded him under obedience to come to his senses. Incidents of his flights also took place when he would hear the sweet singing of hymns, when he celebrated the feast day of St. Francis or during a Holy Thursday Mass when he was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. His most famous occasion occurred during a papal audience before Pope Urban VIII. When he bent down to kiss the Pope's feet, he was suddenly filled with reverence for Christ's Vicar on earth, and was lifted up into the air. Only when the Minister General of the Order, who was part of the audience, ordered him down was Joseph able to return to the floor. In addition to his flights, Joseph also possessed the gift of miraculous healing. He once cured a girl who was suffering from a severe case of measles. An entire community suffering from a drought asked Joseph to pray for rain, and when it came the drought ceased. He also dedicated himself to improving the spiritual lives of his fellow friars. When he accompanied his provincial on his visitations, Joseph would fall into ecstasy and caused many a lukewarm friar to be inspired to greater evangelical perfection.

 

However, not all of the friars whom Joseph lived with were well disposed towards him. Some superiors would scold Joseph for not accepting money and gifts offered to him for curing people, especially when they were members of the nobility. He would also find himself in trouble for returning home with a torn habit as a result of the people seeking relics who regarded him as a prophet and a saint. However, the most difficult time came when Joseph was the subject of an investigation by the Inquisition at Naples. Msgr. Joseph Palamolla accused Joseph of attracting undue attention with his "flights" and claiming to perform miracles. On October 21, 1638, Joseph was summoned to appear before the Inquisition and, when he arrived, he was detained for several weeks. Joseph was eventually released when the judges found no fault with him. After his complete declaration of innocence, Joseph was sent to the Sacro Convento in Assisi, a move which made him very happy. However, Joseph experienced a spiritual dryness that conflicted with his expectations of being comforted by being so close to the tomb of his Holy Father St. Francis, and it appeared to have taken its toll upon him. He also experienced no flights during this period either. Eventually, Joseph overcame his difficulties and emerged with an even greater faith. Two years after his arrival at the Sacro Convento, Joseph was made an honorary citizen of Assisi and a full member of the Franciscan community where he became a source of consolation to everyone. He lived in Assisi for another nine years where he spent long hours each day in prayer, saying Mass and leading other devotionals. He was also sought after by people who wanted to experience his divine consolation. Joseph was only happy to follow the request, but his happiness was not to last, for the isolation from the people left him in a state of depression. Plus, he would not be allowed to preach or hear confessions, or even join in the processions and festivities of feast days. When the friars went off to these celebrations, he was left alone in the friary. However, people still sought him out, and soon his room became filled with people from all over Europe seeking his advice. They included Minister Generals, provincials, bishops, cardinals, knights and secular princes.

 

However, this would lead to another cross for Joseph to bear. On learning that he still attracted a huge following, Pope Innocent X decided to move Joseph from Assisi, and place him in a secret location under the jurisdiction of the Capuchin friars in Pietrarubbia. Despite being under strict orders to neither write nor receive letters, Joseph continued to attract throngs of people; which forced him to be moved to another location, this time to Fossombrone. Once again, efforts were made to keep his location a secret by putting Joseph under tight security, but local people still managed to discover that they had a saint in their midst. This ordeal finally ended when Pope Innocent X died, and the Conventual friars asked the newly elected Pope Alexander VIII to release Joseph from his exile and return him to Assisi. However, the new Pope still wanted to keep an eye on Joseph and instead released him to the friary in Osimo, where the Pope's own nephew was the local bishop! There, Joseph was ordered to live in seclusion and not speak to anyone except the Bishop, the Vicar General of the Order, his fellow friars, and a doctor in case he needed on. Joseph endured his ordeal with great patience. He did not even complain when a brother-cook neglected to bring him any food to his room for two days!

 

On August 10, 1663, Joseph became ill with a fever, but the experience filled him with joy in knowing that he would soon be completely united to God. During the weeks that followed, Joseph's health shifted between being so weak that he could not rise from bed, to experiencing one last "flight" on the feast of the Assumption, August 15th while saying Mass. In early September, Joseph could sense that the end was near, so he could be heard mumbling, "The jackass has now begun to climb the mountain!" The 'jackass' was his own body. After receiving the last sacraments, a papal blessing, and reciting the Litany of Our Lady, Joseph Desa of Cupertino died on the evening of September 18, 1663. He was buried two days later in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception before great crowds of people who were touched by his Franciscan life and witness. Joseph was canonized on July 16, 1767 by Pope Clement XIII. In 1781, a large marble altar in the Church of St. Francis in Osimo was erected so that St. Joseph's body might be placed beneath it; and it has remained there ever since. Because of his many 'flights', St. Joseph is the patron saint of those traveling by air, and is the patron saint of pilots who fly for the NATO Alliance. In some countries, he is also the patron of those undergoing examinations of any kind. Like the many places he touched in Italy, his name has touched California through a town named after him: Cupertino, California. It was naturally fitting that in 1978, the Province of Conventual Franciscans in California adopted him as their patron. A film was also made about St. Joseph of Cupertino entitled, The Reluctant Saint, and starred actor Maximilian Schnell. Next year will mark the 400`h anniversary of the birth of St. Joseph of Cupertino. May he bless the Conventual community in California and protect all those who travel by air during these times of uncertainly caused by threats of terrorism.


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