On September 18, the Franciscan family celebrates the memory of St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663), a Conventual Franciscan friar popularly known for the paranormal phenomena that marked his life.
Joseph was born to poor but devout parents, Felix and Francesca Desi, in the town of Copertino, province of Lecce, in Apulia. As a child he was prone to “space out” of conversations and fall into a trance. Even his widowed mother berated him for being a lazy good-for-nothing.
This reputation hindered him in realizing his desire to become a Franciscan. He finally gained acceptance into the Conventual friars; although a notoriously poor student, he exemplified Franciscan virtues of prayer, humility, and dedicated service in the community. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1628 (the ordaining bishop had given the first candidates a thorough examination but was so impressed by them, he waived the rest!).
As a friar, Joseph was prone to fall into mystical trances, during which he would sometimes even levitate. The first of these levitations occurred during a procession in 1630. He soon gained the reputation as “the Flying Friar,” and curious crowds flocked to see him. His superiors transferred him from place to place to avoid publicity; at least 70 of these levitations were documented over the years and were witnessed by hundreds, including skeptics, scientists, and even Pope Urban VIII.
The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Grottella, outside Copertino, where Joseph was stationed for over fifteen years—a happy period in his life.
In terms of the Franciscan spiritual tradition, though, what made Joseph a saint were not these dramatic events but his spirit of penance and the complete humility and patience he showed his brothers, even though he was closely confined for much of his life, suspected by them and church authorities of being a fraud and a witch. He spent his final years in the friary in Osimo in the Marche region where he died in 1663.
Interior of the sanctuary of St. Joseph in the city of Osimo, which houses his remains. This church, attached to the friary where Joseph died, was originally dedicated to St. Francis, but rededicated and redecorated in the prevailing neoclassical style after Joseph's beatification in 1753.
Joseph reminds us that God chooses people who appear to be fools to demonstrate the wisdom of God. As St. Francis reminds all of us:
In what then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge. . . and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. . . . But we can boast of our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition 5)
Joseph was canonized in 1767. He is invoked today by struggling students, especially as they prepare for examinations. And as a result of the phenomena that marked his life, he has been named the patron of air travelers, aviators, and astronauts.
If you are into old movies, you might check out the early 1960s classic, "The Reluctant Saint," starring Maximilian Schell and Ricardo Montalbán.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.