Saint Joseph of Cupertino
The Flying Saint and Patron Saint of Students and Aviators
Save My Church Which is in ruin
The Church in the 16th century received a devastating blow, unlike any attack the enemy could level. Oh, he had been working hard at destroying the Church, what with all the heresies1 which kept cropping up. But Mother Church, perfect mother that she is, always set her children straight through her sons, the princes of the Church on earth - the Popes, down through the centuries, writing Bulls, convening Councils, condemning and dispelling these errors, once and for all, only to have them resurface, again, with a different face but the same disobedient heart (sadly, often using our priests, the Church’s own ambassadors of Christ as instruments). Not even the devil’s fondest dream of fracturing the Church through the Schism in the East in the Eleventh Century could deal the death blow.
But, the day came when the bells tolled mournfully, Mother Mary crying, as her dear children in Europe left the Church founded by her Son. What one priest (Luther) began, one former Defender of the Faith (King Henry VIII) would complete, the procession of 6,000,000 unsuspecting Faithful from the Church that flowed from the Heart of her Son on the Cross, robbing them of the Sacraments.
Through the betrayal of King Henry VIII, the attack on the Church, which had failed under Martin Luther, began to spread throughout Europe. Would Hell prevail against His Church? No! Jesus had made a promise and He would keep it to the end of the world; He would return and head the Church Himself. Whenever our Church has been in danger, the Lord has raised up powerful men and women. In the 16th century, he raised Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of Cross (to mention a few), to save His Church. And now, in the 17th century the battle not yet won, Our Lord chooses another precious soul from a humble family and a little-known village, Joseph of Cupertino.
To us, a Saint is born
Our story takes us to Cupertino, a tiny farming village near Lecce, at the heel of the boot of Italy. Farming has always been a hard life, but in the south of Italy you can keenly see the ravages of weather and disappointment on the farmers’ leathery faces, furrowed and cracked by the merciless, unrelenting beating of the sun’s rays.
Conditions were no better in the year 1603 when Our Lord sent a son to Felix Desa and Frances Penara.2 Felix was a carpenter, a very good one. His only problem was his heart was bigger than his pocketbook. He guaranteed loans for friends. When they could not pay, creditors demanded restitution from Felix. Since he could not satisfy the debts, the creditors seized his home as part payment and then threatened poor Felix with imprisonment, to satisfy the rest. Without the possibility of help forthcoming, Felix fled to a holy place and asked for asylum. In those days soldiers could not enter any Church property, as it belonged to the Vatican which was considered another State (equivalent to a separate country with the Pope as head or prince).
Frances, in the last days of her pregnancy, heavy with child, without the aid of her husband, had to flee as well. But do not let me paint a false picture of Frances, mother of a future saint. She was no delicate flower that the slightest wind would blow away. The women of Italy, especially peasant stock of Southern Italy, are strong, the real power and force behind their husbands; they are the heart and strength of the family which keeps it together. Running from the authorities, unable to reach a friend’s home before Baby Joseph made known his urgency to be born, Frances found shelter in a stable. Here, as with Jesus before him, Joseph would be born June 17th, 1603, with only farm animals as witnesses. He was later baptized in Our Lady of Snow Church. Although not present, you can be sure his father was close by, looking on.
With no father to discipline the growing Joseph, the task fell to his mother who, fearing he might get into trouble, wielded a heavy hand. As many of that generation, Frances rarely showed the boy affection while he was awake, afraid he might take advantage of her love and judge her weak and incapable of controlling him. Years later Joseph would jokingly say, he had no need of a novitiate as a religious; he had gone through his, under his mother.
Joseph experiences his first ecstasies
To his delight, Joseph’s mother often took him to church. When he was eight, he made a little Altar at home, where he would recite the Rosary and Litanies to Blessed Mother and the Saints, day and night. His ecstasies began at that time. Experiencing them even at school, oftentimes the book Joseph was reading dropped to the floor; his eyes traveled heavenward, his lips parted, his mouth opened and he was in another world. Imagine the fun the other children had, calling him name, one of the kindest being, “bocca aperta.” [The English translation “open mouth” loses some of its sting.] Because of this, many mistakenly took him for being retarded.
Joseph developed ulcers on his legs. His only comfort was attending Holy Mass. Unable to walk, his mother carried him to church each morning. Hearing a hermit had the gift of healing, Frances brought Joseph to him. The hermit prayed and then resorted to excruciating surgical means to remove the diseased flesh with forceps heated in fire; still no reprieve from pain, no cure in sight. Throughout all this useless torture Joseph never complained, always seeking his relief in the Blessed Sacrament. When all looked hopeless, as a last resort, the hermit took some hot oil from the lamps burning before the image of Our Lady of Grace and placed it on the sores. Joseph, suddenly free from all pain, walked to a church nine miles from his home, aided only by a cane.
His life more and more became God and His Church. He visited different churches, assisting at Mass, as often as they would allow him. He ceased eating meat, subsisting solely on vegetables he had seasoned with a bitter herb. He fasted sometimes two or three days in a row, abstaining from food of any kind. As he practiced more and more austere forms of penance and mortification, he desired more and more to leave the world and unite himself with things above.