With the life of St. Joseph of Copertino, we have all the markings of a great drama. Why no one has made his life into a hit movie is a mystery.
If there was a movie, it would go something like this:
As the opening credits fade and the film opens, we meet Felice Desa, a master wagon maker and a trusted member of the Duke of Copertino’s court. By God’s grace, he got married to a girl named Franceschina (aka, “Anna”) Donata, a beautiful, hard-working, holy woman from a wealthy family. Life was good.
Then the father made a generous but ultimately unwise move. He cosigned on a friend’s loan for 1,000 ducats. Sadly, his friend defaulted on the loan, and the creditors came after Felice, took him to court, and won their lawsuit. The once prospering family was now impoverished and shamed in the community’s eyes. They lost everything, including their nice home. They had to move into what one might gloriously call a barn, but that is like calling a single-wide mobile home missing its siding a “McMansion.”
Keep in mind the context here: It is summer 1603. The average person, therefore—rich, middle, or poor—essentially lives the same way they have for thousands of years. Infant mortality is high. Hundreds of thousands of persons are left widowed or orphaned. Shelter—even in the best of homes—will neither keep you cool in the summer nor totally warm in the winter.
But most don’t live in the best of homes. They live in chink-strewn hovels. To improve their lot or, more typically, just to get by, they often take loans from lenders who only give their loans with predatory, exorbitant interest rates. This is true despite the Church’s having placed usury—the charging of such interest rates—under the deadly sin of greed.
So this gives us the context for how Joseph entered the world. Like the Lord he would come to serve, he was born in a stable. Again, this is where his family moved after falling into financial ruin. His mother was probably around 32 at the time and had already given birth to five other children, two of whom were dead. Another one, a boy named Pietro, would be dead before he reached adulthood. She and her husband were hiding there in this shack outside the city walls to escape the lenders who were after Felice to make good on his debts.
Felice, however—his health wasted by the chagrin and depression he felt over his being ruined—died shortly after his youngest son’s birth. Had he lived, maybe he could have made a go of things again. As it was, however, his death essentially condemned his widow and children to life in that stable.
Now, as stables went, it was reasonably nice. It had a fireplace and two rooms, a main room and a bedroom. Sadly, it was also the nicest creature comfort that marked young Joseph’s life, because his childhood was characterized by pervasive starvation. Given what we know about the need a young child’s mind for adequate nutrition to achieve optimal brain development, was the perpetual, gnawing hunger that defined his youth the cause of his later intellectual problems? It is not improbable.
The future saint’s young years were also beset by diseases that often marked him as a target. For instance, he constantly fought with scabies and bug sores.
These were minor, however, compared to some of his other illnesses. His health was always so bad that his mother Franceschina took her small little boy on several occasions to the nearby Convent of St. Francis to ask God for a miracle.
Our Lord Jesus Christ never gave her the sort of miracle we think of when we think of miracles. He did, however, preserve Giuseppe’s life, and through a Capuchin monk consecrated to Him, no less. And that, given all the little guy was up against in a material sense, was a miracle.
This teaches us something: God answers our prayers. Sometimes He says, “No,” sure. However, even when He says, “Yes!” it’s not always in the way we expect or even notice.
Therefore, don’t get down on God just because things aren’t working out the way you expect or want them to. All of us need to remember, it’s “Thy will be done.” Totally, right? Because the prayer doesn’t say, “Thy will be partly done, and my will be partly done: Let’s meet halfway,” or “My will be done.” Rather, it’s “Thy will be done.” Period.
In any event, as he grew into adolescence, the young boy tried apprenticing to a shoemaker and to a carpenter but failed in both. His next apprenticeship in a store was better. However, shortly after taking it, his father’s creditors obtained from the regional court an order saying that once Joseph legally became an adult, he would have to labor for them until he paid off the debt, both the principal and the interest of his father’s loan. Given the usurious interest rate, this would have effectively equated to a lifetime of slavery.
However, Joseph had one thing in his favor that many in his situation did not.
The law said that such a ruling did not bind him if he became a priest or monk. As it happened, Joseph had an uncle who was not only a Franciscan friar but a priest whose superiors placed him in charge of building a convent in the town of Grottella. Correspondingly, his uncle, Fr. Franceschino Desa, his father’s brother, brought him to live with him as a lay brother.
However, before this could happen, he developed a gangrenous ulcer that plagued him for five years.
Then, after his arrival at the convent, he was judged to be an imbecile, a simpleton. His uncle was forced to send him home to his mother.
Once there, the bullies began picking on him, giving him the nickname, “Pippo Bocca Aperta,” which essentially translates to “slackjaw,” as in a mentally retarded person whose mouth is open all the time.
In fairness, this is how he looked when he prayed before the various sacred images in his town’s St. Francis Church, so amazed was he by God’s grandeur. It was not the posture of an idiot but of one falling in love with Christ. So though their judgment may have seemed apt, these ill-hearted people were mocking what they didn’t know. It’s a salutary lesson for us all that we don’t mock something we may not fully understand.
He next turned to the Reformed Franciscans at Casole, but they rejected the possibility that a seemingly moronic individual could a vocation.
Joseph did not quit, however. He was convinced Jesus had given him a vocation, so he went to Galatone, the same place where the Capuchin friar had nursed him back to health. And it was here that his request for entrance as a brother was accepted. He was 17-years-old.
Sadly, during his novitiate year, his novice master told him to go home, not because of his low IQ, but because of his bad health, which was distracting for the others. Understand that his fellow brothers did not lack charity. It wasn’t like he had non-stop coughing fits that irritated them to the last straw. Rather, when he got sick, which was regularly, the sickness made him look a little crazy.
He was also a total klutz. Joseph was always causing some disaster. Part of it was his naturally clumsiness. This condition was aggravated, however, by his sudden ecstasies, which often came when he was carrying plates and bowls that he then proceeded to drop on the tiled floors. One wonders if he didn’t almost bankrupt the monastery in this way.
Kicked out of yet another convent, Joseph was angry. You can imagine why. We can almost feel his level of disappointment. Making matters worse, while he had come in with little, he left with nothing. He had no shoes (friars often went barefoot out of poverty), and since he had to leave behind his habit, he wore only a loincloth. Seeing him this way, shepherds figured him for a bum—and aren’t bums always bandits?—and thus sicked their dogs on him. They would have beat him but he just barely got away.
To make matters even worse, when he returned home, he did not receive unconditional love or compassion. Instead, his uncle Franceschino and mom berated him for being a loser.
Thanks to Fr. Giovanni Donato Caputo, his mom’s brother, though, he regained entrance to Grottella but as neither a monk nor a candidate for Holy Orders. This was a problem because he had reached adulthood, and his father’s creditors were now looking for him.
Therefore, he spent his days here praying and weeping before Our Lady’s image in the convent church. A friar let him sleep on a couch in the basement, and other friars snuck him food. At night, he would creep up to the church, go before the Virgin’s icon, and weep some more while whipping himself for his sins. Most of us would probably blame God if this happened to us. He blamed his peccadilloes, his sinfulness, his bad choices, the times when he’d been unfaithful. When was the last time any of us—myself included, mind you—did any sort of mortification for our sins, even though they were undoubtedly more scarlet than St. Joseph’s?
In any case, it began to happen that people would unexpectedly come upon him in the church and see him in ecstasy (i.e., in ecstatic prayer). By not just mentally assenting to but actually willing union of his sufferings to the cross, Joseph's cross had become the means to his greatest joy, a more perfect and utterly joyful union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If you want to know what gave him the ability to enter into ecstasy (and his prayer-induced ecstasies were most likely the ultimate source of his later ability to levitate), this is a great place to look.
It just goes to show that, while it's dreadful to endure and something we naturally want to avoid and end as quickly as possible, suffering is only without meaning if we allow it to be so. It is our choice to turn our crosses into an extended vacation in Nightmareland or into something that transcends the pain and becomes the type of joy experienced by St. Joseph.
Seeing with their own eyes what an obviously saintly man was in their midst, these friars eventually accepted him as a lay brother. In this way, God turned Joseph’s tears of sadness into tears of joy.
This was in 1625 when St. Joseph was 22-years-old. Two years later, he made his religious profession. On January 30, the local bishop ordained him to the minor orders. Less than a month later, the bishop ordained him a subdeacon. And less than a month after that, St. Joseph of Copertino became a deacon upon passing an exam with flying colors.
Well, actually, God gave him more than a little help. Not being very book smart, Joseph had never been able to explain any Gospel passage except for one. At his examination, the bishop randomly turned to Luke 11:27, the passage which reads in part, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee.” That, wonder of wonders, was the one passage Joseph could explain.
Consider all this less than intelligent man had been through, and now, because of God’s ineffable grace, he was an ordained deacon.
Over the next year, he diligently studied for the priesthood. This was easy work for his classmates, but not for him. Far from it.
However, the bishop giving the exam queried the first postulant, who answered him so perfectly, His Excellency assumed that all the other seminarians were as equally well-prepared. As a result, he passed them as a group without asking any of them another question. And so it was that on March 18, 1628, two days shy of the year anniversary of his diaconate ordination, St. Joseph received Holy Orders.
Despite his confreres calling him Brother Ass for his curt lack of diplomacy, his inability to reason in a logical fashion, and for his total clumsiness, Fr. Joseph of Copertino’s fame soon spread far and near. Outweighing all other concerns were his poverty and defense of the poor against those who oppressed or took advantage of them because they had greater power, his complete and unassailable faith, his fantastic spiritual direction, and, after a two-year Dark Night of the Soul, the miracles that attended him on an increasingly regular basis.
At first, people came to watch him fall into a state of ecstasy while praying. Then, one day, as he processed into the Church of St. Francis for Mass, his body lifted into the air and touched down right in front of the altar. Then the same thing began happening whenever anyone said the names “Jesus” or “Mary.” Once, God lifted him up into an olive tree.
As you might imagine, the people were astounded. Wouldn’t you be? I know I would. Astounded? Hmmph. I would probably be a little scared.
Regardless, the levitations became more frequent. Sometimes he would just hover in the air, sometimes his body plummeted to the ground like a dead weight. At first, these prodigies happened outside of Mass, but then they increasingly happened during the Holy Sacrifice.
Not surprisingly, people began to flock to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grottella. Some came filled with faith to touch the hem of his garment, seeing in St. Joseph of Copertino a remarkable reservoir of Christ’s grace. Others thought the whole thing was a big fake, so they would jab him with big pins or place lit candles next to his skin to see if it would provoke a reaction. It never did, but some people were intent on trying until something happened. Therefore, the friars often had to appoint a guardian for Fr. Joseph so he wouldn’t come out of his ecstasies on the verge of dying.
Soon people were not only bringing themselves or their sick but their livestock, as well. After all, if this man was so blessed by God that he could levitate, then certainly God would hear his prayers for miracles on their behalf. And God evidently did by the score. It is also said he could talk with the animals.
Like Padre Pio in our own time, despite all of this evidence of sanctity, some nonetheless accused him of being a fraud. This was in 1636, and by 1638, he was brought before the Holy Roman Inquisition, which some have said marks the beginning of his Calvary.
While the authorities adjudicated his case (during one court appearance, he began levitating), his superiors sent him to live in seclusion at Assisi, where he spent the next 14 years. Despite the exile, miracles continued to flow from his prayers to Our Lord. And to these he added prophecy, for instance name the date of Pope Urban VIII’s death.
In all these ways, Our Lord used a man who could barely write, who trembled with anxiety when he had to read aloud, and who was usually not articulate by any stretch. Yet when he spoke of God, it was as if the song of angels burst forth in such melodious praise that the most learned of theologians couldn’t hold a candle to his eloquence. The only explanation is that Our Lord simply infused him with this knowledge.
Take one example. A contemporary theologian at St. Bonaventure University in Rome wrote Fr. Joseph and complimented him for so expertly proclaiming the mysteries of theology. This professor could not understand how to reconcile the complexity of teaching the sacred sciences with the simplicity demanded of him as a Franciscan. What did Friar Joseph advise?
St. Joseph of Copertino wrote back, “When you put yourself to studying or writing, pray, ‘Lord, you’re Spirit and I the trumpet. But without Your breath, nothing resounds.’”
Because the move to Assisi did not stop people from coming to see this man while his case was still open, thus causing even greater controversy than before, the Holy See moved him first to a hermitage where he was not to leave his cell. News got out, however, that he was in the neighborhood, and soon villagers from all around came to be near him.
As a result, the authorities next transferred him to Fossombrone where Pope Alexander VII pronounced him innocent. At that point, he made his last transfer to Osimo monastery, where he spent the last seven years of his life.
It was here that he became sick and remained ill until 1663. He could not hold down food, and he suffered amazingly high fevers. All the time, he suffered bleedings under barber/surgeons’ razors in an effort to cure him. Not surprisingly, he did not get better. What is surprising is that he continued to levitate and perform other miracles.
Things got so bad that on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, September 8, 1663, he received viaticum. Later that evening, he begged for the Sacrament of the Sick.
Ten days later, St. Joseph of Copertino saw his last miracle. His face to began to shine, to glow, and with a smile on his face, he went to the house of his Father. He was 60 years old.
After roughly 60 years, he was declared venerable, and then on July 16, 1767, the anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi’s canonization, Pope Clement XIII declared him a saint.
In the intervening years, St. Joseph of Copertino was proclaimed patron of students and those taking tests and, not surprisingly, of military pilots. So you Top Guns out there, keep this guy’s number in your cell phone’s contact folder.