Feast Day : September 18
Patronage: air travelers; astronauts; aviators; fliers; pilots
Also known as: Joseph of Cupertino
Joseph of Copertino was born Joseph Desa in 1603 in Cupertino, Italy, the town that later gave him his surname. His father, a poor carpenter, died before his birth. Creditors drove his mother out of her home, and she was forced to give birth to Joseph in a stable. He had deformed feet. As a child, Joseph exhibited mental dullness and an irascible temper. At age eight he had his first ecstatic vision. He was a poor student, and was nicknamed “Bocca Apertura” (“the Gaper”) because of his incessant staring and going about with his mouth open— characteristics of his trance states. At age 17 he applied for admission to the Friars Minor Conventuals, but was rejected because of his lack of education. The Capuchins at Martino near Tarento took him in as a lay brother, but then dismissed him because his continual ecstasies made him unable to work. Finally the Franciscans at La Grotella near Cupertino admitted him as an oblate, or lay brother, and assigned him to work in the stables. There his disposition improved and in 1628 he was ordained as a priest. Joseph’s life was comprised of visions and mystical experiences. Almost anything holy would trigger an ecstatic experience: the name of God, Mary or a saint; the tolling of a church bell; church music; sacred images; and even thoughts about sacred things would send Joseph into another state of consciousness. He was especially prone to mystical experience during Mass. During his trances, he did not respond to any stimuli, even the piercing of his flesh with needles or the dragging about of his body, except for the voice of his superior. Joseph especially became famous for his spectacular levitations and aerial flights. He would rise several feet into the air, sometimes enraptured by the sound of heavenly music that only he could hear. He would fly about over the heads of others and remain suspended in the air for long periods of time. He flew up to holy statues and to altars. Whenever he rose into the air, he would give out a shriek of ecstasy. The total number of his levitations is not known; more than 70 were recorded during his early years at La Grotella alone. His flights happened both indoors and outdoors. Once he saw a lamb in the garden of the Capuchins at Fossombrone, and went into a rapture over the Lamb of God, rising into the air with the lamb in his arms. After hearing a priest say, “Father Joseph, how beautiful God has made heaven,” he flew up to a branch on an olive tree and kneeled on the branch for half an hour, bending it no more than would a small bird. In 1644 he amazed the Spanish ambassador to the Papal Court, his wife and attendants, by flying over their heads to a statue of Mary in church. The ambassador’s wife fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. When he visited Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623–44) in Rome, he kissed the pontiff’s feet and rose spontaneously into the air. The amazed pope said that if Joseph died before he, he would attest to the miracle himself Joseph’s ecstasies and aerial flights—and the crowds who came to witness them—were so disruptive that for more than 35 years he was not allowed to say Mass, take part in any processions or choir exercise, or even eat meals with the other friars. He was ordered to remain in his room, where a private chapel was built for him. In 1653 Joseph was brought before the Inquisition. Asked by the inquisitors to say Mass, he began doing so and suddenly rose in the air with a joyous shriek. He remained suspended in the air over flowers and lighted candles with his arms out like a cross, unaffected by the flames. For the last 10 years of his life, he was shuttled from one remote Capuchin or Franciscan monastery to another, a virtual prisoner. Whenever people discovered him, crowds would gather to see him. Throughout this banishment, Joseph remained in remarkably good humor. He maintained his rigorous fasting and mortifications. He kept seven Lents of 40 days every year, eating nothing except on Thursday and Saturdays. Joseph’s last monastery was the conventual house in Osimo. There he flew eight feet into the air to kiss a statue of Jesus, and then carried it to his cell, where he floated about with it. He also carried another friar into the air. On one occasion he had a vision of angels ascending to and descending from heaven, and flew into an almond tree. The tree became known as “the almond tree of St. Joseph.” Other miraculous powers and abilities were attributed to Joseph. He could bilocate. He was prophetic and had numerous accurate visions of the future. He could read the minds and hearts of others, and knew their secret, unconfessed sins. He could control the elements and stop storms. He had command over animals, even greater than that of St. Francis of Assisi. Once he sent a bird to the nuns of St. Clare at Cupertino to accompany them in their singing. Another time he summoned sheep to gather around him and began recitation of the Litany of Loreto. The sheep bleated the responses. He exuded a sweet perfume that clung to everything he used, and permeated the rooms he entered. He could detect the stench of sin. Once he was overcome with stench, and asked permission to go to town. There he went straight to a home wherein dwelt sorcerers. Furious, he broke all their vessels with his cane. When Joseph had arrived at Osimo, he predicted he would die there, and his death would come on a day when he would not receive the Eucharist. On August 10, 1663, he was stricken with fever. For five days he was able to get up and say Mass in his private oratory. Then he was confined to bed and could receive only the Eucharist. Once, he heard the sound of the bell announcing the approach of the Eucharist, and went into a rapture, rising up from his bed and flying to the stairs above the chapel, his face suffused with radiance. He had numerous other levitations and ecstasies during this period. On September 17, he received his last Eucharist. As he lay dying the following day, Joseph asked God to burn and rive (tear) his heart. The embalmers were shocked to find his heart withered and dry, and the ventricles without blood. Joseph is entombed in the basilica at Osimo. Pope Clement XIV (r. 1769–74) extended his office to the entire Church, but his cult now is confined to local calendars.