St. Joseph of Cupertino
by Emily Mary Shapcote, 1877
In the year 1600 there dwelt in the kingdom of Naples two poor but pious gentlefolk, by name Felix Desa, a carpenter, and his wife Francesca. At his death he was found to have left certain debts, and upon the entrance of the servants of the law into her poor dwelling, in order to seize her goods in payment, Francesca, in terror, fled into the stable, where she gave birth to a son, who in baptism received the name of Joseph. Under the eye of his pious mother the child grew up to be a holy boy, who at the early age of eight years gave signs of future sanctity. Although he was most industrious at his work he would show an extraordinary love of recollection, and it often happened that at prayer he would lose himself in contemplation. He would be seen kneeling motionless, with fixed eyes and half-open mouth, so that other children were wont to give him the title of “Bocca aperta” (open-mouthed). He was known to wear a rough hair shirt and to chastise his body in various ways.
Until his seventeenth year he learned and practised the trade of shoe-making, when the desire to enter into the Order of St. Francis grew upon him too strongly to be neglected. He tried his vocation as lay brother amongst the Capuchins, but was rejected, as they supposed him to be wanting in a true vocation. At last, however, the Franciscans of the Monastery della Grotella took pity on him. In their subterranean chapel (hence the above name) a miraculous image of our Lady was venerated. These good friars admitted him, and after trial he was permitted to take his vows as a lay brother amongst them.
He was set to do the lowest work, which he joyfully undertook, and performed with punctilious obedience; at the same time he redoubled his penance and his prayers. His sanctity became so well known that, when he collected alms, he won more souls for God by his pious behaviour than he gained bread for the cloister.
At length the grace was given him to receive ordination as a priest. Full of gratitude for this great gift, and consumed with the fire of the love of God, he thought no more but how he should consecrate most perfectly his life to God. He practised the extremest poverty, so that he only wore one poor garment. For five years he ate no bread, but lived upon dried fruits and vegetables. During the fasts he only ate a little on Thursdays and Sundays, but meat never passed his lips. These severe fasts emaciated him, and his complexion grew pallid; but after receiving Holy Communion his appearance was fresh and blooming. He chose a retired cell that was dark and incommodious. He would prefer to pray in unfrequented places, that he might more freely give himself to contemplation. His love of poverty was such that he divested himself of everything that was allowed him by rule; then, prostrate before his crucifix, he would cry out, “Behold me, O Lord, bereft of all earthly things. Be Thou my only Good! All else but Thee I look upon as a danger and as a loss to my soul.”
If one asked him what he desired most in the world, he would reply, “That God may occupy my whole heart.” Often he would turn to the image of the Crucified and say, “Jesus, Jesus, draw me up! Here below I cannot stay. Draw me where Thou art to Thyself.” This excessive desire to be ravished from earth, in order to be united to Jesus, was doubtless the reason that he was frequently and irresistibly drawn to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Once, in the chapel of St. Ursula, in the presence of many others, he was suddenly raised above the somewhat elevated choir towards the tabernacle, where he adored the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, kneeling before it in mid air, whilst a light shone forth from his face. In this situation he remained until his Superiors called him back. Love worked in him such close union with God that truly it might be said that his life was hidden in God. Of him it could be said he prayed always and without ceasing; he was dead to the world and the world to him; and his spirit so lived in heaven and upon heavenly things that it would appear he saw divine mysteries as it were in a mirror, and all the beauty of heaven would seem to lie open before him. He had a wonderful knowledge of souls, and was remarkable for the gift of prudence in his conduct of them. In the faces of men whose hearts were tainted with sin he could see spots of dirt, and would say to such a one, “Go wash thy face, which thou hast besprinkled with ink.” One evening the Saint was engaged at Grotella in conference with his Superior, when suddenly he cried out, “O, what a horrible stench! That is the stink of hell!” The Superior smelt nothing; but Joseph, being unable to bear it, begged permission to go to Cupertino. Having arrived, he went straight to a house, hurned up the stairs, and there he found a number of men occupied in concocting salves for purposes of enchantment. Seized with holy zeal, with his staff he broke the pots and other vessels, and regarded the evil-doers with such looks of holy fury that they all fled in haste.
In the year 1649 John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick, undertook a journey through Europe, in order to visit the various courts, and amongst others he visited Rome. He was about twenty-five years old. During his stay he was anxious to go to Assisi, in order himself to see a Saint whose sanctity was spoken of even in his own country. Pope Innocent therefore gave him letters of introduction to the convent, desiring the fathers that he should be permitted free converse with Joseph, in hopes of his conversion.
The Superior hastened to comply with these commands, receiving the Prince and his friends with honour. At once the Duke requested to see Father Joseph. The following morning being Sunday, the Prince and the two Counts, one of whom was a Protestant and the other a Catholic, were taken secretly into the chapel where the Saint usually said Mass. No one was aware of this, and Joseph himself did not know of the arrival of the strangers. He was standing at the altar, and in the act of breaking the Host, as the Duke and the two Counts entered the chapel, when lo, a loud sigh escaped the lips of the Saint, and laying the Host down upon the paten he fell into an ecstasy, raising himself with bended knees high in the air, and descending after a while with a cry towards the altar, where with great difficulty he broke the holy Host.
The Duke being much moved with what he had seen requested the Superior, after Mass, to inquire of Joseph what that strange cry and sigh might signify. The Superior replied that the Saint was not willing always to give such explanations, but at the request of the Duke he would require it of him as an obedience. Now the Saint, under obedience, replied, “Ah, the strangers whom thou didst send to hear my Mass are of a hard heart, and do not believe all that the Catholic Church believes. On this account the Lamb became hard in my hands this morning, and I could not break it.”
The young Prince, struck by this reply, desired after dinner to have speech of the Saint. The conversation lasted until evening. What passed between them no one knows; but afterwards the Prince retired into the chapel, and, lost in thought, remained kneeling before the altar of St. Francis. A great strife was going on within his soul between truth and error, and although apparently ashamed of his weakness he put off his journey, in order once more to attend the Saint’s Mass.
But a new miracle awaited his eyes. At the moment of Elevation there appeared upon the Host the form of a black cross, and at the same time the Saint uttered a similar cry, and was raised high in the air, in which position he remained for at least a quarter of an hour. Then he who was a Protestant cried out, “Accursed be the day that I came into this country; in my own land I was at peace, but here I have found anguish and distress of conscience.” But the Prince, at sight of the miracle, began to weep. A ray of truth had touched him, his heart was softened, although he still withstood the call of God. Now Joseph, enlightened by the Holy Ghost, perceived the strife which was going on in his soul, and smiling at his irresolution, said after Mass to a friend, “Let us rejoice, the deer is wounded.”
After Holy Mass the Prince, now deeply affected, conversed again with Joseph until midday, when after dinner he desired to return to the cell of the Saint, Joseph came out, and meeting him threw his girdle round the Prince’s neck, saying, “I bind thee for heaven!” At these words the Saint fell into ecstasy, and being come to himself he said softly to the Prince, “Go pray at the altar of St. Francis, attend Compline and the procession, and do all as thou seest the brethren do.”
The Duke, entirely humbled, obeyed the Saint, performing all as he was bidden. Accompanied by the Cardinals Fachinetti and Reppacioli he threw himself before the Blessed Sacrament, and said with a loud voice, “The King of the whole world is adored in this church. In this church I believe and acknowledge all that the Catholic Church acknowledges and believes.”
Once more a wandering child was won to the arms of Mother Church. It was till a late hour in the night that the Prince continued conversing with the Saint and learning the mysteries of his wisdom. The next day he resumed his journey to his own country, promising, however, to return the following year and make a public renunciation of his errors. And the Prince kept his word.
St. Joseph of Cupertino died on the 18th September 1663, at the age of sixty-three years and three months. His body was exposed for veneration, and he was buried in the chapel of the Conception, and canonized by Clement XIII. in 1767.