Thursday, February 27, 2014

Joseph of Cupertino—Patron of Astronauts

In the last few weeks I got to see the movie Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut marooned in space) and Hubble 3D, a short documentary about the real-life 2009 shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.  IMAX 3-D cameras accompanied the crew of five into space.  I watched from my comfortable seat in an Upper West Side theatre as they made five spacewalks to repair and upgrade the Hubble.  After the film, Mike Massamino, one of the astronauts seen in the film, spoke to us a little about the mission and the whole experience of outer space.

Joseph of Cupertino in a typical pose.
All this got me thinking about the patron of astronauts—Saint Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663), sometimes called “the Flying Friar.” 

Joseph was born in the small village of Cupertino in the Kingdom of Naples and as a child he was labeled a dunce and a loser.  He was hot-tempered and given to ecstasies (religious trances) while in school.  Even his own mother considered him a fool.  He was apprenticed to a shoemaker but washed out.  He felt called to religious life but was rejected by the Conventual Franciscans.  (Astronaut Mike Massamino told us that he and several of his colleagues had been rejected numerous times before they were finally accepted into the space program.  It took some of them years, but, like Joseph, they refused to give up.) 

Joseph was finally accepted into a Capuchin monastery as a lay brother (a servant) but when he went into one of his ecstasies he would drop whatever he was holding.  After eight months and too many broken dishes, the Capuchins dismissed him as incompetent.  He left the monastery with nothing and headed home in rags.  On the way, a rich uncle refused to see him.  He reached Cupertino where even his mother scorned him.  The superior of the monastery of Grottela saw something in Joseph, however.  He let him stay in the monastery stable and look after their donkey. 

Joseph embraced this lowly task and impressed everyone with his cheerfulness and willingness to serve.  The superior thought he might make a religious after all.  A religious, maybe, but a student, no way.  He could only master one passage of Scripture well enough to explain it: “Blessed be the womb that bore Thee” [Luke 11:27].  Nevertheless, under circumstances that can only be called miraculous, he passed his examination for the diaconate and, a year later, the examination for the priesthood.  On March 4, 1628 he was ordained a priest. 

 “From the time of his ordination, Saint Joseph’s life was one long succession of ecstasies, miracles of healing and supernatural happenings on a scale not paralleled in the reasonably authenticated life of any other saint.”  (Butler’s Lives of the Saints).

Most remarkable was Saint Joseph’s power of levitation:  “he would fly straight from the church door to the altar over the heads of worshippers; once he flew to an olive tree and remained kneeling on a branch for half an hour.  Happenings like these were almost every day occurrences, witnessed by hundreds of persons.” (Book of Saints)

Not everyone understood or appreciated all this.  For thirty-five years Saint Joseph was not allowed to attend choir, dine with his fellow Franciscans, walk in procession or say Mass in church.  He was ordered to remain in his room where a private chapel was prepared for him.  He was even interrogated by the Inquisition.  The Franciscans kept him moving from one lonely monastery to another, but he kept on flying.   He arrived at Osimo in 1657 and died there peacefully at the age of sixty.  He was canonized in 1767. His feast day is September 18 and it's no surprise that he is also the patron of struggling students.  You can make a virtual tour of his shrine in Osima, Italy, here:  The pictures here are from

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