My visit to the chapel of a flying saint
September 18, 1663 marked the entry into eternal life of St Joseph of Cupertino. The remarkable earthly pilgrimage of this loveable saint is hard to characterise adequately. The fact that it resulted in him becoming the patron saint of aviators, those taking exams and the mentally ill gives a clue as to the variety of challenges that conspired to make his a life of great suffering and a manifestation of extraordinary graces.
I don’t think it is a coincidence; I think it is probably more to do with my age and state and needing to revisit or deepen a knowledge about how vocation is pure gift, but recently I seem to be drawn more and more to saints who really struggled to “succeed” vocationally, but whose humility and trust amid struggles are expressive of a deep love for God and an exceptional ability to live by faith as they continued to knock at a door which had previously been closed in their faces. Like my other current hero, Léonie Martin, whose tomb I have visited three time this year, St Joseph suffered a great deal of rejection in his vocational search. And when I say that I am drawn to them, I mean physically as well as sympathetically.
Last week I was given permission to celebrate Mass in the tiny chapel deep in the Sacro Convento, the Franciscan headquarters in Assisi where St Joseph himself celebrated Mass. He was a virtual prisoner there for 10 years, living in a two rooms beside the chapel and forbidden to celebrate sacraments in public because of the extraordinary ecstasies and frequent levitations which accompanied his prayer life. This brought him the unwelcome attention of the Inquisition, as well as the hostility of many of his confrères. (We might find the idea of his being able to fly curious or even enviable, but it was associated with witchcraft). I celebrated Mass with and for three postulants from the Greyfriars in Oxford, just before they were clothed in the habit of St Francis and began a novitiate of a year and a day in the Sacro Convento.
It seemed impossible that Joseph himself would ever become a Franciscan, let alone a priest. His early life was pretty dysfunctional: there was little money at home and not much love going spare. At 17, having failed as an apprentice shoemaker, Joseph decided he wanted to become a Franciscan. Various friaries turned him away till the Greyfriars accepted him. But he was slow-witted and clumsy and would go into ecstasies, falling to his knees all at once to pray, even in the act of serving the community’s lunch. He was soon ejected. Having the habit taken away, he said, was like having the skin ripped off him.
His family were reluctant to take him back, so he hired himself out to another Franciscan community to look after their animals. (Like the Seraphic Master he would imitate, he had a love of animals, later inviting sheep, instead of shepherds, to join in his litanies and sending songbirds to cloistered nuns to teach them to sing.)
His virtues gradually softened the heart of the community, who allowed him to proceed towards the priesthood almost as an indulgence, believing that his intellectual handicap would mean that he would never progress beyond minor orders. Now, the Curé of Ars famously struggled with priestly studies, but in reality it was Latin that Joseph found hard. He probably had what we would call a learning disability.
His favourite Gospel passage was where the woman in the crowd calls out to Jesus: “Blessed was the womb that bore you.” As Providence would have it, this was the passage he was asked to expound on in the exam for diaconate. He did so at great length and with profound insight. In the exam before priestly ordination the first few candidates were so impressive that the bishop simply stopped the exam before it was Joseph’s turn on the basis that it was a mere formality, and Joseph was ordained at 25.
So I invoked his intercession for these three young men following in the steps of St Francis and preparing to withdraw from the world to seek the Lord. The weakness and trials of St Joseph will, I hope, keep their feet on the ground concerning their own natural gifts. If faith gives us feet to go to God, then grace really does give us wings to rise above the gravity of pride and sin and all that the past weighs down.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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