St. Joseph of Copertino

Author: John Coulson, ed.


Feast: September 18

Joseph Desa of Copertino was born on June 17th, 1603. His home was miserably poor; he was sickly, and extremely dull. He was refused admittance into one convent after another, or dismissed for clumsiness, ignorance or absent-mindedness. At last he was accepted as a servant by the Conventual Franciscans of Grotella and, against all probability, was ordained in 1628. At once the 'abnormal' side of his life began.

In 1645 the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, the High Admiral of Castile, having spoken for some time with him in his cell at Assisi, said that his wife too would like to meet him. The Father Guardian told him to go down to the church: Joseph said he would obey but did not know whether he would be able to speak to her. He entered the church, saw a statue of our Lady over the altar and straightway flew some twelve paces above the onlookers to its feet, and after a while, 'uttering his customary shrill cry', returned to the floor and then his cell, having said nothing to the Admiral, his wife and their large retinue. Instances could be multiplied up to the last month of Joseph's life.

What strikes us immediately is that his miracles kept drawing such crowds that not only was he up before the Inquisition, but his desperate Superiors sent him from convent to convent. Once the Inquisition removed him to a Capuchin friary, where he was kept in strict enclosure and forbidden even to write or receive letters—to his own bewilderment: 'Must I go to prison, then?' he said. Yet, at Assisi, the duke of Brunswick and Hanover, after visiting him, abjured Lutheranism and became a Catholic; Urban VIII, having seen him in ecstasy, said that should Joseph die first, he himself would give evidence of what he had seen. Most important, Prosper Lambertini did his best, as Promotor Fidei ('Devil's Advocate'), to discredit him, yet afterwards (as Benedict XIV) published the decree of Joseph's beatification in 1753 and, in his classical work on Beatification, alluded to the 'eye-witnesses of unchallengeable integrity' who witnessed to Joseph's 'upliftings from the ground and prolonged flights'. It is difficult to see how, if we reject this evidence, we shall ever find any historical evidence acceptable. In considering saints whose lives record abnormal phenomena, such as 'levitation' certain general principles need to be established. To start with, it is best to avoid the words 'mysticism' and 'mystic', which it is preferable to keep for what concerns a specially dose union with God: this need not connote any abnormal phenomena.

No believer in God can exclude the possibility of 'miracles'—but in this context a miracle does not have to be described as a defiance of the laws of nature: a stone, left to itself, lies where it is; but if other forces, directed by the intelligence, lay hold of it, it may find itself the capital of a pillar in a cathedral: but quarryman, architect, sculptor will all have obeyed <their> laws, else the fabric would collapse. Secondly, when an abnormal event is observed, every test known to science should be applied to it. But we must recall that even if such an event escapes from every scientific test (as do, for example, some cures at Lourdes), the investigator is not asked to assert that it is a miracle: indeed, the church herself cannot define the miraculous character of such an event as a 'truth of faith'. The church's approbation is in essence negative: she says that there is nothing in, for example, the story of Fatima, contrary to faith or morals, and that if, after prudent inquiry, an investigator thinks the story is credible, he is not forbidden to believe in it and to affirm his belief in public. Naturally, few are able to make a personal inquiry, but a man would be rash to disregard the verdict of the experts who have done so.

We must avoid two extremes: that of the greedy for miracles, who rush ahead alike of church and science; and that of those who refuse, <a priori>, to admit the possibility of a supernatural element in some abnormal event. Once, when a case of stigmatization was being investigated, several doctors were asked if a profound lesion of the tissues, lasting for years, without either treatment or gangrene, could be produced by autosuggestion only: all except two said 'Yes'. They were asked if any of them had met with an instance of this. None had. On the other hand, the body can undergo astonishing de-formations, as is illustrated by the case of Mlle Jahenny, an ecstatic. On September 27th, 1880 she exhibited the following phenomena (and others) in the presence of a doctor, a priest, and four other 'persons of credit': her head shrank downwards so that her shoulders protruded 'notably' above it; each shoulder successively seemed to stand at right angles to the collarbone; the right side of her body was so dilated from arm-pit to hip that on the left of her torso practically nothing could be felt. Such 'elongation' or distortion cannot do much good either to the patient or the onlooker in whom it would, rather, excite alarm or repulsion, as was urged by the Promotor Fidei ('Devil's Advocate') in the case of Sister Veronica Laparilli (died 1620), whose beatification was hoped for but not granted.

Levitation, however, can at least have a symbolical value, as representing the 'heavenward' aspiration of the soul. If, then, there is good evidence for a 'levitation', no appeal to hysteria or self-suggestion seems possible, and we must look elsewhere. 'Stigmatization' is discussed in the life of St. Gemma Galgani, and the reader is advised to consult <The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism,> by H. Thurston (1951), and <Levitation>, by O. Leroy (1928).

St. Joseph of Copertino was canonized in 1767, fourteen years after his beatification. His feast day is September 18th .

(Taken from "The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary> edited by John Coulson, published by Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1960.)