Saints can come from all circumstances and backgrounds. Many have been born poor. Others were born into wealthy families. Some were greatly loved by their families. Others were not as well loved. Joseph of Cupertino falls into the category of growing up both poor and, sadly, unloved by his family. Here is his story.
Life did not even begin very easily for Joseph of Cupertino. His birth was under mean and difficult circumstances. His father was a carpenter who, although a hard worker, was terrible with money. About the time that Joseph was to be born, the family's house had been taken over by the local authorities, and items from the home were being sold to pay off all of the family's debts. This was too much for the mother who was ashamed of it all and enclosed herself in a small shed at the back of house where she gave birth to her son.
From the start, Joseph was somewhat of a sickly child, and he was prone to catch whatever illness made its rounds in the village. When he was seven years of age, he developed an ulcer that refused to heal. Hardened with her difficult life, his mother became bitter toward him as she feared that Joseph would remain a burden upon her for the rest of her days. Being prone to make mistakes, Joseph was often found fault with by his mother. And she severely punished him for the smallest infraction.
Although he attended school, there seemed little hope for Joseph in that venue. For the most part, he was a very absent-minded child who would forget what he was saying halfway through a sentence. His mind drifted during the lessons, and he was easily startled. A sharp noise while carrying his books would send the books to the floor and leave Joseph in a dither. His classmates tried to get along with him, but it was not easy to keep engaged with him because he was so easily distracted.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Sadly, it became clear that no one really wanted young Joseph. His own family, even his own mother, did not want him. However, through this dismal situation, there was one ray of hope. Joseph accepted the fact that he was not wanted by anyone. This acknowledgment was important because it was the truth, in terms of humans. Joseph embraced that truth which freed him from a false sense of believing that he was wanted or that anything he could do would make him wanted by anyone. The other aspect of this truth is that he took very little thought of himself. Perhaps because he did not worry about what others thought of him, he was able to not be overly concerned about himself.
As he grew older, the disparity between other children and Joseph made him the object of ridicule. No one understood the absent-minded boy who wandered about the village. His family's first attempt to unburden themselves of Joseph came when he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. The apprenticeship was doomed from the start and soon the shoemaker released him because he found him incompetent.
Then one day, Joseph saw a Franciscan friar begging in his village, and immediately he became fascinated with the prospect of becoming a religious brother. He embraced the ideal of a consecrated life. Everyone else agreed that perhaps this would suit him because it surely would not take much to be able to ask for alms. And there might be some help with the matter as two of his uncles were Franciscans.
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Attempt at Religious Life
Despite his enthusiasm and interest, the path forward was not easy. Each monastery that Joseph applied to found one reason or another that he could not be accepted. First, it was his lack of education. Second, he just did not seem capable of living the religious life. Finally, after knocking on the doors of several Franciscan monasteries, he was allowed to join a community on a trial basis as a lay brother.
The trial did not last long. The brothers found that it was virtually impossible to teach him anything. In addition, he would have his usual distractions that were actually moments of piety. The problem is that they would occur at any time. Joseph would be holding a stack of plates one moment, and the next, he would be on his knees in prayer as plates crashed to the ground and broke into dozens of pieces. Oblivious to the scene he had caused, the brothers did not know what to make of him.
For the sake of the community, the brothers took away Joseph's habit and ordered him to leave. It was heartbreaking for Joseph to say the least. His dream of religious life was as broken as the plates that had been left on the floor. Joseph later said that when they took his habit, it was as if they had ripped off his skin.
Suddenly, Joseph found himself turned out and on his own. He had left without proper clothes and found himself without shoes or stockings and in a worn and tattered coat. He wandered in no particular direction and was then attacked by dogs who shredded much of what was left of his clothing. After escaping the dogs, he was threatened with being arrested as a tramp before he finally arrived in a village where a wealthy uncle of his lived.
Arriving at the door of his uncle's house in shredded clothes, dirty, and begging for help did him no favors with his uncle. Beside Joseph's father owed the uncle money. Not wanting to increase the debt owed to him, the uncle told him to leave.
Without any other place to turn, Joseph returned home. If he had hoped for any help there, he was to be sorely disappointed. The situation at home was worse than it was before. His mother could not afford to have him stay at home and she was embarrassed that he had been rejected from the Franciscans.
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A Second Chance at Religious Life
His mother did the only thing she could do. She stormed off to her brother the Franciscan and demanded that the order take her son. Given what had happened, it was out of the question for him to join the order. The best her brother could do is give him the habit of a third-order Franciscan and hire him out as a servant. Thus, Joseph found himself in charge of the mule of a Franciscan monastery.
Joseph reasoned to himself that since he could not be a Franciscan, he could be the next best thing which is to be a servant of the Franciscans. Grateful for any position, he took to his task with relish. With his usual expectations, he simply accepted what was given to him. The Franciscans provided him with food and clothes, and Joseph slept on a plank in the stable with the mule. As was his nature, he maintained a cheerful and positive outlook.
That attitude was magnetic to the brothers. And soon many of them were making excuses to go down to the stable to spend time with Joseph. He was just such an agreeable person despite the difficulties in his life that the brothers just wanted to be around him. He also was the most selfless person that they had met. And there was no one who got along better with the poor. The poor would come to him for assistance which Joseph readily gave. And they paid no attention to any of his odd behaviors.
These gifts of Joseph were recognized by the superior of the community, and a discussion was held as to whether Joseph could become a Franciscan after all. The community agreed and Joseph, to his great delight, was allowed to begin his novitiate. Given Joseph's lack of education, it was hard going as could be imagined, but eventually Joseph learned to read and to write.
Passing the Exams with Flying Colors
In those days, there were what were called minor orders. Joseph entered the minor orders than the subdiaconate. However, to become a deacon and a priest he would need to pass a special exam administered by the bishop. This would require that he discourse on any passage of Scripture selected by the bishop. No one expected Joseph to pass the test.
When he was being examined for the diaconate, the bishop opened the Bible and randomly selected Luke 11:27 which reads "Blessed is the womb that bore you." Wonder of wonders, this was the one passage on which Joseph could speak as eloquently as the most accomplished preacher. And speak he did. He spoke deeply and impressively as if he would never stop. The bishop nodded his head in approval and Joseph was ordained a deacon.
Only a year later, Joseph appeared for the exam for the priesthood. Again, everyone expected him to fail. This time, the bishop questioned the young men one-by-one and found himself deeply impressed with their answers. Before Joseph had been questioned by the bishop, the bishop said that he had heard enough from these bright young men and with that, he gave all of them a passing grade. Thus, at the age of 25, Joseph was ordained a priest.
Flights of Devotion
After he was ordained a priest, Joseph did not act much differently than he had before. He continued to be a favorite of the poor who recognized that he actually was a holy man. On the other hand, many, even among his brothers, were exasperated by his absent-mindedness and impromptu devotion.
When he went out begging, he would often return with a sack full of food but missing articles of clothing or his rosary. Completely unaware of what was happening, Joseph did not notice the people were snipping off articles of his clothing in order to have a relic from him. Because they could not afford to give him new clothes, the community told him to stop begging.
His selflessness was manifest in his willingness to do any task no matter how menial. He would sweep the floors, clean the dishes, wash the clothes, and carry bricks and mortar for the building projects. When it was pointed out to him that he was a priest and perhaps should not have to do those chores, he simply questioned what else he could do.
As the community had gotten to know Joseph, it became clear that his random acts of piety were truly deep contemplative prayers that would seize him perhaps when he had a holy thought. He would become so transfixed that nothing would alter his state. The brothers might prick him with needles or even touch a burning coal to his hand, but that would have no effect. Instead, unless the superior gave an order, he would remain in this ecstasy until it was over. And when it was over, he would kindly ask them to not prick him or touch burning coals to him.
If anything, after being ordained a priest, these episodes only increased. And eventually, they became spectacular. Joseph began to experience flights of rapture. After just catching sight of a holy statue or hearing the Lord's name mentioned, he might go into rapture, become weightless, and essentially fly through the air to different parts of the church or the monastery where he would remain in prayer. Fortunately, the vow to obedience meant that if his superior ordered him down, he would come back to earth. (Many eyewitnesses recorded having seen his many flights. In fact, as many as seventy of his flights were documented.)
Even this proved to be a trial of Joseph. He had to live in humble obedience as he was kept from the general public for over thirty-five years because his superiors thought that his mystic flights were too much to handle and explain.
After a faithful life of service, Joseph died of natural causes at the age of sixty.
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