A Patron Saint for Astronauts

People are often surprised when the Catholic Church keeps at arm's length phenomena that appear to be supernatural — whether it's weeping statues or apparitions of the Virgin Mary. But the Church is wise to be cautious. Too often these "miracles" prove to be wish fulfillment, a figment of the imagination or even fraud. The case of St. Joseph Cupertino, however, is unusual in Church history: while no one at the Vatican has ever been able to explain the Joseph Cupertino phenomenon, neither has anyone ever declared it to be supernatural.

To this day, St. Joseph Cupertino is one of those saints the Church does not know what to do with. What are we to make of a priest who according to reliable eyewitnesses levitated and "flew" (or at least was propelled by some invisible power) through the air on at least 70 occasions over the course of 17 years?

When the Father General of the Franciscans took Joseph to a private audience with Pope Urban VIII, Joseph levitated in the presence of the Holy Father. An astonished Pope Urban said if he outlived Joseph, he would promote Joseph's cause for canonization and personally attest to this miracle. On another occasion when Joseph was living in Assisi, Spain's ambassador to the Papal Court brought his wife and a large retinue to see Joseph. As he entered the church to meet his visitors, Joseph saw a statue of the Immaculate Conception. He floated off the floor and flew over the heads of the ambassador and his party to the statue where he remained suspended in the air. Then he floated back to the church door, and made a gentle landing. The Inquisition heard about Joseph and commanded him to appear before their tribunal. On Oct. 21, 1638, as the inquisitors questioned him, Joseph levitated.

There is no sign that Joseph's superiors considered his levitations as diabolical in origin or the work of some clever fraud; their concern was much more down-to-earth — Joseph's supernatural experiences had proven to be seriously disruptive to the day-to-day life of his religious community. His Franciscan superiors responded to the phenomena by commanding Joseph to say Mass only in private, and banning him from joining his brother friars in the choir for the Divine Office, eating with them in the refectory, walking in processions, or taking part in any public religious function — the Franciscans did not want to run the risk of Joseph suddenly rising into the air. Yet in spite of these strict measures to keep Joseph out of the public eye, his reputation spread among the Catholic faithful. Time and again, the Franciscans moved Joseph to Franciscan houses in ever more obscure corners of Italy, but word of his arrival always leaked out.

 At the end of his life Joseph was living in a Franciscan house in Osimo. As he lay on his deathbed he heard the sound of the altar bell which announced that a priest was bringing Holy Communion to him for the last time — and for the last time Joseph levitated. He rose off his bed and floated out into the hall to meet the Blessed Sacrament.

When the cause of Joseph Cupertino's canonization was put forward, Prosper Lambertini was appointed "the devil's advocate," the official charged with disputing all the claims to the candidate's saintliness. Lambertini, later Pope Benedict XIV, was one of the Church's greatest experts on the saints and a severe skeptic of all reports of supernatural events, yet even he had to concede that the witnesses who gave testimony of Joseph's levitations were of "unchangeable integrity." As Benedict XIV, Lambertini beatified Joseph.

Because St. Joseph Cupertino's movement through the air resembles the slow, fluid movements of an astronaut walking in space, he has become the patron of astronauts.

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Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).

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