Wednesday, July 18, 2012

He Lifted Up the Lowly: Musings about St. Joseph of Cupertino The Reluctant Saint

I watched The Reluctant Saint a few nights ago, after Emma, who attends the Traditional Latin Mass at the Oratory where I go, loaned me a VHS tape of the film. It had recently been shown at one of Canon Avis's movie nights in the basement of St. Margaret Mary's Church in Oakland, but I had missed it.

As I stuck the tape into my out-of-date TV (which has both a tape player and a DVD player built in), since I didn't look closely at the tape sleeve, I thought I might be in for one of those earnest, pious bioflics of Catholic saints that are so often produced these days. But soon I found to my surprise that I was enjoying a well-done Hollywood film from 1962*, with major stars, Maximillian Schell (Judgement at Nurenberg), Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek: Wrath of Khan), and several lesser known character actors in well-turned supporting roles. The saint's mother is played to comic perfection by Lea Padovani, a former smouldering-Italian-actress type who was 42 at the time the movie was made.

As it turned out, the movie is a very good, sometimes very funny, albeit strongly fictionalized portrayal of the life of 17th century St. Joseph of Cupertino. By the way, because of the saint's penchant for levitating, I had the random thought that the movie could have been subtitled The Flying Monk, but I found that (even better) he has been called by others The Flying Friar.**

Even though the opening credits say that the elements of the story are true in their essential details, St. Joseph of Cupertino's life was not much like the movie. Just for one example, he didn't have a drunken shiftless father; his father died before Guiseppe was born.

I never knew much about this saint before. Just knowing that he is the patron for the nearby city of Cupertino***, where a church is also named in his honor, I couldn't have imagined that he had been despised and abused as an idiot, as I learned in this movie.

This movie is very affecting, and I recommend it heartily, partly because I believe it could well be a source of hope and understanding for anyone who is looks with pity or dismay on someone who is considered slow or backward. As this movie shows and the Scriptures**** often state, God exalts humble people who often have no value in the world's eyes.

One thing about this saint that especially charms me, which I learned by research after I saw the movie, is his obedience. It is recorded that nothing could bring him out of his ecstasies except a command from a superior.
His life was now one long succession of visions and other heavenly favours. Everything that in any way had reference to God or holy things would bring on an ecstatic state: the sound of a bell or of church music, the mention of the name of God or of the Blessed Virgin or of a saint, any event in the life of Christ, the sacred Passion, a holy picture, the thought of the glory in heaven, all would put Joseph into contemplation. Neither dragging him about, buffeting, piercing with needles, nor even burning his flesh with candles would have any effect on him — only the voice of his superior would make him obey. Catholic Encyclopedia Online
With heavenly assistance, this so-called idiot was able to join the Franciscan order, pass stringent theological exams, and master enough Latin to eventually be ordained a Catholic priest and say Mass. His miraculous levitations were viewed by all and sundry, even Pope Urban VIII, making his story more strongly corroborated than most stories of the saints.
When he bent down to kiss the Pope's feet, he was suddenly filled with reverence for Christ's Vicar on earth, and was lifted up into the air. Only when the Minister General of the Order, who was part of the audience, ordered him down was Joseph able to return to the floor.
It is amusingly appropriate that St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of aviators, air-travelers and students.

Prayer card for students and test takers, front(R), and prayer on back (L). Click to see larger images.

I believe this dear saint was raised above his human limitations, not only spiritually but physically, because of his humility and obedience and his rapt and loving contemplation of the mysteries of the Catholic faith. As the Bible says, God lifts up the lowly and in this case, the lifting up was literal.

*This 1962 movie provides a flashback to an era, within my lifetime, when Hollywood used to make respectful movies with Catholic themes.

**"Cupertino first appears in the recorded history of the Spanish expedition of 1776 led by Don Juan Bautista de Anza. Leaving the majority of his party in Monterey, De Anza, his diarist and cartographer, [Franciscan Friar] Petrus Font, and eighteen other men pressed on into the Santa Clara Valley in March of that year. Encamped in what is now Cupertino, Font christened the creek next to the encampment the Arroyo San Giuseppe Cupertino in honor of his patron.... The Arroyo is now known as Stevens Creek."

***St. Joseph of Cupertino was called "the Flying Friar" because of his frequent levitations. Famed illustrator Tomie de Paola did illustrations for a book about him called The Little Friar Who Flew.

  • "Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you" [James 4:10].

  • "But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong"[1 Corinthians 1:27]. "That, as it is written: He that glorieth may glory in the Lord [1 Corinthians 1-29].
  • This passage and many others say that the foolish are chosen so that no one can boast that any work of God has been done by the power of any man, but only from the power of God.
  • Mary's Magificat, "He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly." [Luke 1:52].
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