One day in 1645, the Grand-Admiral of Castille, Legate to the Holy See, goes to Assisi with his wife. He wants to see with his own eyes a strange Franciscan, Brother Joseph, who has, it is said, some surprising faculties. So surprising that the Inquisitors of Naples, suspicious by nature, have been surveilling him without benevolence for some time.
As soon as they arrive, the Spanish high dignitary and his wife tell the Porter monk the reason for their visit. He leads them to the church where they are asked to wait. After a moment, a monk around forty leaves the sacristy and walks a few steps in their direction. He seems so intimidated that the Spaniards go to meet him, but suddenly the man flies up with a great cry, passes over them “like a big pigeon” and traverses the nave towards a statue of the Virgin. When he reaches his goal, he rests for a few seconds, then, having let out another cry, takes off again, re-traverses the space and comes back to where he started… He immediately returns to his cell in shame, while smelling-salts are administered to the Grand-Admiral of Castille’s wife who has fainted…
Who is this curious monk who, defying the laws of gravity, zooms around in the air?
He is called Joseph Desa. He is born in Naples in 1603 into a family of poor people. At seventeen, while he is learning the shoemaker trade, he manifests the desire to enter the city’s Franciscan monastery. Refused because of his extreme ignorance, he turns to the Capucins who send him away, after eight months of noviciate, for physical and intellectual incapacity. The poor boy is not discouraged and succeeds in being accepted among the conventual minor brothers of the Grotella convent, near Copertino, in the South of Italy, as a lay brother charged with heavy duties. His extreme good will earns him the right, although he is practically illiterate, to be received among the choir monks. Finally, he is ordained priest in 1628.
It is at this moment that everything starts. A witness, a Copertino shepherd, tells of the event during the procedure for the beatification of the strange Franciscan two years after his death.
“I was guarding my flocks, near Grotella. On Christmas Eve, Brother Joseph came to find us, me and the other shepherds of the plain, and asked us to come to play the musette in the church to celebrate the Nativity. We went. While we were playing, Brother Joseph was so joyful, that he started to dance and stamp his feet in the nave. Suddenly, he sighed and let out a great cry. At the same time he flew into the air and, in the middle of the church, flew like a bird onto the main altar where he embraced the tabernacle. From the middle of the church to the main altar, the distance could be fifty canes (that is to say twenty-five metres). He remained like that, kneeling on the altar, hugging the tabernacle, for about a quarter of an hour. After which, he came back down without any help from anyone and went away from us, his cheeks and eyes bathed in tears…”
This little seance of ecstatic levitation would be followed by many others. We cite a few among the seventy cases consigned in the acts of the procedure and authentified by witnesses.
One day, on the Feast of Saint Francis, while he was following the procession, Joseph suddenly flew to the church’s pulpit which was at a height of fifteen palms (three metres) and landed on the edge of it where he remained balanced for a long time on his knees, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross.
One Holy Thursday evening, in front of the main altar where the whole community is praying, he suddenly lets out a great cry and flies through the air to the tabernacle. Annoyed, the Superior has to order him to come back to his place; which Joseph, obedient, does in gracious floating flight.
On 10 July 1657, while he is on his way to the Osimo convent, he has a vision, falls into ecstasy and flies to an almond tree situated one hundred and fifty palms away (thirty metres).
Sometimes, a simple remark sets off the phenomenon: one day, he flies onto an olive tree because a priest, Don Antonio Chiarello had said to him:
“What a beautiful sky God has made, Brother Joseph!…”
And he remains on his knees for half an hour on a branch that is seen to sway as if a bird had landed on it. But when he comes out of the ecstasy, he is unable to descend and a ladder has to be brought to him.
A pious image, a religious chant, a blade of grass which moves him, a leaf from a cherry tree whose texture he admires or an animal are sufficient also to put him into ecstasy and make him weightless. An anecdote furnishes proof of it: one Sunday, when he has just heard the parable of the Good Shepherd, he goes into the monks’ garden and meets a lamb. Enthusiastic, he takes it on his shoulders and flies with it. The monks keep asking him to come back down but he floats for two hours above the trees…
Soon the little Franciscan’s levitations multiply. He perches on steeples, flies over gardens, lands on loggias and even indulges in a sort of “buzzing” over a group of nuns who are completely panicked. Even better, the guards of the Assisi Treasury see him one day passing over their heads flying backwards, and landing behind them on the church’s paving stones where he then starts to spin like a top.
He sometimes uses his gift to help others. One morning, near his convent, seeing some workmen trying to plant a tall, heavy cross on the summit of a hill, he flies above them, raises the cross as if it were a simple stake and plants it in the hole that had been prepared for it.
But Brother Joseph of Copertino does not content himself with flying alone. On sevaral occasions, he takes a companion in his levitation. One day, at Saint Claire’s Church, at the moment when the chant Veni Sponsa Christi erupts, he rushes to the convent’s Confessor, takes him by the hand, hauls him from the ground and makes him turn with him in the air…
To be continued.