(1603 – 1663)
(Feast September 18)
When Joseph Desa was born in southern Italy in 1603, his parents did not rejoice. The father, a carpenter deep in debt, died early. His mother found young Joseph an unpleasant burden. Perhaps it was for want of parental affection that her son developed a preoccupied manner. His young companions called him “Boccaperta,” “the gaper.” He also had a strong temper at first. Still, he was a reverent child.
Joseph proved a difficult person to place. Apprenticed to a shoemaker, he showed no talent for cobbling. Therefore, at seventeen, he himself asked to join the Conventual Franciscans. They turned him down. The Capuchin Franciscans did accept him as a lay-brother candidate, but he broke so many dishes that they soon told him he’d better leave.
Finally, Signora Desa talked her brother, himself a Conventual Franciscan, into hiring her boy as a servant. They accepted him on this basis.
From then on, however, young Joe’s life began to change. He really applied himself to becoming a better person – gentler, calmer, more prayerful. It even came to the point that the Conventuals had him enter the order and study for the priesthood. The reason for his superiors’ changed views was that Joseph had displayed marvelous gifts of mystical prayer.
Chief of these was the gift of ecstasy. In his prayer he was often so swept up into union with God that he lost all sense of time and space. His ecstasies were frequently connected with the still rarer gift of “levitation”: being lifted up into the air when in ecstatic prayer.
For example, when Joseph was stationed at the monastery at Grottella, it would take little to send him into rapture: the sight of a religious statue or the mention of anything that reminded him of God. Once, when he was living at their monastery at Orsini, his fellow Franciscans in chapel saw him fly up seven or eight feet into the air, kiss a statue tenderly and float off to his own cell. Sometimes when he started flying he would even pick up a fellow friar and lift him up beside him in the air, much to the consternation of the liftee. Only the command of his superior could bring Friar Joseph down for a soft landing. When he came to, of course, he had no knowledge of what had been going on.
What were the Franciscans going to do with this unique friar?
The solution they arrived at was to keep him out of sight, so that he wouldn’t continue to disturb public order. For thirty-five years, therefore, he was forbidden to attend the community Mass and prayers, obliged to say his own Mass and prayers in a private chapel. From 1653 to 1657, church authorities even took him away from his fellow Conventuals and sent him, now to one, now to another remote monastery of the Capuchin Franciscans. When devoted followers located one of his “prisons,” the authorities spirited him off to another.
In 1657 he was finally allowed to return to the Conventual monastery of Osimo. There he died in 1663. Meanwhile, separation from almost everybody had caused him no great grief. It merely meant that his only companion was God. And that was what God wanted.
You might say, therefore, that St. Joseph worried his fellow Franciscans because he was a square peg and wouldn’t fit in the usual round hole. What they overlooked is there is no need for every peg to be round.
The square pegs that God sometimes makes are also beautiful in His eyes. So should they be in ours.
–Father Robert F McNamara