In my family, we have been devoted to the patron saint of test-takers, airline pilots & passengers, astronauts, and those with learning disabilities for at least three generations. It began when my grandparents taught their children a simple, age-old prayer to St. Joseph of Cupertino. Who was this remarkable Italian saint, and why is he so revered?
Dullest Child in the Village
Born into a family beset by financial hardships, Giuseppe Maria Desca was a poor student. He had difficulty paying attention and could not hide it. He was prone to wandering off, absent-minded, and described as "the dullest child in the village" by one of his teachers.
Perhaps his saving grace was that he knew these things about himself—but that understanding caused him great pain and frustration, so he was also considered unpleasant. When he could not succeed in school, his mother did everything she could to find a trade for him.
Apprenticed to several different tradesmen, he seemed disinterested, incapable, or as if his mind were constantly wandering. Each craftsman dismissed Joseph after only weeks on the job.
Called to holiness from a young age, he was drawn to prayer and heaven, but failed to please anyone who could help him make his way in the world. He wanted to be a Franciscan, but was denied entry because of his difficulties in school.
Distracting Fits of Piety
One community of Capuchin brothers agreed to take Joseph, and he severely tried their patience. They proclaimed him "too difficult to teach," complaining that he was given to "fits of piety" that were distracting and problematic in community life.
He had a way of suddenly standing still or turning inward in the midst of his tasks, causing him to forget where he was or what he was doing. The friars reported that he would unexpectedly go down on his knees in the most unlikely of places, oblivious to what was happening around him.
Once, as he was carrying plates to the refectory for the daily meal, he knelt suddenly, lost himself, and dropped everything. Food and crockery crashed to the floor. In frustration, the brothers secured the shards of broken crockery to his habit as a reminder of his responsibilities.
They hoped this punishment would remind him to pay attention and stay focused on his work. He bore the penance with great patience, but it did not help him engage more actively in his duties. Eventually the friars dismissed Joseph.
Becoming Brother Ass
Disappointed that her 18-year-old son had returned home, and believing Joseph had brought disgrace upon her family, his mother prevailed upon an uncle who was a Franciscan friar. He gave Joseph a job caring for his community's donkey and other animals.
Joseph became known as Brother Ass to the friars. If he were annoyed by the moniker, he did not show it. He began to use it in reference to himself, and called himself Brother Ass for the rest of his life.
Joseph spent his time in the stables, caring for the animals, shoveling hay and manure, and tending to other menial duties. During this solitary time he became more gentle, less frustrated, and took great care in his work with the simple creatures of the stable.
He had time to unite his heart to God in prayer, growing in virtue and humility while learning things directly from God. He also began a life of penance that seemed to bring him great joy and peace.
Training for the Priesthood
The friars noticed a change in Joseph over time. Impressed by his gentleness, simplicity, and humility, they agreed to admit him to priestly studies after a visit from their bishop, who saw in Joseph the heart of a mystic.
The coursework proved challenging and Joseph learned little from the tutoring friars, but through a miraculous series of events, he passed his examinations and was ordained.
As he progressed, becoming a deacon then a priest, one thing became clear: what were previously thought to be mental lapses and intellectual inferiority were actually mystical experiences occurring since childhood.
The extraordinary events began manifesting in the form of miracles, including levitation while saying Mass and in prayer. His misunderstood peculiarity was, in fact, ecstatic union with God.
United so closely to God, St. Joseph of Cupertino knew the love that transcends all human understanding and takes the human faculties to the heights of glory.
From Student to Mystic
The saint could spend hours in prayer and ecstasy, experiencing the indwelling of God. During some of these episodes, he would rise from the ground and float through the air.
This happened during prayer in the sanctuary, his cell, the dining hall, the courtyard, during an exorcism, or anywhere and any time God drew his soul heavenward.
People gathered around the monastery out of curiosity or for entertainment, hoping to catch a glimpse of St. Joseph. The distraction caused challenges in community life. His mystical gifts confounded even his own brothers. Some denounced him and accused him of witchcraft.
Life with God Alone
Sent away to other friaries for scrutiny, to the Inquisition in Naples, and finally to Rome, he was confined and kept in seclusion. He was cleared of wrongdoing, but concerns persisted about whether Joseph's gifts were from God, what effect he would have on others, and so on. Eventually the Superior General of his order sent him back to his home community.
Assigned a small cell apart from his community and a small chapel where he could privately say Mass, he lived immersed in God alone. He became ill and said his last Mass on the feast of the Assumption in 1663. When his brothers suggested he pray for his own healing, he replied, "No! God forbid!"
During his last Mass on the solemnity, he experienced ecstatic flights, and afterward was filled with joy. Sensing the end was near, he exclaimed, "The jackass has now begun to climb the mountain!"
Thus this holy man spent his last hours in union with God, completely immersed in His love.
Is it any wonder St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of test-takers, airline pilots and passengers, paratroopers, the Air Force, astronauts, and those with learning disabilities? He is certainly versatile, but each of his patronages fits him perfectly.
This saint for whom worldly knowledge was such a burden rose to the heights, his soul filled with the knowledge of God and drawn up into rapture and glory.
Labeled as unintelligent by all who knew him, he was in fact a man of many supernatural gifts. These eluded the world and mystified those who did not understand how God works in each of his children.
A Family Devotion
My family's devotion started with a special prayer my maternal and paternal grandparents taught their children. My parents taught it to me, and I taught it to my own kids. It's our family tradition to pray to St. Joseph of Cupertino—a devotion I hope continues for generations to come.
All of my great-grandparents emigrated here from Italy through Ellis Island in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Like many immigrants, they had minimal education and found work in their new country as unskilled laborers. They worked on the railroads and sold vegetables from carts, hoping to make a better life for their children and themselves in America.
They did not go to college. They lacked the resources for such extravagances. After both my grandfathers completed eighth grade, they left school and went to work.
Pushing vegetable carts, driving bread trucks, working at family stores, and cutting beef carcasses with a chain saw for the local butcher, they labored for their families. Over time, with perseverance and by God's grace, their children and grandchildren became military veterans, grocery store and restaurant owners, merchants, commercial property owners, and college graduates with successful careers.
Perhaps that's why they recognized education as such a great privilege. When both my parents were young students in Catholic school, their parents taught them this prayer to St. Joseph of Cupertino:
Prayer to St. Joseph of Cupertino
O' great St. Joseph of Cupertino, who while on earth did obtain from God
the grace to be asked at your examinations only the questions you knew,
obtain for me a like favor in the examination for which I am now preparing.
In return, I promise to make you known and cause you to be invoked, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Patron of Test Takers
My parents prayed the prayer to St. Joseph before they took their tests in school. Their generation was the first to go to college. My father always said St. Joseph of Cupertino was his "go-to" for schoolwork and tests.
Sometimes this happened as I was crying in anger and frustration, throwing my calculus or physics book across the room while he tried to explain a concept...
Daddy once confessed to hedging his bet in Latin by praying to St. Jerome as his backup, then taking him as his confirmation saint! We did not consider that to be an insult to our beloved St. Joseph of Cupertino. Daddy thought of it as an indicator of his need, not St. Joseph's limitations!
Patron of Astronauts
Paying for his own education, my father earned his Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering, then went to work on the Apollo Space Flight Missions in the 1960's and 1970's. It is not lost on us that St. Joseph of Cupertino was also the patron saint of astronauts and aviators.
Our special saint continued to be a fitting patron as Daddy worked in aerospace systems. It was yet another example of God's perfect symmetry, and how our saints often choose us through the Holy Spirit—even as we believe we are choosing them.
During this time in my parent's marriage, my siblings and I were born. Mama and Daddy taught us the St. Joseph of Cupertino prayer in our youth, just as their parents had taught them. We prayed it together in the mornings when I had a test at school. My mother wrote it down for me before I had memorized it.
On test days, she would make me a hot breakfast, insist I eat everything on my plate, then lead me in the prayer. I wish I still had her handwritten copy.
I can hear her like it was just yesterday, telling me, "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" and praying the prayer aloud with me as I kissed her good-bye, hastily gathered my books, and ran outside to catch the school bus.[[50787,10449]]
Three Generations of Devotion
I shared our special prayer with Catholic friends in college. I used to leave it in the pews in the Newman Center at the University of North Carolina as my way of making St. Joseph of Cupertino known and causing him to be invoked. We grew even closer during integral calculus, physics, and my time in Business School!
Several years ago I went back to the Newman Center with one of our daughters. Lo and behold, there was a wonderful, full-color brochure containing St. Joseph's picture and our special prayer. I was delighted to see it available to everyone.
When I had my own children, I taught them the prayer very early. We prayed it before spelling tests when they were little and more complicated exams as they aged.
One of our daughters was more bold about sharing the prayer with her Catholic friends. "After all," she once told me while printing copies to leave in the narthex, "we have to hold up our end of the deal. The prayer says we promise to make him known and cause him to be invoked." She's always been a stickler for details.
She was a biochemistry major, so it was a great blessing to know St. Joseph of Cupertino would intercede for her in college. For a few rough semesters, she proclaimed in frustration, "I don't think he's working for me anymore! I might be done with him if he doesn't turn things around soon!"
I kept praying to him on her behalf in holy confidence, whether she did or not. I think his perceived inactivity on her behalf was more about the mind-boggling aspects of biochemistry than it was about our patron. I knew he would not forsake us after three generations of devotion. In the end, he prevailed, and she graduated with honors.
My younger daughter remained quietly and faithfully devoted to St. Joseph and his prayer. We continue to pray it together now that she's in college. She's always been a straight "A" student, with prayer, hard work, God's grace, and St. Joseph of Cupertino's intercession.
What Goes Around Comes Around
School has been challenging for our youngest. We did not understand why until he was diagnosed with some learning issues after his teachers suggested testing. It's been a long road, but our patron has been faithful every step of the way.
Our son is in high school now. He does well in school and remains dedicated, though he has to study very hard. On test days, I make him a nice hot breakfast like my mother made me. After he eats, we pray the prayer aloud together, just like I did with my parents.
In fact, we prayed it this morning before tests in Political Science and Entrepreneurship.
Sometimes he's still praying while dashing out the front door to the bus stop, but he shouts the prayer along with me as he runs down our driveway. We never skip it on a test day, no matter the circumstances.
Recently I was out of town on a test day, but we agreed to pray to St. Joseph together by phone at 6:45 am on my son's walk to the bus stop. I called his mobile phone and we prayed together.
After we hung up, he texted me a thumbs up emoji and a heart.
I replied with an airplane emoji, in honor of our beloved "Flying Saint."
My son responded by texting me a flexed muscle emoji and another heart.
Times may change, but the rich inheritance of our Faith endures, and so does our family's legacy of devotion.
St. Joseph of Cupertino, Pray for us!