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Did an Italian priest really fly?

Posted on 23 October 2017, 10:14

When I wrote an article about levitation for Atlantis Rising, a popular national magazine, some years ago, I began with one reported to have taken place on the Sea of Galilee two-thousand years ago and then jumped ahead to October 4, 1630, when Joseph of Copertino, an Italian priest, was assisting in a procession honoring St. Francis of Assisi.  It was reported that Joseph was suddenly lifted into the sky and hovered there for some time before a crowd.  Upon descending, he was so embarrassed that he ran to his mother’s house and hid.  It was one of many “flights” that the future saint would experience, apparently while in a trance state, or in a state of ecstasy or rapture.

Well documented reports of levitations observed by some distinguished men of science,  including chemist Sir William Crookes, physicist Sir William Barrett, engineer William Crawford, and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace had led me to conclude that levitation does take place, but my limited research into the life of Joseph left me to believe that while Joseph was likely “levitated” the stories about him were probably greatly exaggerated and that his levitations were not nearly as high or as long or as often as the brief biographies I had read seemed to suggest.  Having now read Dr. Michael Grosso’s very well-done book, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, (Rowman & Littlefield,), I am less skeptical about the dynamics of Joseph’s reported levitations.

Grosso was able to locate and draw from some lengthy and detailed early references on Joseph. He stresses that Joseph’s case doesn’t depend on one or a few observations but on 35 years of roughly continuous eyewitness testimony by some very credible people, including popes, surgeons, kings, and ambassadors, much of which was documented by early historians, including one Arcangelo Rosmi, referred to as Joseph’s diarist. 

In one of Rosmi’s diary entries, he wrote that upon arriving in the basilica of Assisi, Joseph observed a painting of the Virgin Mary and “gave a huge scream and flew about thirty meters in the air and, embracing her, said, ‘Ah, Mamma mia! You have followed me!’ It all happened so quickly that those present were filled with sacred terror, marveling to each other, and remaining in a stupor over the Padre’s performance.”  Three other priests witnessed the levitation and confirmed the height of about 30 meters.

On another occasion, the Knight Baldassare Rossi, believed to be insane, was brought before Joseph by others, who asked Joseph to cure him.  When Joseph placed his hands on Rossi’s head, Joseph went into a rapture, rising high off the ground while carrying Rossi.  They remained in the air for some 10 minutes, before descending.  Rossi then appeared to be perfectly sound of mind. 

Francesco Pierpaolo, a doctor who attended Joseph, reported that he observed Joseph “lifted up” on four separate occasions, once while he was operating on him. On one of the lifts, Joseph floated in the air for seven or eight minutes.  However, his most frequent levitations were when he was saying Mass. “During a single Mass, one could verify three or four cases of levitation,” Gustavo Parisciani, one of Joseph’s biographers, wrote. “It would be impossible to narrate one by one the mystical manifestations, which were the daily joy and the daily torment of Joseph.” 

Abandoned by his father and raised by a strict mother, Joseph (1603-1663) grew up as a socially awkward person.  He was given a moniker that translates to “Gapingmouth.”  His younger years were further complicated by a physical deformity, a melon-sized growth on his back, which isolated him and caused him to turn inward.  He emerges as something of a simpleton, his superiors at one monastery referring to him as “absolutely not suited for religion, thickheaded and neglectful, ignorant and unfit for society.”  It was said he was more afraid of women than of the devil. And yet, his spirituality – his love of solitude, fasting, prayer, and meditation – apparently convinced examiners that Joseph should be ordained a Franciscan priest. 

“Once ordained, it was as if had obtained a license to pull out all stops and abandon himself to ecstacy…,” Grosso writes, going on to say that his public levitations and other strange phenomena were very visible, very dramatic, and very disturbing, especially to the Catholic Church.
Joseph had other psychic abilities, including clairvoyance, precognition, the odor of sanctity, “infused wisdom” and healing, all of which Grosso discusses.  He further examines similar psychic abilities with others and even mentions one case of levitation which he himself observed. 

The Church didn’t know what to make of his levitations and other psychic abilities. They were observed fact, but the question was whether they were divine gifts or diabolic influences.  As a result, Joseph was subject to several inquisitions and it was finally decided that he should live segregated from the general public.  In effect, he was under “house arrest” for much of life. 

“ explain the whole mass of reports and claims as pie in the sky, we would have to assume that large numbers of people were having the same illusion, systematically misinterpreting the movements of one friar for thirty-five years, and that grades of people were swearing in public that they saw things they only imagined,” Grosso writes. “We would have to assume that numerous Church authorities were lying or exaggerating and for some unknown reason hiding and shunting around a completely innocent, nonlevitating friar.  One would have posit an incredible amount of mendacity and stupidity on the part of Rossi, Nuti, Bernini, Lambertini, and all the processi deposers who recorded their observations.”

Grosso sees levitation as “just a very spectacular manifestation of mind acting on body,” seemingly rejecting or ignoring the “spirit” explanation of the phenomenon as advanced or implied in the levitation of others, i.e., the individual wasn’t “levitating” of his own free will, but was “being levitated,” or “lifted,” by spirit entities around him. He does allude to this explanation in places and the stories of Joseph’s levitations indicate that most, if not all, were not voluntary, but academics, of which Grosso is one, are usually reluctant to suggest spirit intervention. It is more “scientific” to attribute it all to the mind and avoid the idea of spirits altogether, even if there might be some kind of mind-spirit link. 

Grosso considers the possibility of sexual repression triggering Joseph’s states of ecstasy.  Nothing is mentioned of autism, which seemed to me to fit with much of Joseph’s personality. Nevertheless, as Grosso states in the Introduction, his book is about the possibility of transcendence. “Joseph’s story has implications for the mind-body problem, for the study of extraordinary mental and physical phenomena, for possible links to the new physics, and for new ways of approaching the old debate between science and religion,” he explains, also speculating on the life after death implications. 

“If we hope to mentally grasp these experiences,” Grosso concludes, “a more elastic concept of mind and body seems necessary.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

Next blog post:  November 6 (more on levitation)


Edgar Cayce levitated on at least one occasion, in the presence of multiple witnesses.

Thanks for this informative article which popped up unexpectedly on my screen. And it just so happens that Joseph has been on my mind this week. Go figure.

Ela, Mon 6 Nov, 07:16

It seems like Joseph’s intellectual disability may have helped to stop him from stopping himself from levitating….

Elene, Tue 24 Oct, 05:34

Daniel Dunglas Home (Hume) purportedly levitated as well.
I believe that it is not beyond the capabilities of the spirits to effectuate such a feat.

Yvonne Limoges, Mon 23 Oct, 22:47

Thanks for this article, Mike, and many thanks to Michael Grosso for this absorbing, well researched book that leaves no room for reasonable doubt. I’m happy that Michael distinguishes between two hypotheses: that Joseph levitated on his own, or that he was lifted by spirits. In my view, the latter is much superior.

Stafford Betty, Mon 23 Oct, 18:56

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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