By Denise Trull
I find it so delightfully odd, in a good way, how the calendar of saints unfolds day to day. Young, innocent virgins next to powerful papal martyrs. Poor, ignorant, yet holy peasants or slaves might come the day before or after saintly kings or queens. Nuns, priests, barbers, actors, farmers, mothers and fathers all bearing witness to Jesus with lives given over to him such as they are, using the various gifts they have been given to further His Kingdom. It gives you a glimpse of the glorious variety in this great cloud of witnesses we call the saints of Heaven.
I always feel the joy of this delightful variety when two particular days in September roll around each year. This Sunday, we feast St. Robert Bellarmine and the day after we celebrate St. Joseph of Cupertino. And I must say, could there be any two men so vastly different in every way? It just makes me smile with pleasure.
Born to a large, wealthy Italian family in the year 1542, St. Robert was, as they say in our own times, ‘with it’ from the age of five. As a boy, he did not like games. What he did like was repeating to his younger brothers and sisters the sermons he had heard that week, and then expounding upon them. I am sure his brothers and sisters, who DID like games, listened under duress, before warming up to their big brother’s wisdom and the promise of time to play afterwards. St. Robert was a master of organization. He collected and organized all the farm children in the area and taught them the catechism, explaining it to them patiently.
He was a man with a forty-year plan, so to speak. Robert longed to be a Jesuit. His strong-willed, ambitious, Italian father wanted him to be an important official, so he spared no expense to educate him well. They did not at all see eye to eye about his future. But Robert proved to be such an ace at persuasive speech that he managed to talk his unbudging father into the Jesuit plan in just under a year, and in the end miraculously got his blessing.
Robert excelled at his studies among the Jesuits. He was gifted at giving sermons that, at a very young age before he was ordained, he climbed into that pulpit with total self-possession and filled the Church with incredible insights and holy thoughts. One holy old woman, afraid that one so young would fold under the pressure, prayed diligently for the young man to make it to the end of the sermon. By the end, her prayers had turned to thanksgiving for such a preacher as this! Robert went on to become a great writer and teacher, as well.
With all his gifts of organization and intellect, Robert became a cardinal. Even seemingly buried under his new and important duties, Robert devised a schedule that included his greatest pleasure: teaching the catechism to his own household and the people of the city under his care. St. Robert was always emotionally measured, well-informed, and organized. He was not taken by eccentricity of any kind, nor did he have any odd ways about him. In fact, the only slightly odd thing he ever did was to pull down the costly drapes in his office to make some cloaks for the poor, and said most logically, “Walls cannot catch cold.” Robert died quietly at the end of a productive life of teaching and preaching, self-possessed until the end. He was later to become a Doctor of the Church for all his fine, intellectual efforts at the service of Jesus’s kingdom.
As the calendar rolls over to September 18, we stumble upon the loose-ended life of St. Joseph of Cupertino, whom we find living in a small, poor Italian town in 1603. Joseph is that child that drops plates, can't remember the directions you just gave him two minutes ago, and can never find his shoes. The kind of child you didn’t think you needed to tell not to draw all over the newly painted wall, but apparently you did. The one who somehow loses the birthday money his grandmother sent him. He was “slow and absentminded and tended to wander about doing nothing. Then suddenly he would explode in anger.” Nobody liked being around him. He was awkward, socially unaware. His mom spent a lot of time trying to find him a place to land. Shoemaker? Failed. Many other jobs in the town? Failed. She came near to despair.
One day, Joseph himself asked if he could try being a Franciscan brother. His mother was so surprised that he had made some sort of decision on his own, that she brought him straight away to the friary on the hill. Alas, the fathers took one look at him and said, um, no. Undaunted, his mom took him to the Capuchins down the road. To their charitable credit, they did give him a chance. But he dropped so many piles of dishes, and kept forgetting to show up for prayers and meals, growling at the other friars and having angry outbursts. They sent him home, an eighteen year-old failure. Although discouraged by his return, his mother did not give up. I love this woman.
She convinced the Franciscans on the hill into taking him on as a “helper.” I am envisioning the woman from the Bible who got what she wanted by sheer, persistent, and annoyingly loud pleading. It worked. They let Joseph join up for a trial run.
They did kindly let Joseph wear the habit to fit in, and he was put in charge of the horses in the stable. And there, in that solitary atmosphere, quietly and slowly, he began to change. My daughter Madeleine would say it was because of the horses. She thinks horses have a peaceful power over human souls. Perhaps God used them in His plan for this young and troubled boy, where human efforts had failed. Joseph slowly gained some confidence and did his work with care. He began to pray long and deeply in the silence of the hay filled stalls and the nuzzling comfort of the horses. He grew to be a calm and happy brother. The friars noticed this with wonder, and let him study to become a priest. The studies came hard for Joseph’s wandering, jumbled mind, but he persevered and made it to his ordination after much suffering.
And lo and behold, this awkward, angry young man, with two left feet eventually became a deeply loved mystic who left miracles in his humble wake. He used to rise off the ground in prayer and all the people at morning Mass marveled. I would have been totally mortified if I rose off the ground during Mass. But he was so used to being different, that he took it all in stride and did whatever God wanted him to do. Eventually, they had to hide him away from the gawkers. And there he stayed alone in his cell with God where he longed to be. I picture his mom sighing in happy relief, glad that she had not given up on this trying son of hers and that God had managed to draw a straight line with this crooked, little, eccentric life.
Two saints, right next to each other on the calendar. So different and yet so the same. Both humble. Both given totally to what they were asked to do with the vastly different gifts they had each been given. Close to God in every way. I am absolutely sure that Robert would have understood Joseph and wouldn't have even blinked an eye if he rose to the ceiling during his Mass. I think he feels quite honored that such a great saint as Joseph stands next to him on the Church calendar.
Blessed be God for the variety of His Angels and His saints — and for persistent mothers!