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Posted by on Sep 25, 2007

Saint of the Day: St. Elzear & Bl. Delphina – The Happy Couple

Saint of the Day: St. Elzear & Bl. Delphina – The Happy Couple

Today, an unconsummated marriage would probably not be considered advisable by the Church and mental health experts. St. Elzear and Blessed Delphina were a couple who were married and lived together chastely. They are saints because of their care of the poor and the suffering. This couple is also known for their conscientious exercise of their duties as members of the nobility. Interestingly, they were known and remembered as a happy couple.

Personally, I don’t think that I would have responded by taking a vow of chastity on my wedding night the way St. Elzear did when he found out the Delphina had already made one. We have a contemporary theology of marriage that stresses and endows love making and sex within marriage as sacramental.

Certainly the late Middle Ages (St. Elzear 1286 -1323, Bl. Delphina 1283- 1358) was not a “puritanical” time. In fact, Puritanism would not happen for another 200 years and would never take root in the Mediterranean.

St. Elzear was born at the family castle in Ansouis, Provence, in the south of France. At 23, he became lord of Ansouis and Count of Ariano in the Kingdom of Naples. The Count and Contessa became influential in the court of King Robert of Naples and Elzear was the tutor to the King’s son Charles. He was also the “justiciar” or head of law enforcement and justice for southern Abruzzi under King Robert. St. Elzear died on September 27, 1323 while on a diplomatic mission to Paris to arrange the marriage of Charles to Mary of Valois. Blessed Delphina would survive him for another 35 years and spend the time in continued acts of charity.

As nobles, producing children was a serious responsibility. Even when having children was precluded due to medical reasons, noblemen usually had some illegitimate sons at hand. William the Conqueror was one such son. Since the marriage of the Count and Contessa of Ariano (St. Elzear and Blessed Delphina) was so atypical by the standards of their day and ours, how do we relate to it?

Perhaps it was a marriage of convenience, in the sense that due to their social station they were obliged to marry but would have really preferred monastic vocations. Since their state in life was determined when they were young children of a noble family, they simply found a way around it.

Young children at the ages of 5 -7 were sent as oblates to monasteries and convents. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Thomas Aquinas are two examples. We also know, of course, that many people who found themselves in “enforced” monastic vocations would do their best to bend or break the rules.

Then as now, marriages – especially those among the rich and powerful -were not happy affairs. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and her Church sanctioned marriages to King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England demonstrates the far from Romantic character of such marriages. In fact, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a major promoter of the troubadour movement. The origins of what we today experience as romantic love originally began as songs of chaste love for the unattainable woman. As we know, the reality of courtly love was far from chaste, but it seemed to provide some fluidity in a tight social structure. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t cause feelings of betrayal and rejection resulting in duels, beatings, and death. The case of King Henry VIII in the early modern period (1491 -1547) provides a window onto the complexity of marriage in Europe in previous centuries.

The Count and Contessa feeding the poor, living as lay Franciscans, and in the case of St. Elzear healing lepers were definitely unusual for the time. What was probably most striking about them is that they were known as a happy couple. Their marriage – even if its lack of consummation might not adhere to the Church’s definition of one – was a partnership for a radical living of the Gospel.

In our own culture and time, can we say as much about our marriages and the joy, happiness and moral guidance they bring to others?

There are two slightly different accounts of these saints, with some inconsistencies. Please see Saint of the Day at and Catholic Online.

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Posted by on Sep 18, 2007

Saint of the Day: St. Joseph of Cupertino

Saint of the Day: St. Joseph of Cupertino

Joseph Desa (1603-1663) was born in Cupertino, near Brindisi in the Kingdom of Naples.

St. Joseph of Cupertino is a challenge to anyone of an intellectual bent. His life is the prototypic story of an uneducated child, beset by poverty, who has ecstatic experiences beginning at age 8 which leave his mouth agape. His school mates called him “voca aperta.” The young child had quite a temper, which his mother tried to moderate, and he was later apprenticed to a shoemaker. At 17 he was turned away from the Friars Minor Conventual because of his ignorance. The Capuchins at first accepted him as a lay brother but his continued ecstasies made it impossible for him to do his work, so he found himself out on the street again. His mother and his uncles had given up on him and abused him as a good for nothing. Finally, after repeated prayers and a lot of tears he was allowed to work in the stable at the Franciscan convent of La Grotella near Cupertino. He was basically a lay servant. His humility, obedience, and love of penance must have impressed the friars because he was not only allowed to became a cleric but he was also ordained a priest over a period of years. Despite his lack of education, he demonstrated an amazing knowledge which appeared to be infused as a mystical gift. He was able to solve intricate problems.

His life was one long series of episodes of ecstasy, vision, and levitation. His superiors had to keep sending him from convent to convent to escape the curious.

John Coulson in his brief biography relates an incident that was all too typical.

“In 1645 the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, the High Admiral of Castile, having spoken for some time with him in his cell at Assisi, said that his wife too would like to meet him. The Father Guardian told him to go down to the church: Joseph said he would obey but did not know whether he would be able to speak to her. He entered the church, saw a statue of our Lady over the altar and straightway flew some twelve paces above the onlookers to its feet, and after a while, ‘uttering his customary shrill cry’, returned to the floor and then his cell, having said nothing to the Admiral, his wife and their large retinue. Instances could be multiplied up to the last month of Joseph’s life.”

Through it all St. Joseph of Cupertino kept his sense of peace and humility. It almost seems as if his life was written as an object lesson about the need for men in religious orders to temper and even validate their spirituality through obedience. This is not an uncommon theme of the time. How much of this is history, legend, and myth?

The art of writing about the lives of saints – hagiography – has undergone extensive criticism in the last 100 years. St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, was removed from the Church calendar by the Vatican in 1969 because there wasn’t enough historical evidence that he had existed or had lived a life of holiness. Many lives of saints had become embellished over the centuries. For example, St. Nicholas was said to have stood up in the bathtub as an infant and preached a sermon.

In the 17th century, a group of Jesuit scholars, the Bollandists, were commissioned by the Pope to prepare a definitive collection of the Acta Sanctorum, The Lives of the Saints – or literally, the Deeds of the Saints. In a bow to the Enlightenment and rationalism, the resulting investigations cleared away a lot of misinformation and also validated significant historical information.

We might expect that the flying Franciscan would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. However, the historical testimony of Pope Urban VIII, who saw St. Joseph of Cupertino in ecstasy, the accounts of powerful nobles and officials who saw his miracles, and the records of the Inquisition, bear historical witness to a saint who baffled his contemporaries as much as he baffles us today.

St. Joseph of Cupertino defies our psychological categories. We could use the terms: hysteria, seizure disorders, aphasia, schizophrenia. Yet he certainly did not fit the social norm of insanity. Against the odds, his superiors judged him worthy of ordination to the priesthood, although his paranormal behavior prevented him from saying Mass in church and participating in processions. In 35 years he could not eat in the common dining room (refectory) or participate in the “choir” or singing of the Liturgy of the Hours (The Divine Office). His creativity in solving problems seems to remove him from the idiot savant category.

If we can’t explain away his behavior as a mental illness, then perhaps we are getting a glimpse of what it means to have a lifestyle of intense religious experience. If we leave science behind, we enter into the language of faith itself, or at a minimum, we enter the language of theoretical physics by talking about additional dimensions beyond the space-time continuum or the notion of parallel universes.

As I wrestle for some type of explanation, I feel that at any moment people will come rushing forward to tell me that I have made a fool of myself in front of some hidden camera. On the other hand, maybe that is what St. Joseph of Cupertino is all about.

1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

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