Most of our information on Joseph Cafasso comes from his protégé, Don Bosco, who wrote the saint’s biography. Joseph had served as Don Bosco’s teacher, advisor, spiritual director, and faithful friend since they met in 1827 when Don Bosco was only 12 and Joseph was a young cleric, just a few years older.
Joseph had been born in Castelnuova d’Asti in the province of Piedmont, Italy, in 1811. A devout and docile child, he was diminutive in stature, somewhat weak in constitution, and had a deformity of his spine. However, none of these physical limitations ever held him back in his future work for the Church and for the salvation of souls.
Deciding at the age of 15 to become a priest, Joseph studied at the seminary in Turin and was ordained in 1833. He continued his theological studies at the seminary and then at the Institute of St. Francis and became a brilliant lecturer on moral theology. Ten years later he was appointed superior of the college and he remained so until his death. He made a profound impression on all his students — young priests — often helping those in poor circumstances to finish their studies by providing them with the necessary books and money.
Don Cafasso was a popular preacher and confessor, seeming to have a special gift for discerning exactly what each penitent needed. He also had the ability to change hearts; Don Bosco said of him, “A single word from him — a look, a smile, his very presence — sufficed to dispel melancholy, drive away temptation and produce holy resolution in the soul.”
In addition, Don Cafasso had a special charism towards prisoners and spent a great deal of his time hearing their confessions and helping them in any way he could. He was called the “Priest of the Gallows” because he attended 68 condemned prisoners at their deaths, hearing their confessions, encouraging them, listening to them, staying with them the entire night before their executions, even accompanying them in the cart to the place of execution. He offered up penances and mortifications for the salvation of their souls and spent time before the Blessed Sacrament praying for each one of them, that none might be lost.
As well as his own life of service, the Church must be grateful to Don Cafasso for guiding and supporting Don Bosco in his vocation of working with the youth of Italy, which Don Bosco became drawn to after assisting his mentor in his ministry to prisoners. After each visit to the prisons, Don Bosco’s heart would be heavy with the thought of so many young men who had gone astray because they had no one to care for them or take an interest in them. With Don Cafasso’s encouragement, he began the Salesian order (named for St. Francis de Sales) to aid boys and later the Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians to care for poor and neglected girls.
Don Cafasso, after seeming to have a premonition of his death, died at the age of 49 from multiple ailments, including a stomach hemorrhage. Despite the intense pain he must have experienced, he made no complaints but received Holy Communion and went to confession several times during his last days, which ended June 23, 1860. He was greatly mourned, and his funeral, at which Don Bosco preached, drew great crowds. He was canonized in 1947.
1. St. Joseph Cafasso worked devotedly in the training of young priests, and his life of charity and mortification inspired them in their vocations. Let us pray that all our priests and seminarians will find inspiring, holy mentors as did the students of Don Cafasso.
2. Tireless in his duties towards his students, to preaching and hearing confessions, to his prisoners, and to writing, John Bosco concluded that Don Cafasso was able to do so much by a special gift of the Holy Spirit: “Such a priest may in a certain sense be omnipotent, according to the expression of St. Paul, ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.’”
3. Don Bosco also testified to the fact that St. Joseph Cafasso never once indulged himself in amusements or sought to satisfy any personal desires. Despite his physical handicaps, he never sought comfort but said, “The body is insatiable; the more we give in to it, the more it demands.” Let us pray to this saint who said “Our rest will be in Heaven” and ask him to help us overcome our cravings for comfort, rest, and idle amusements which do nothing to further the Kingdom of God here on earth or bring us to heaven to be with Him.