St. Joseph Cafasso: A Social Saint
Pope Benedict XVI in his weekly catechesis on saints called St. Joseph Cafasso as one of the “Social Saints” of 19th Century. He is a patron of prisoners and Spiritual Direction. The century was most industrious century than ever before and many saints dedicated their lives for pastoral, educational and social progress of God’s people. Some of the outstanding saints were St. Daniel Comboni, St. John Bosco, St. Damien of Molokai, St. John Mary Vianney and others. Though they immersed themselves in social and educational activities they had a keen mind and heart for the things of God and the salvation of souls. It was their path to heaven. They not only attained holiness themselves but they made holiness easy for others.
Joseph Cafasso was born at Castelnuovo d’Asti (today it is called Don Bosco d’Asti) in the Piedmont, Italy, of peasant parents. This little town produced outstanding saints—St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cafasso, St. Joseph Alamano, and St. Dominic Savio. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “These Saints were bound to each other by total love of Christ and by their profound charity for the poorest people. The grace of the Lord can spread and multiply the seeds of holiness!”
Cafasso studied at the seminary at Turin, and was ordained in 1833. He continued his theological studies at the seminary and university at Turin and then at the Institute of St. Franics that prepared newly ordained priest for pastoral ministry, and despite a deformed spine, became a brilliant lecturer in moral theology. He was a popular teacher, actively opposed Jansenism (a kind of thought that was too rigid, pessimistic and looked everything in a negative way creating guilt conscience), and fought state intrusion into Church affairs.
Cafasso later became the director of the Institute in 1848 and made a deep impression on his young priest-students with his holiness and insistence on discipline and high standards. He was a sought-after confessor and spiritual adviser, and ministered to prisoners, working to improve their terrible conditions. He met St. John Bosco (Don Bosco) in 1827 and the two became close friends. It was through Cafasso’s encouragement that Bosco decided his vocation was working with boys. Joseph was his adviser, worked closely with him in his foundations, and convinced others to fund and found religious institutes and charitable organizations.
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 (who wrote his biography) 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 praise of his spiritual director, St. John Bosco said 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.’”
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.
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.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘Like St. John Mary Vianney, St. Joseph Cafasso loved the Lord totally, he was animated by a well-rooted faith and supported by profound and prolonged prayer, and he showed sincere charity to everyone. He knew moral theology but was equally well aware of the condition of people’s hearts for which, like the good shepherd, he took responsibility.”
May the words of Pope Benedict’s’ serve as our model and challenge. “St Joseph Cafasso sought to bring this model into being in the formation of the young priests so that, in turn, they might become the formation teachers of other priests, religious and lay people, forming a special and effective chain. From his chair of moral theology he taught them to be good confessors and spiritual directors, concerned for the true spiritual good of people, motivated equally by a desire to make God’s mercy felt and, by an acute and lively sense of sin.”
Cafasso the teacher had three main virtues, as St John Bosco recalled: calmness, wisdom and prudence. For him the test of the lessons taught was the ministry of Confession, to which he himself devoted many hours of the day. Cafasso died on June 23 at Turin and was canonized in 1947. His feast day is 23rd June.