St. Joseph Cafasso: Apostle of Hope
Today, June 23, we honor St. Joseph Cafasso, an Italian priest who was a social reformer in Turin during the 19th century. He is the patron of prison chaplains, spiritual directors, and prisoners. He is known as the “Priest of the Gallows”.
He was born on January 15, 1811 in northern Italy, about twenty miles from Turin. Joseph Cafasso was the third of four children. His parents, who were known for their charity to the poor, were small farmers who had to supplement their scanty income by working on neighboring farms.
Although he was born with a deformed spine, Joseph did not allow this defect to influence his desire to do penance. Even in his childhood he had certain days set apart for penance, and he fasted every Saturday in honor of Our Blessed Lady. He also attended daily Mass, at which he often served. He was gifted with a keen intellect and a good memory, and was first in his class at school.
He was ordained a priest in 1833 at the age of twenty-two. After Ordination, he was selected to be an assistant professor of moral theology at ecclesiastical college in Turin. He was a brilliant lecturer. His fame soon spread and attracted students not only from Turin but from the surrounding dioceses.
Jansenism was rampant at the time. A large number of the clergy were tainted with it; they held rigorous views and deterred people from approaching the sacraments, but their lives were far from virtuous. Father Cafasso was the apostle of hope and confidence and advocated frequent and even daily Communion. By correct explanation of the principles of moral theology, by preaching the mercy of God, and by training the young priests to work with him in the prisons among men considered by the Jansenists as unworthy of the Sacraments, he fortified them against the errors of that heresy.
When the College Rector became old and infirm, Father Cafasso took charge and was appointed as his successor when he died. There was a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi attached to the college, of which the Rector was Pastor. Father Cafasso had charge of the Church and spent long hours each day hearing Confessions in it.
Besides performing all his duties as Professor and Pastor, he found time for other forms of apostolate in Turin, including: teaching catechism to poor children, visiting the sick and the various prisons of the city, and giving missions and retreats.
The prisons in Father Cafasso’s time were gloomy places infested with vermin. He visited each prison at least once a week, and some of them once a day, and spent long hours there, usually four or five hours at a time. He returned home each night bringing with him on his person, the vermin of the prison, which he jokingly called “living silver and moving riches.”
He instructed the prisoners in the truths of religion, and not being in any hurry to leave, he did that work thoroughly. He prepared them for the Sacraments and heard their Confessions. There is no case on record in which he failed to convert even the most hardened sinners among them.
Father Cafasso, who was John Bosco’s spiritual director, encouraged him to found the Salesians, to work with the youth in Turin. Joseph Cafasso died on June 23, 1860 at Turin, Italy and was canonized in 1947 by Pope Pius XII.
“We are born to love, we live to love, and we will die to love still more.”
~Saint Joseph Cafasso