A Priest for Priests and Prisoners
Nineteenth century Italy was blessed with Joseph Cafasso (1811 - 1860) who taught and lived the mission of mercy with which Our Lord commissioned the disciples on the night after His resurrection.
Early Life and Priesthood
Joseph was born in Castelnuovo d'Asti, Italy on January 15, 1811 as the third of four children. (This same village would also see the birth of St. John Bosco upon whom Joseph would have an important influence.) His sister, Marianna, who was born after him, would be the mother of Bl. Joseph Allamano, Founder of the Consolata Missionary Fathers and the Consolata Missionary Sisters.
Joseph was born with a severe curvature of the spine that prevented him from standing up straight. However, he did not let this disability prevent him from pursuing holiness. As the son of wealthy peasants, he was encouraged in his studies in which he excelled. Following a calling to the priesthood, Joseph began his seminary studies at the age of 15 and was ordained seven years later in 1833.
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The Institute of St. Francis of Assisi
Soon after his ordination, Fr. Joseph began further studies at the recently founded Institute of St. Francis of Assisi in Turin. Many young priests, especially from the countryside, attended the Institute, like Fr. Joseph, in order to perfect their pastoral abilities as confessors and preachers of the Gospel. However, the Institute was more than a finishing school for priests. The Institute formed the priests in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Alphonsus Mary de' Liguori so that they would have the spiritual skills necessary to be priests in the anti-clerical environment of Italy around the middle of the nineteenth century.
Following his additional studies, Fr. Joseph became a teacher at the Institute. Eventually, he would later become the chaplain and then the rector of the Institute.
Building on the mission of the Institute, Fr. Joseph, as rector, strengthened its abilities to develop men to become true priests who were marked by deep pastoral care, a strong prayer life, the skills and desire to preach and catechize, caring ministers of souls through confession, and reverent celebrants of the Eucharist. The impact that the Institute would have for the formation of priests would be profound and prove to be a lasting legacy for Fr. Joseph.
Perhaps his own mission to form priests can be summarized in these words from Fr. Joseph, "All a person's holiness, perfection and profit lies in doing God's will perfectly.... Happy are we if we succeed in pouring out our heart into God's, in uniting our desires and our will to his to the point that one heart and one will are formed: wanting what God wants, wanting in the way, in the time and in the circumstances that he desires and willing it all for no other reason than that God wills it".
Mentor, Confessor, Servant to the Poor and Prisoners
However, although he had an important impact upon a generation of priests through his work as a teacher and rector at the Institute of St. Francis of Assisi, Fr. Joseph is better known for four other things. First, he was a teacher and friend of St. John Bosco and served as his mentor for twenty-five years. Fr. Joseph encouraged, supported, and gave counsel to Fr. John in his ministry to the young men of Turin. After Fr. Joseph's death, Fr. John would write a biography of his mentor.
Second, Fr. Joseph was also known as a confessor. As he had learned at the Institute and then passed on to his students, he practiced the important pastoral care that a priest needed to show as a doctor of souls. Through the sacrament of penance, he helped guide many of his students and others to grow in holiness. God blessed Fr. Joseph with the gift of wisdom which allowed him to be clear about what each penitent needed and the best advice to help them overcome sin and increase in virtue.
Third, Fr. Joseph was very generous to the poor. He, himself, lived very simply, and he took the many donations he received and distributed them among the needy. Love for the poor and the service to them in love was a lesson Fr. Joseph taught his students through his own concrete actions. Not surprisingly, he became a Third Order Franciscan.
Finally, Fr. Joseph is also known for his ministry to prisoners and his efforts to bring about prison reform. Prisons of the time were horrible places, and Fr. Joseph worked to better the conditions. More importantly, he helped the prisoners by ministering to their souls. Fr. Joseph would visit the prisons at least once a week for several hours in order to provide catechesis, hear confessions, and give Holy Communion. Eventually, Fr. Joseph earned the nickname of the Priest of the Gallows for accompanying over 50 prisoners through the days before and the day of their executions. He would help the men through their last days and offer up many penances for their salvation.
The Most Important Prison Reform
Fr. John Bosco records one noteworthy story of Fr. Joseph visiting a group of rather tough prisoners all held in a single cell. None of them expressed much interest in what the priest had to say to them or in making a confession.
Unsure what might change their minds, Fr. Joseph took matters into his own hands. This priest with the curved spine approached the meanest looking of the lot of prisoners and grabbed a hold of the man's beard.
Fr. Joseph then boldly told the man, who could have easily crushed the priest, that he would not let go until the man agreed to make his confession.
Perhaps, in shock from the small priest's action, the huge man consented. Then, Fr. Joseph prepared the man to be cleansed of his sin and heard the man as he made a good confession. When the burly man expressed how free he felt after being unburdened from his sins, all the other prisoners followed suit and received the mercy of God through Fr. Joseph.
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Feast Day: June 23 (memorial)
Patron of captives
Patron of imprisoned people
Patron of prisoners
Patron of prisons
Patron of prison chaplains