Pope Benedict XVI devoted his general audience on June 30 to St. Joseph Cafasso, a 19th-century priest from Turin, Italy. St. Joseph Cafasso devoted his entire ministry to the formation of priests, to spiritual direction and to service to the poor, especially prisoners condemned to death.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Recently we concluded the Year for Priests — a time of grace that has borne and will continue to bear valuable fruit for the Church, an occasion for remembering in prayer all those who have responded to this particular vocation. The saintly Curé of Ars, as well as other priests who are saints, have accompanied us throughout this journey as models and intercessors — veritable beacons of God’s light in the history of the Church.
Today, as I announced last Wednesday, I would like to speak about St. Joseph Cafasso, one of those beacons, who stands out among the “social saints” of 19th-century Turin.
It seems opportune to remember him because it was exactly a week ago that we observed the 150th anniversary of his death, which took place in Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region, on June 23, 1860, at the age of 49. Moreover, I would like to recall that Pope Pius XI, when he approved the miracles for the canonization of John Mary Vianney and authorized the beatification of Joseph Cafasso on Nov. 1, 1924, connected these two priests with the following words: “Through the special and beneficial disposition of God’s goodness, we have witnessed new stars emerge on the horizon of the Catholic Church: the Curé of Ars and the Venerable Servant of God Joseph Cafasso. Indeed, these two wonderful, beloved, providential figures are presented to us today — the small and humble, poor and simple, but also glorious figure of the Curé of Ars, and the wonderful, great, complex, rich figure of the priest, teacher and educator of priests, the Venerable Joseph Cafasso.”
This is an opportunity to get to know the message that emerges from the life of this saint — a message that is relevant today. He was not a parish priest like the Curé of Ars. He was involved first and foremost in the formation of diocesan priests — holy priests — including St. John Bosco. Unlike other holy priests from the Piedmont region during the 19th century, he did not establish a religious institute, since his “foundation” was a “school of life and holiness for priests” that he led, through his example and his teaching, at the Ecclesiastical Institute of St. Francis of Assisi in Turin.
Joseph Cafasso was born on Jan. 15, 1811, in Castelnuovo d’Asti, the same town where St. John Bosco was born. He was the third of four children. The youngest, his sister Marianna, was the mother of Blessed Joseph Allamano, founder of the Consolata Missionaries.
The Piedmont region in the century of his birth was characterized by serious social problems, but also by its many saints who devoted themselves to seeking a remedy for these problems. They were bound together by their total love for Christ and by great charity for the poor. Indeed, God’s grace is able to disseminate and multiply the seeds of holiness!
St. Joseph Cafasso completed high school and two years of philosophy at Chieri College, and then transferred to the seminary to study theology in 1830. There, he was ordained a priest in 1833.
Four months later, he was sent to the place that would be the main and the only “stage” in his life as a priest, the Ecclesiastical Institute of St. Francis of Assisi in Turin. He went there for ongoing formation in pastoral ministry, but it was there that he was able to put to use his gifts as a spiritual director and his outstanding spirit of charity.
Actually, the institute was not merely a school of moral theology where young priests, coming mainly from the countryside, learned to hear confessions and to preach. It was truly a school of priestly life, where priests were formed in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and in the moral and pastoral theology of the well-known bishop St. Alphonsus Liguori.
The priests that St. Joseph Cafasso encountered at the institute and that he himself helped to strengthen — especially when he was rector — were those priests who were truly shepherds, with a rich interior life and a deep zeal for pastoral care: faithfulness to prayer, commitment to preaching and catechesis, dedication to celebrating the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance, following the example set by St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales and promoted by the Council of Trent.
A few well-chosen words by St. John Bosco summarize the educational activity of the institute: “at the institute men learned to be priests.”
St. Joseph Cafasso sought to establish this model for the formation of young priests so that they, in turn, could also form other priests, religious and laypeople, thereby creating a unique and effective chain. As a professor of moral theology, he educated his priests to be good confessors and spiritual directors who were concerned with the spiritual welfare of each person, yet mindful of the necessary balance, so that these people would have an acute, vivid sense of sin while experiencing, at the same time, God’s mercy.
A Life of Virtue
According to St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cafasso had three main virtues as a teacher: serenity, wisdom and prudence. He felt that the ministry of confession was proof that what he taught had been assimilated by his students, and he himself spent many hours of the day hearing confessions.
Bishops, priests, religious and eminent laypeople went to him for confession — as well as the simple folk. He dedicated the time that was needed to all. Moreover, he was a very wise spiritual director to many people who became saints and founders of religious institutes.
His teaching was never abstract, based merely on the books in use at that time. Rather, it was the fruit of an intense experience of God’s mercy and of a profound knowledge of the human spirit acquired during the long hours he spent in the confessional and in spiritual direction.
His school was truly a school of priestly life.
His secret was simple: to be a man of God and to do through his simple daily activities “that which can lead to the greater glory of God and to the benefit of souls.” He loved the Lord totally and was inspired by a deep-rooted faith sustained by profound and prolonged prayer. He showed sincere charity toward all. He was learned in moral theology, yet he was equally aware of the situations and the hearts of the people for whose well-being he — like any good shepherd — took responsibility.
All those who had the blessing of being close to him were likewise transformed into good shepherds and effective confessors. He clearly demonstrated to all priests the holiness that is to be attained through pastoral ministry.
Blessed Clement Marchisio, the founder of the Daughters of St. Joseph, made the following observation: “You entered the institute as a presumptuous and thoughtless lad, without knowing what it meant to be a priest. But you came out entirely different — fully conscious of the dignity of the priest.” How many priests were formed by him at the institute who then followed him spiritually!
Model for Priests
As I already pointed out, St. John Bosco was one of them. He had him as his spiritual director for 25 years — from 1835 to 1860 — first as a seminarian, then as a priest and finally as a founder.
As his counselor and his spiritual director, St. Joseph Cafasso was behind all the fundamental decisions in St. John Bosco’s life. But he was there in a very specific way: St. Joseph Cafasso never tried to form Don Bosco to be a disciple “in his image and likeness,” and Don Bosco did not simply copy St. Joseph Cafasso.
Of course, Don Bosco imitated St. Joseph Cafasso’s human and priestly virtues and described him as a “model of priestly life,” yet he maintained his own attitudes and his own specific vocation — a sign of the wisdom of a spiritual master and of the intelligence of a disciple: St. Joseph Cafasso did not impose his will on St. John Bosco, but respected him and his personality and helped him to discern God’s will for his life.
Dear friends, this is a precious lesson for all those who are involved in the formation and education of the younger generation and also a strong reminder of the importance of having a spiritual director in our life, who helps us to understand what God wants from us. “All of a person’s holiness, perfection and profit lies in doing God’s will perfectly,” St. Joseph Cafasso affirmed with simplicity and depth. “Blessed are we if we succeed in thus pouring our heart into God’s heart and uniting our desires and our will to his so as to form only one heart and one will — to want what God wants, to want it in such a way, in such a time, in such circumstances as he wants it, and to want all this for no other reason other than that God so wants it.”
Service to the Needy
Another element that characterized the ministry of St. Joseph Cafasso was his concern for the lowly, especially for prisoners, who lived in inhumane and degrading conditions in 19th-century Turin.
Throughout this highly sensitive ministry, which he carried out for more than 20 years, he was always an understanding and compassionate good shepherd — qualities that the prisoners perceived. They ended up being won over by his sincere love, whose origin was God himself.
The simple presence of Cafasso did much good. It soothed and touched hearts that had been hardened by the hardships of life; above all, it enlightened and shook up consciences that remained aloof.
In the early years of his ministry among the prisoners, he often delivered great sermons that attracted almost the entire prison population. As time passed, he came to favor “small change” catechesis, made up of conversations and personal meetings. Respecting the individual situation of each prisoner, he tackled the great themes of Christian life, speaking of trust in God, adherence to his will, of the usefulness of prayer and the sacraments, the culmination of which is confession, the encounter with God who became infinite mercy for us.
Those who were condemned to death were the object of his very special human and spiritual care. He accompanied them to the scaffold after having heard their confessions and administered the Eucharist to them — 57 people in all. He accompanied each one of them with deep love up to the last breath of their life here on earth.
He died on June 23, 1860, after living a life offered up entirely to the Lord and consumed in service to his neighbor. On April 9, 1948, my predecessor, Venerable Pope Pius XII, proclaimed him patron of Italian prisons and, in his apostolic exhortation Menti Nostrae of Sept. 23, 1950, offered him as a model for priests involved in confession and spiritual direction.
Dear brothers and sisters, may St. Joseph Cafasso be a reminder to us all to intensify our journey towards perfection in the Christian life, towards holiness. In particular, may he remind priests of the importance of dedicating time to the sacrament of reconciliation and to spiritual direction, and remind us all of the attention we must give to the needy.
May the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom St. Joseph Cafasso was deeply devoted and whom he called “our dear Mother, our consolation, our hope,” help us all!