St. Joseph Cafasso: Formator of Parish Priests

St. Joseph Cafasso was not a Pastor, but a former of Parish Priests. He did not found Religious Institutes, because his “Foundation” was the School of Priestly Life and Holiness, illustrated by his Example and Teaching. The Church Celebrates his Memory on June 23.

Newsroom (23/06/2022 22:18, Gaudium Press) Born in Castelnuovo in 1811 into a Catholic family, Joseph Cafasso began the study of ecclesiastical disciplines at the age of 14; and in 1833, when he was only 22 years old, he obtained dispensation to be ordained a priest before canonical age. The joy of that day kept him perpetually.

The sincerity and radicality of his surrender to the ministry were manifested after the ordination ceremony, as he prostrated himself at the feet of a Crucifix saying:

“Lord, You are my inheritance, my delight, the life of my heart forever. But, O Lord, I wish not only to be all yours, but also to make myself holy already. Seek the world, if you will, vanity, pleasures and earthly greatness; I neither seek nor long for anything else but to become holy, and I would be the happiest of men if I were to become a great saint right away.

In order to train himself to worthily exercise such a high ministry, he began to attend the Ecclesiastical College of St. Francis of Assisi, where, under the guidance of Father Luis Guala, young priests deepened their formation before taking on pastoral responsibility. The student soon became master and, in a short time, principal. He remained there until his death, transforming the establishment into a focus of spiritual renewal.

Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI said in a catechesis dedicated to our Saint, it was not only a college where young priests “learned to confess and preach, but it was also a true 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 great bishop St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori. […]

A happy expression of St. John Bosco sums up the meaning of the educational work carried out in that community: ‘In the college one learned to be a priest'”.

Pastors of deep zeal and rich interior life

St. Joseph Cafasso was committed to forming virtuous and experienced priests who knew how to lead souls in the confessional and, especially, edify them by the example of their conduct. “The day when people will be able to say: the priest is like me, our priest, my confessor is like me… Preach, shout, cry if you want, but the example is worth more than all the logic of the world.

More by Gaudium Press  Francis Geographic Diversity: 21 new Cardinals Added to Church’s Leadership

“The type of priest that Cafasso found in the college” – adds Benedict XVI – “and that he himself contributed to strengthen, especially as Rector, was that of the true pastor, with a rich interior life and a deep zeal in pastoral care: faithful to prayer, committed in preaching, in catechesis, dedicated to the celebration of the Eucharist and to the ministry of Confession, according to the model embodied by St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales.”

Father Cafasso insisted that the soul of a priest cannot remain indifferent before the Eucharistic Sacrifice. And he advised priests not only to celebrate their own Mass daily, but to attend a second one when possible.

He also instilled in them the necessity of the examination of conscience and the frequency of the Sacrament of Penance, from which the spiritual life is nourished. To better stimulate them to go to weekly confession, he made them aware of the lesson in humility that they were giving the faithful, when they saw the one who had just been a judge kneeling as a defendant.

“Let us not increase their grief by doubting forgiveness”

At that time when Jansenism sought to keep souls away from Paradise by making them see in God a tyrant rather than a Father, the best weapon to combat error was to instill confidence in divine mercy and goodness.

No one was more convinced of these attributes of the Savior than St. Joseph Cafasso; in a gentle and sure manner, he knew how to instill this certainty in everyone:

“If we offend the Lord, let us not increase grief upon grief, doubting forgiveness; if we revile his holiness and justice, let us at least honor his mercy; and while the whole world sings of his goodness, would our heart be the only one hesitating to pay him this praise?”

To encourage the priests to be very careful in the practice of these virtues, he used to tell them the following fact.

On the eve of his execution, a man condemned to death refused to receive the help of the Church. When asked about the reasons for this refusal, the unfortunate man explained that, when he was young, he had heard a sermon in which the preacher – commenting on the Gospel about the question asked of Christ whether few men were saved (cf. Luke 13:23-24) – had stated that, among the many faithful present, probably only two or three would reach Heaven. Seeing people around him who were so much better than him, the poor man felt excluded from this reduced group of the predestined, and so he gave in to his passions, ending up in jail waiting for the gallows, believing himself condemned not only by men, but also by God.

More by Gaudium Press  Nicaragua DIctatorship Arrests Priest for Praying for Jailed Bishop Álvarez

And if any student objected that, according to the words of Jesus, the gate to heaven is too narrow and its path too narrow (cf. Mt 7:14), the teacher answered him with his characteristic good humor: “As long as we can get through, it seems to me it is enough, there is no need for two to fit through at the same time.

Virtue that was reflected in his exterior

St. Joseph Cafasso’s reputation for sanctity grew from his youth and was never tarnished. With a lively temperament, he knew how to acquire complete self-control, to the point of keeping himself at peace amidst the contradictions and tribulations of life. Tranquility was his secret. Nevertheless, he laughed with gusto among his students and knew how to make jokes and unexpected sayings, because virtue in no way harmed his cheerful spirit, but rather sublimated it.

“If a priest is not chaste, he is worthless, neither for himself nor for others. This is how he expressed his deep conviction and his love for angelic virtue. In his moral lessons, he treated the sins against the beautiful virtue with the greatest reticence, revealing his repugnance even to mention them.

Only an intense prayer life and devotion to the Blessed Virgin could sustain such a holy life. He had special fervor in the recitation of the Breviary, formulating a particular intention at every liturgical hour.

“During more than 30 years of living with him,” wrote St. John Bosco, “I don’t remember seeing him spend a single moment that could be called idle. When he finished one job, he immediately began another. His only rest consisted in changing his occupation when he felt oppressed by fatigue. When, for example, he was tired of preaching, he went to pray; when he was tired of writing, he went to visit the sick, to confess in prisons or in any other place. These were the countless “rests” of Father Cafasso…

All this was reflected in his exterior. His sparkling glance – which attracted little John Bosco so much – was effective in correcting and encouraging those on whom he landed. In spite of the fact that, due to a deformity in his spine, his right shoulder was higher than his left, his stature was majestic and imposing, even producing a strong supernatural impression.

Pastoral zeal for the imprisoned and those condemned to death

Saint Joseph Cafasso dedicated himself to the ministry of Confession many hours a day. “Bishops, priests, religious, eminent laymen and simple people sought him out: he knew how to offer everyone the necessary time.

More by Gaudium Press  Photo Exhibition on Persecuted Christians at The European Parliament

None of the prisons in Turin has failed to benefit from Don Cafasso’s charity. Not even the repugnance he experienced upon entering these establishments, nor the curses, blasphemies and insults with which he was sometimes received, kept him away from this worthy apostolate. When, on one occasion, a ferocious murderer who was in prison advanced against him, the holy priest stopped him by raising the Crucifix and saying: “I am worth nothing, but this man deserves everything.

To the repentant, condemned to death, he knew how to instill confidence in eternal salvation. When one of them asked him if, with so many crimes, it was still possible to save his soul, he answered: “Not only possible, but absolutely certain. [Even if you were in the antechamber of hell and had only a hair on your head, it would be enough to free you from the devil’s clutches and take you to Paradise.

He accompanied 70 people condemned to capital punishment to the gallows, after he had confessed them and administered the Eucharist, because “not one of them died impenitent”.

Pius XII proclaimed him, for this reason, patron saint of Italian prisons.

He who humbles himself will be exalted

He was only 49 years old, this man called to be an example to those who should be an example, when he saw himself close to his final hour, about which, while making the exercise of the Good Death, he wrote: “Nearing the end of my mission on earth, I hand over to God the great vocation with which He wanted to honor me”.

St. Joseph Cafasso was raised to the honor of the altars and today remains a perennial model for all priests, especially those committed to Confession and spiritual direction.

“He was not a parish priest like the Curé of Ars” – says Benedict XVI of him in the aforementioned audience – “but he was above all a formator of parish priests and diocesan priests, indeed of holy priests, among whom was St. John Bosco. He did not found, as the other holy priests of the XIX century in Piedmont, religious institutes, because his ‘foundation’ was the ‘school of priestly life and holiness’ that he accomplished, with his example and teaching”.


Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 150, June 2014. By Sr. Maria Teresa Ribeiro Matos, EP.

Compiled by Florence MacDonald

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected


Latest Articles