Saint Joseph Cafasso, Priest of the Gallows

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Saint Joseph Cafasso, Priest of the Gallows


St. Joseph Cafasso was born on the 15th of January, 1811, at Castelnuovo d' Asti, now Castelnuovo Don Bosco, in the Province of Piedmont about twenty miles from Turin in the north of Italy. Two Saints who, like him, exercised their apostolate in the city of Turin, were his contemporaries: St. Joseph Cottolengo, who was twenty-five years his senior, and was the founder of the famous hospital at Turin which has grown to become a little city within a city with 10,000 inmates and twelve religious orders, and which has existed for over a century without bank account or funds, depending on the Divine Providence alone; and St. John Bosco, who was but three years his junior.

St. Joseph Cafasso's early life partly resembled both that of St. Aloysius Gonzaga and St. Therese of Lisieux because he was never known to tell a lie, or to say or do anything that had even the shadow of sin.

He was ordained a priest in 1833, at the age of twenty-two, having obtained a dispensation on account of his age. Upon ordination he entered the college at Turin that had been established for the training of young priests. When he completed his studies after three years, he was appointed professor in the college and soon became famous for his learning and sanctity, attracting students to it from all parts. He was then made rector, the position he held for twenty-four years until the time of his death.

Though the onerous duties of the position, which he performed so perfectly as to earn the title of "The Priest's Priest," would have taxed the capacity of any ordinary priest, he found time for the various other forms of apostolate so eloquently described by St. John Bosco in his biography of the Sainted priest.

Although St. Joseph Cafasso was only a little more than three years the senior of St. John Bosco, the relations between them were at first those between a small boy and a grown man, for though they were neighbors, they never met until our Saint was already a clerical student while Don Bosco was still a boy intent on fun and amusement. The relations between them later on in life were those between a young priest and one of mature judgment and great experience. Don Cafasso assisted Don Bosco in his studies for the priesthood; as soon as the latter was ordained, he received him into the college for priests in which he was now a professor, made him his assistant in his apostolate among the neglected boys of Turin, helped him to found a separate institute for them, provided him with funds, defended him when occasion arose, acted as his adviser in all things until the time of his death in 1860 and is now the patron of the Don Bosco Institute and of the Missionary Institute of the Consolata Fathers founded by his own nephew, Canon Allamano.

To his public life belongs also the apostolate that he exercised among poor boys. These he instructed in the truths of religion; he provided the most needy with clothes, in order that they might be decently clad for attendance at Mass. He also secured employment for some with God-fearing masters; for others he paid the expenses of their apprenticeship. For others still, he supplied bread until they were able to gain their livelihood by their own labor. He had begun to put into practice this ardent spirit of charity when he was a boy. He continued it when he was a cleric, and it shone forth in him with redoubled zeal when he was a priest. The first catechist of our present oratory was Don Cafasso; he was a constant promoter and benefactor of the work while he lived, and is its patron after his death.


His Apostolate in the Prisons

Perhaps the most noted part of his public life were the entire days that he spent in the prisons-----preaching, comforting, instructing the unfortunates detained there, and hearing their confessions. With regard to his work in the prisons it is difficult to say whether his courage or his charity is the more worthy of praise, but we may solve the difficulty by saying that his ardent charity inspired him with heroic courage. Out of the many such acts of his of which St. John Bosco was witness to, the following is characteristic of him.:


He had gone to the prison in order to prepare the prisoners for the celebration of a feast in honor of Our Lady, and had spent a whole week instructing them and exhorting them. This he did in a large room in which there were forty-five of the most noted criminals. Almost all had promised to go to Confession on the vigil of the feast. But when the day came, none of them could make up his mind to go to Confession. He renewed his invitation, recapitulated what he had said during the week, and reminded them of the promise that they had made. But whether it was through human respect, or the temptation of the devil, or some other vain pretext, none of them would consent to go to Confession. What was Don Cafasso to do?

His ingenious charity and courage found a way out of the difficulty. With a smile on his face he went over to the man who appeared to be the biggest and strongest and most robust among the prisoners, and without saying a word, he caught hold of his luxurious long beard. The man, thinking that Don Cafasso had acted through jest, said to him as courteously as could be expected from such people, "Take anything else from me you like but leave me my beard!"

"I will not let you go until you go to Confession," replied Don Cafasso. "But I don't want to go to Confession," said the prisoner. "You may say what you like, but you will not escape from me; I will not let you go until you have made your Confession," said Cafasso. "I am not prepared," said the prisoner. "I will prepare you," said Cafasso.

Certainly, if the prisoner had wished, he could have freed himself from Don Cafasso's hands with the slightest effort; but whether it was respect for the holy man's person, or rather the fruit of the grace of God, the fact is that the man surrendered and allowed himself to be led to a corner of the room. Don Cafasso sat down on a bundle of straw and prepared his friend for Confession. But lo! In a short time there was commotion; the strong man was so moved by Don Cafasso's exhortation that his sighs and tears almost prevented him from telling his sins.

Then appeared the great marvel; he who had been most vehement in his refusal to make his Confession went to his companions after it was finished and told them that he had never been so happy in his life. He became so eloquent in exhorting them that he succeeded in persuading them all to go to Confession.

This example, merely one out of thousands of its kind, whether we consider it as a miracle of grace on the part of God, or a miracle of charity on the part of Don Cafasso, forces us to recognize in it the intervention of the hand of
God.

On that day Don Cafasso continued hearing Confessions in the prison until the night was far advanced. In the meantime, the doors of the prison were locked and barred, and it appeared that Don Cafasso would have to sleep with the prisoners. But at a certain hour the prison guards, armed with pistols and swords, entered and began to make their accustomed visit. On seeing the stranger they all began to shout at the same time, "Who goes there?" and without waiting for a reply they surrounded Don Cafasso saying, "What are you doing here? Who are you? And where do you want to go?" As Don Cafasso was trying to reply they shouted, "Stop him and make him tell who he is!" Finally, he told them who he was. They asked him why he had not left in time, and told him that now they could not allow him to go out without acquainting the governor of the prison. He reminded them quietly that it was their fault not to have searched the prison before locking the doors. Finally they agreed to let him out, and even sent a guard to protect him on the way home.


The Mortified Life of Don Cafasso


To his private life belongs that secret and continuous mortification of himself. In this we see the great art used by lim to make himself a Saint. We know and have proof that he used the hair shirt, that he put objects in his bed to make it uncomfortable, that he practiced rigorous corporal penances. However tired he might be, he never supported himself either with his elbow or in any other manner to rest himself; he never rested one leg on the other; at table, he never complained of my thing or said that anything did not please him; everything was to his taste. From his earliest youth he had devoted certain days to particular acts of mortification. Every Saturday was a day of strict fast in honor of our Blessed Lady. But why speak of a fast on Saturday when the whole week, the whole month, and the whole year long were for him one continuous, rigorous and terrible fast? He began by diminishing the number of his meals and restricted himself to one meal in the day, which consisted of soup and a small quantity of bread or potatoes. Some of his friends, on seeing this prolonged austerity, respectfully reproached him and said that he was injuring his health by it. They tried to persuade him to be more moderate, if not out of love for himself, at least for the good of others. He merely laughed and said that he enjoyed excellent health on the diet he had adopted. When they referred to the exhaustion of his strength which was diminishing every day, he immediately replied, "O Heaven, what strength and health you will give to those who enter there!" If he was benumbed by cold, or suffocated with heat, or covered with sweat, he never sought any comfort, nor was he ever heard to utter a word of lament or complaint.


At all times of the year he spent many hours hearing the Confessions of the faithful, and it was not uncommon for him to enter the Confessional at seven in the morning and remain there until twelve o'clock. After remaining there for so long, even in the very cold weather, when he came out to go to the sacristy the people could see that he trembled all over and was compelled to lean for support on the benches to prevent himself from falling; often when halfway down the church, he had to rest either by kneeling or sitting down. The people were very much moved by such a sight, and several of them wanted to buy at their own expense a heated footstool in order to lessen a little the effect of the cold. The sacristan decided to buy one, but fearing that Don Cafasso would not allow him if told beforehand, he bought the footstool without telling him and put it in the Confessional before Don Cafasso arrived there. As soon as he saw the luxury, as he called it, he kicked it with his foot into a corner of the Confessional, and afterward told the sacristan not to put it there again, saying that these things are useless and that they give people the idea that a priest, who, he said, does not need such things, is too careful about himself. Various reasons were given him why he should use it, but neither in this nor in any other circumstance was it possible to persuade him to moderate the severity of his penances, which certainly contributed to consume a life so precious. He kept aloof from all kinds of amusements: he never took part in a game of cards, chess, billiards or other pastime. [He sometimes played games with the prisoners, in order to gain their confidence.] When sometimes invited to take part in some game, he would reply that he had something else to occupy him, and that when he no longer had any urgent business he would go and amuse himself. And when he was asked when that would be, he would reply, "When we are in Heaven." Besides the constant mortification of the senses of his body that he practiced, he was the foe of all habits, even the most indifferent. "We should habituate ourselves to do good and nothing else," he would say. "The body is insatiable; the more we give it the more it demands."

He therefore never allowed himself to form the habit of using tobacco, or taking sweetmeats or drink of any kind other than water, except that ordered by a doctor. During the course of his studies in college or in the seminary, he took neither coffee, nor fruit, nor anything between meals.

After his first ten years as professor at the post-graduate institute [he was there as professor for twenty-four years], he became prefect of the conferences, and though his work was very heavy, his collation consisted of a few pieces of dry bread. One day someone suggested to him that for a person of his frail constitution with such exhausting labors more nourishing food was needed. He replied good-humoredly that the time would come when he would have to make some concession to his body, but that as long as he could do without it he did not wish to take anything more.

After some years, however, he was compelled by obedience to moderate a little his rigorous manner of living. But in spite of his weak constitution and his delicate health, he would never allow himself to become accustomed to any particular kind of food, and he went on diminishing the amount until, as I have already said, he limited himself to one meal a day, which consisted of soup and a little something else at hand. Although subject to many infirmities, he would not prolong for a moment his ordinary time of repose, which was barely five hours each night.

During the cold weather of winter, even at times when he suffered from sick stomach, headaches, toothache, to a degree that he was scarcely able to stand on his feet, he was to be found kneeling in prayer before four o'clock in the morning, meditating, or engaged in some occupation.

This strenuous, laborious life of penance, prayer, charity, labor and self-denial he continued to live up to his death: Even when his illness was threatening his life, in his very death agony, he loved to be alone. He gave no sign of pleasure even when ejaculatory prayers were suggested, as if such prayers interrupted the ordinary conversation that he certainly had with God. However, he asked all to pray for him and to recommend him to the protection of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph. A person of high authority who was on intimate terms with him during his life and visited him several times in the course of his illness, having observed carefully what he said and did, at the conclusion of one of these visits exclaimed, "Don Cafasso has no need of our suggestions; he is in direct communication with God. He engages in familiar conversation with the Mother of the Savior, with his Angel guardian and with St. Joseph."

He had great devotion to our Blessed Lady, and was a constant promoter of devotion to that Heavenly Mother. For every Saturday and, we might say, for every moment, he had some pious practice or said some ejaculatory prayers in her honor. Saturday was a day completely devoted to her; he observed a rigorous fast, everything she demanded for that day was promptly conceded, and on many occasions he expressed the desire to die on a Saturday. Frequently during his life he said, and has left it in writing, "What a beautiful death to die for the love of Mary! To die on a day dedicated to Mary! To die at a moment most glorious for Mary! To go to Heaven in the company of Mary! To have the happiness of being near Mary for all eternity!"

Joseph died on June 23, 1860 at Turin and was canonized in 1947.


Preparation for Death


The following is the text of St. Joseph Cafasso's Prayer at the Foot of the Cross as a Preparation for Death.


Great God, prostrate before Thee, I accept and adore that sentence of death which Thou hast pronounced over me. I stand awaiting the coming of my last hour and, knowing that it may come upon me at any moment, I carry myself in spirit to my deathbed to bid adieu to this world and to make now for that occasion a clear and solemn protestation of those sentiments and affections with which I intend to terminate my mortal career and enter into my eternity.

(1) I have sinned. I confess it with all the bitterness of my soul. I detest with my whole heart all the faults that I have committed during my life. For each of them I would be ready to die in reparation for the offense to God, and I would wish to have died a thousand times rather than have offended Him. I ask pardon of God and of men for the evil that I have done, and I will ask it until the last moment of my life in order that I may find mercy on the day of judgment.

(2) Since my wretched body has been the cause of my offending my dear God so much, with my whole heart I make a total sacrifice of it to my Lord as a just punishment for it. Not only do I resign myself to descend into the tomb, but I rejoice and thank God who has given me this means of paying my debt. Through these ashes which will remain from me in the sepulcher and by these bones which will speak for me, I will confess until the day of my resurrection that the Lord is just, and just also the sentence which has condemned me to death.

(3) I thank my parents, companions and friends for the charity they have shown me in putting up with all my defects, and I thank them for all the favors and all the assistance which in their goodness they have given me. I ask pardon of them for having given such a poor return, and for the scandal I have given them. I ask them to continue to give me the charity of their prayers, and, when I am separated from them, I firmly hope that I will see them again one day in Paradise.

(4) As God in His inscrutable Providence has wished that I should have the disposal of temporal interests, I ask pardon if I have not made the use of them that He expected of me. As He alone is Lord of all, I again place everything in His hands.

I intend that the disposition that I have made or that I shall hereafter make may be for His greater glory, and, in that portion of life that remains for me on earth, it is my firm will and determination to spend all that remains to me when my needs are satisfied, for the work of the Lord, being disposed and indeed desirous to strip myself of everything whenever God wishes it of me.

(5) With regard to the most important point, which is the spiritual preparations for that day which will be my last, I render the most sincere thanks to God for having thus disposed of me and taken me out of the world. I salute and desire and bless that day that will put an end to my own sins, and take me away from the midst of so many sins that are committed on the earth. I now in advance thank that person who will give me the consoling message, and, until that day arrives, I shall regard it as so dear to my heart that I would not exchange it for the greatest day of this world.

(6) I entrust my death to the love and care of my heavenly Mother. In her tender heart I place my last hour and my last sighs. It is in the arms of this Mother that I wish to leave this world and enter my eternity. I intend that every sigh which I shall give at that moment, every breath and every look, shall be voices which call her, which solicit her help for me from Heaven, so that I may soon see her, contemplate her, embrace her and may be able to die with her help. But if, by special favor of her tender heart, she wishes to call me on a day consecrated to her, it would be a still greater consolation for me to be able to present to her the offering of my life at a time when Heaven and earth celebrate a feast in honor of her name and of her great mercies.

(7) I recommend in a special manner my passage to eternity to St. Joseph, the spouse of Mary, whose name I unworthily bear, to my Guardian Angel, to my two special protectors, St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus Liguori, to all the Angels and Saints of Heaven, and to those souls in Paradise who remember me. I salute them all from this valley of tears, and I appeal to each one of them to pray for me that the happy day will soon come when I shall meet them face to face and enjoy with them that feast that will have no end.

(8) For everything concerned with the time and circumstances of my death, after the example of my Divine Redeemer, I resign myself fully to whatever the Heavenly Father has arranged for me, and I accept the death that God in His eternal decrees considers best for me. To fulfill His will, I accept all the pains that He wishes me to suffer at the time of death. In this hardest sacrifice and in my most painful agony, I wish and intend that His holy will be always done.

(9) With my whole being I give thanks to the good God who, by His special mercy, has willed to call me to the Faith at my birth and place me, unworthy that I am, as a son in the arms of the Church. I today renew those promises that were made for me at the sacred font. I grieve for and detest whatever there has been in my life not in conformity with those promises. I condemn and regret anything that during my life may have been wanting in obedience and respect to the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Today and always I formally declare that I wish to live in the closest communion with that good Mother. To her I entrust my ashes that she may bless them and keep them in her custody until the day of judgment.

(10) I desire and ask for all the Sacraments and comforts which our holy religion has reserved for her dying children at the hour of death; and when the Lord shall demand the sacrifice of my life, I intend to unite it to that which so many confessors of the Faith have made and to breathe forth my spirit in homage of and for the support of our holy Faith.

(11) As I am about to finish my mission on earth, I give back and consign to God that grand vocation with which He has willed to adorn me. I have no words here below to thank Him worthily for it, and I await eternity to do so. I thank with all my heart all those who have employed themselves to this end for me, and I recommend myself to each of them in order that I may obtain mercy at the great moment in which I shall be called upon to render an account of my earthly career. I shall die, and the thought consoles me that with my death there will be one less unworthy minister upon the earth, and that another more zealous and fervent priest will come to make up for my coldness and other defects.

(12) As I am certain with the certainty of faith that God can, and that He wishes, to pardon all those who repent of their sins, relying on that firm confidence which cannot be deceived, and penetrated with the most lively sorrow for my past faults, I protest that I hope most firmly for pardon of all my failings and for the attainment of my eternal salvation. Whatever be the assaults that my enemy may launch against me in life or in death, I will repeat that I believe in my God, that I hope in Him and that He will save me.

(13) Now that my days are about to finish, and that time is about to vanish for me forever, I know and understand better than in the past my duty on earth, which is to know and serve my God. As long as life remains I will lament that time in which I have not loved Him, and I will repeat continually from now on, "Either to love or to die." Whatever I shall have to do or suffer in this miserable life, I intend that it be a proof of love for my God, so that living, I shall live only to love, and dying, I may die in order to love still more.

(14) The sorrow which I experience, O Lord, for not having loved Thee, the desire which I feel to love Thee ever more, renders this life burdensome and distasteful, and makes me pray Thee to shorten my days on earth, and to pardon me my Purgatory in the next life, so that I soon may arrive at loving Thee in Paradise. I ask of Thee this grace, O Lord, not through fear of punishment-----which I confess that I deserve a thousand times more-----but from the sincere desire to love Thee much, to love Thee soon, and to love Thee face to face in Paradise. Let the anguish which I feel, O God, for not having loved Thee, and the danger which I am running of offending Thee and not loving Thee more, serve as my Purgatory!

(15) Finally, when I shall have departed to the grave, I desire and pray the Lord to make my memory perish on this earth so that no one shall any longer think of me except to pray for me-----a favor which I ask from the charity of the faithful. I accept as penance for my sins all that shall be said against me after my death. I condemn and detest all the evil that may in the future be committed because of me. I wish that I could prevent all the sins of the world by my death and so I would be ready to die as many times as there are committed on the earth. Oh! May the Lord accept this poor sacrifice so that when dying, I may have that sweetest consolation of sparing one offense to my Lord on that day.

This is my firm will and testament with which I intend to live and die in each and every moment that God may wish to dispose of me.

I place the moment of my death in the hands of my dear Mother Mary, of my good Guardian Angel and of my special protectors, St. Joseph, St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus Liguori, all of whom I expect to assist me at the hour of my death and in my voyage to eternity. Amen.

Come then, welcome death. Come, but conceal thy coming, so that the hour of my death may not give life back again.


It will be no longer death for thee, my soul, but a sweet sleep if,
when thou art dying, Jesus assists thee, and if when thou art expiring,
Mary embraces thee.





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