If St. Joseph Cafasso were a book, you certainly could not know it by its cover.
Born with a twisted spine, he was small in stature and a bit deformed. His pleasant face and commanding voice quickly earned the respect of those who encountered him. He was a riveting speaker and an admired teacher. Ordained in 1833, he engaged himself in the study of moral philosophy.
In his day there was a strong current of thought called Jansenism, which considered any personal fault a serious sin. A compassionate priest, Cafasso strove to find a balance in the spiritual lives of his parishioners, particularly in the confessional.
John Bosco, his friend who also would become an important saint in his own right told an anecdote that went something like this:
A group of hardened criminals promised to go to confession on the vigil of the feast of Our Lady, but when the time came, no one stepped forward. Cafasso effectively took the “bull by the horns,” or in this case by the beard. The little man went up to the biggest, baddest of the criminals and grabbed him by the beard!
The giant said, “You can take whatever you want but leave my beard alone!”
Cafasso answered, “I’m not going to let go until you go to confession.”
“I am not prepared,” said the prisoner.
“Then I will prepare you,” said Cafasso.
The prisoner certainly was capable of freeing himself, but he chose to yield, and the man surrendered.
Cafasso led him to a corner of the room. Sitting on a bundle of straw and the good priest prepared the convict for confession. The prisoner was so moved that his sighs and tears almost prevented him from telling his sins. Then he who had refused to make his confession spoke to the other prisoners, telling them he never had been so happy in his life. His experience persuaded them all to go to confession.
Cafasso accompanied 60 condemned men to their executions, calling them his “hanged saints.” He became known as “the Priest of the Gallows.”
His compassion, great teaching and humility earned him his sainthood. St. John Bosco gladly preached at his funeral when his friend succumbed to pneumonia and other preexisting complications.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from www.franciscanmedia.org