St. Joseph Cafasso’s body was twisted with curvature of the spine. Yet in a society that looked down on the disabled, this shriveled little priest became a successful teacher, preacher, and confessor. His life tells us to value people with physical deformities. And his example signifies hope to all disabled persons.
Ordained in 1833, Joseph Cafasso first became a popular lecturer and then, in 1848, the rector of the church and Institute of St. Francis in Turin, Italy. However, Don Cafasso became best known as a confessor. He had a gift for releasing penitents from scruples. “When we hear confessions,” he wrote, “the Lord wants us to be loving, merciful and fatherly to all.” His friend and biographer John Bosco told this story:
Forty-five hardened criminals had promised to go to confession on the vigil of a feast of Our Lady. But when the day came, none of them would confess his sins. Don Cafasso’s ingenious charity and courage found a way out of the difficulty. With a smile, he approached the biggest and strongest prisoner. Without a word Don Cafasso grabbed his long, "owing beard. Thinking the priest was fooling around, the man said, “Take anything else you like, but leave me my beard!”
“I won’t 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,” said the priest, “but you won’t escape until you confess.”
“I am not prepared,” said the prisoner. “Then I will prepare you,” said Cafasso. If the prisoner had wished, he could have easily freed himself. But whether it was by respect for the priest or by God’s grace, the man surrendered.
He allowed himself to be led to a corner of the room. Don Cafasso sat on a bundle of straw and prepared his friend for confession. Shortly there was a commotion. The prisoner was so moved by Don Cafasso’s exhortation that his sighs and tears almost prevented him from telling his sins. Then he who had been most vehement in refusing to make his confession went to his companions. He told them he had never been so happy in his life. And his experience persuaded them all to go to confession. Over the years Don Cafasso accompanied sixty condemned men to their public executions. His regarded these “hanged saints” as his favorite parishioners.
As a teenager John Bosco idolized Joseph Cafasso, and the two became close friends. Joseph Cafasso died on June 23, 1860, and John Bosco preached at his funeral.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi