When he was only 12 years old, St. John Bosco met Joseph Cafasso for the first time. John was so impressed by the holiness of his new friend that he ran home to his mother to tell her he had “just met a saint.” Though St. John Bosco may be the more familiar name to most people, it was Father (later St.) Joseph Cafasso who inspired his protégé to found the Salesians and devote his life to working with youth.

Even as a young man, Joseph Cafasso loved to attend Mass and spent long hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Small in stature and with a twisted spine, he nevertheless followed an early call to the priesthood, and after studying at the seminary in Turin and later the Institute of St. Francis, he was ordained at a young age. A brilliant lecturer in moral theology, Father Cafasso impressed the young men studying for the priesthood with his holiness and self-discipline, insisting that they, too, live up to similar high standards.

Father Cafasso was also known as a significant social reformer in Turin. He actively fought against Jansenism, a heresy prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was marked by an excessive focus on sin and damnation. He turned to the teachings of St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori to moderate such thought and became known for his gifts as a confessor and spiritual advisor. He also actively fought against state intrusion into Church affairs which had begun during the Napoleonic invasion of the previous century.

He had a particular gift for working with condemned prisoners, with the most hardened criminals among those for whom he labored long and loved most. There is a story of one inmate, a man much larger and stronger than the small and physically weak priest, which sums up Father Cafasso’s dedication to those society had written off. Grabbing the man by the beard, he declared that he would not let go until the man confessed. Though the man began slowly, by the time he left the confessional, he was in tears and praising God for His goodness. Father Cafasso paid particular attention to hearing the confessions of those condemned to death, to the extent that he became known as “The Priest of the Gallows.” He found the strength for this ministry, as he did all things, in the Eucharist.

Father Cafasso was known also for his humility and mortifications. Despite his frailty, he was especially frugal, never consuming any liquid other than water. He lived in a constant state of fasting, eating little and never between meals. He considered his ailments, such as toothache and headache, to be a sign of his own personal cross and bore all without complaining. He was the last to leave chapel at night and the first to arrive there, saying Mass at 4:30 a.m.

He died in 1860 at Turin. The patron of prisoners, his feast is June 23.