Joseph Cafasso was born in Castelnuovo d'Asti in 1811. Son of small land owners, he was the third of four children, of whom the last, Marianna, would be the mother of Blessed Fr Joseph Allamano. From when he was very young the family and the entire village regarded him as a young saint. He completed his theological studies at the seminary in Chieri and in 1833 was ordained priest. Four months later he went to the Convitto Ecclesiastico, a residential pastoral institute for putting the finishing touches to his priestly and pastoral formation. He would remain involved there for the rest of his life, eventually becoming its Rector.
At the Convitto the spirituality of Saint Ignatius reigned supreme as well as the theological and pastoral orientations of Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori. Teaching was given much attention and was aimed at forming good confessors and capable preachers. Joseph studied and gained a deeper understanding of the spirituality of St Francis de Sales, which he then passed on to one student in particular: John Bosco. Cafasso, his spiritual director from 1841 to 1860, contributed to forming and guiding Don Bosco's spirituality.
Typical of his teaching was his appreciation of daily duty as a way to holiness. As the Founder of the Salesians also testified: "the extraordinary virtue of Cafasso was his marvellously faithful and consistent practice of ordinary virtues".
Apostolate to the poor
Always attentive to the needs of the poor, he visited and also financially supported those who were poorest, bringing them the consolation that came from his priestly ministry. His apostolate also consisted in spiritual accompaniment of prisoners and those condemned to death, to the point where he was defined as the prisoners' priest. Prudent and reserved, a spiritual master, he was spiritual director of priests, lay people, politicians, founders.
Pearl of the Italian clergy
Pio XI called him the pearl of the Italian clergy. Fr Cafasso also supported Don Bosco and the Salesian Congregation in material ways from its very beginnings. After a short illness he died at just 49 years of age on 23 June 1860. He was beatified in 1925 and canonised by Pius XII in 1947, who recognised him as a "model of priestly life, father of the poor, consoler of the sick, support for prisoners, saviour of the condemned". The same Pope, in his encyclical Menti Nostrae of 23 September 1950 proposed him as a model for priests.