It is impossible to imagine a good, docile, obedient and respectful son, a son who is a consolation and help in a house, without being at the same time truly affectionate towards his own mother, because this may be said to be what characterizes a good son and gives the clearest indication of all his virtues. If you see that a son is all heart, all love for his mother, really to make any sacrifice to please her, and resolved not to give her the least displeasure for all the gold in the world, I am sure that without any further inquiry or investigation you will conclude immediately that he is a rare and virtuous son. The same can, it appears to me, be said in our case; and it has been said repeatedly by many others. Not only would it be a rare and difficult thing, but it would be almost impossible to imagine a good, virtuous, devoted priest, a priest who serves God, the Church and souls, without a tender affection for this beloved Mother; a priest who, according as this love goes on increasing in him, will at the same time make progress in the whole series of the other virtues, becoming more detached from the world, more zealous, patient, humble and pure. Therefore, whenever you happen to hear of a priest who is devoted to Mary, you need not inquire further, you may be sure then he cannot be otherwise than good, and perhaps of rare goodness too; but if, on the contrary, you come to know that a priest is cold and insensible in affection towards this Mother and to the sound of her name, you need not hope for much from him, for if he has not much affection for the Mother, he will not have much love for the Son, or much zeal for His glory, or for the salvation of souls. From this each one can see the obligation, the propriety, the importance and the necessity of speaking on this subject.
We shall therefore dwell this evening on this most sweet and consoling subject: on Mary, the most tender of mothers, the friend, the companion, the guide and confidant of the priest. And in order to know better and to savor with you this sweet and important material, I shall divide it into two parts: in the first, we shall seek to find out who among priests are those who are devoted to Mary; and in the second, we shall see how happy and blessed the priest is who is truly devoted to Mary. It gives me great pleasure to speak of this great Lady; for what son does not take pleasure in, does not delight in speaking of his mother? My only grief is that my words are not equal to the merits and the heart of this Mother. Do you, my dear Fathers, supply for my want by adding your love and pious devotion, so that when concluding this retreat, I may not have to reproach myself with having rather obscured than exalted and amplified the honor and glory of a Mother to Whom I protest myself a debtor for all that I have received, or hope to receive from the Lord in time or eternity.
FIRST CONDITION FOR TRUE DEVOTION TO MARY:
AN EXALTED IDEA OF HER GREATNESS.
An essential condition which is required, and which forms the first step the priest must take in order to become truly devoted to Mary is that he should seek and endeavor to conceive and form for himself the most sublime and exalted idea possible of this great Mother, for it is impossible for a person to have a truly great affection for another without having also a great esteem.
THE DEVOTION OF THE LAITY TO MARY.
Among the simple faithful are found many times good souls who have such an exalted idea of Mary that they experience towards her the greatest possible transport of devotion and fervor imaginable. For them, Mary is an object to which nothing can stand comparison, to which everything in creation is inferior. They know well that God is above everything, but as if not daring to treat with Him about domestic matters they turn their eyes to Mary and they attribute to her all that is great, beautiful, amiable and holy that they are able to express or imagine; from this comes the transport of lively warm-hearted affections towards her, the promptness and confidence with which they have recourse to her in every trouble and difficulty; from this source comes the eagerness and joy to celebrate all her feasts, to take part in all the practices that redound to her honor and glory.
THE PRIEST'S DEVOTION TO MARY SHOULD EXCEED THAT OF THE LAITY.
If such is the case with the simple faithful, what should be the esteem and veneration of Mary by the priest who is the first and most beloved of her children? Is the disciple to be superior to the master, will the priest have to learn from the laity, the first born from the youngest children? That must not be, my dear Fathers; it would be too humiliating a position, too opprobrious for a son of honor and character, such as the priest should be towards Mary, to be thus outdone by the laity. But what in the simple faithful is the fruit of pure faith and filial affection, must be in us priests something more; it must be the effect and the fruit of intimate and sincere conviction, so that our appreciation and esteem of Mary will not only make ourselves devoted and affectionate to her, but will put us in a position to confirm and strengthen in that devotion those who have it already, to inspire with it those who do not possess it; and, if occasion should arise, to uphold it and defend it against the ignorant and the proud who may scorn it or hold it up to ridicule or mockery. We have in the prayer of the great servant of Mary, St. Alphonsus Liguori, the first requisite of true devotion to Mary: "I pray Thee my Lady, that I may have true knowledge worthy of Thee." This is the first step the priest must take towards acquiring this devotion: to conceive lofty sentiments worthy of her, De te vera et digna sapiam, and to make his words and deeds conformable to his sentiments: Vera et digna loquar, vera et digna diligam.
THE EXALTED DIGNITY OF MARY.
It is not given to us to grasp here below who Mary is or to comprehend the loftiness of her vocation, the sublimity of her state, the eminent degree of her virtue, the greatness of her glory, the power of her arm. It would be necessary to know Who God is, in order to know what God has operated in Mary. This great Lady is a mystery, and God alone Who was the Author of her can comprehend her and praise her in a worthy manner: Deus solus potest illam pro meritis laudare, qui mira . . . . fecit in illa. Let it suffice to say that, outside God Himself, there is not either on earth, or in Heaven, either among men, or among Saints, either among the Angels or the Seraphim, a being who, in greatness, power, prerogatives, virtue and merit, I will not say, surpasses her, but even equals her or comes near her. She is so great that the great Doctor, St. Bonaventure, goes as far as to say that not even God could go further and make her greater: Majorem mundum, facere potest Deus, majus coelum, majorem matrem quam Matrem Dei non posset facere. He gives the following reason for this: the position of Mother is relative to the quality of son, and hence to have a greater mother we should have a greater son, which in the case of Mary is not only impossible, but intrinsically repugnant . . . The Angelic Doctor, the most severe critic of all inaccurate expressions, confirms this when he says: "The Blessed Virgin, from the fact that she is Mother of God, has a certain infinite dignity from the Infinite Good which God is; and from this aspect nothing greater can be made." . . .
This quality of Mother of God it was that inspired those prophecies and figures by which she was foreshadowed and delineated by the Prophets; this was what inspired the praises and eulogies with which the Fathers and Doctors of all ages exalted and magnified her; this was the origin of all those eminent and glorious titles and names with which the Church invokes her and proposes her for the devotion of the faithful; this, in fine, is the foundation for all the manifestations of honor and homage which peoples of all countries and all ages have vied with one another in offering to this great Mother. And will the priest, the first born among her children, be the only one to stand idle and unconcerned in the midst of such manifestations of heart-felt affection? Will the priest be the only one to stand looking on coldly and indifferently to this rivalry of the people without doing anything himself? Such an attitude, my dear Fathers, would be too opprobrious for a son, and too painful for a mother. The name, the sight, the thought of this Mother should be for us, after God, the object of all our esteem and veneration, the focus of all our attention. So long as we are here below, it will not be given to us to arrive at understanding the greatness of Mary; only when we go to Heaven, shall we see and study and admire this wonder of Divine power, this mystical ark of infinite wisdom. But in the meantime, till we get there, let us raise our voices in unison with that of our Mother to praise and glorify God Who has been pleased to exalt her so much: Magnificat anima mea Dominum . . . Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est.
THE PORTRAIT OF A PRIEST DEVOTED TO MARY.
When the priest has succeeded in forming for himself this kind of idea, this concept of Mary, it will be easy for him to become devoted to her. Oh! what great things I promise myself, I hope for and expect from the priest whose heart is full of love for this great Mother! How happy and fruitful his life will be when it is spent under the care and affection of this tender Mother! There will be no one more content than this son, no one more joyous, more confident, more generous, more loving than he. Have you not often observed how a child behaves with its mother? When the mother is present, and especially when she has the child in her arms, it is brave and confident, it laughs and plays; whom could you find more joyful, more talkative, more courageous than it? But suppose the mother goes away and is hidden from its view; as soon as it notices it and looking round is no longer able to see her, it suddenly stops its childish prattle and becomes sad, melancholic, timid, afraid; everything alarms it, everything terrifies it ; by its whole appearance, but more by its cries and tears, it will tell you how unhappy it is, that nothing will satisfy it, that everything makes it sad. And why? Because its mother cannot be seen. But if you pass from that contentment and courage which the presence of the mother gives the child to the way that it behaves towards her, you will be witness of the most tender caresses which, though childish, are most expressive and significant. What looks, what impetuous attempts to leap for joy, what embraces! Everything speaks eloquently of a loving and affectionate heart; if anyone else speaks, the child will give no sign that it gives it any pleasure, but if the mother speaks you will see, if not by its words, at least by its gestures and smiles, the pleasure it takes in it. You have, my dear Fathers, in these few reflections the portrait of the priest devoted to Mary; for the priest devoted to this tender Mother becomes simple and innocent like a little child. Mary, after God, is everything for him, and there is nothing else that consoles him, contents him, restrains him, sustains him so much as the thought of and affection for this good Mother.
The first priests, the Apostles, were very fortunate, and we cannot help experiencing a certain praiseworthy envy at their happy lot of being able to see Mary, to speak to her, to live with her and to pray with her. Now, the priest who is devoted to this good Mother, and, like another Jesus, lives subject to her, obedient and affectionate, in strict truth is not far away from the happy lot of the Apostles. He can be said to live with her, he shares his fears and his hopes with her; with her he makes his plans for his undertakings and his labors; in fine, this son belongs to Mary entirely, and appears to have no other life outside of her: whether he thinks or speaks or works, all is for her.
THE PRIEST DEVOTED TO MARY WILL SPEAK AND THINK OFTEN OF HER.
When a person loves it is natural that he should think of the object loved, that he should speak often of it and with pleasure; that he should study the way to see it and to enjoy its presence as much as possible. It is a kind of love unheard of, to love a person and at the same time to avoid that person's company and conversation . . . Language is the most ordinary way of expressing the sentiments of the heart. Observe a person who is passionately fond of riches, of hunting, of certain games, of traveling etc. The way and the frequency with which he speaks of what he prefers, the knowledge and skill that he displays in speaking of it reveal to us at once the passion that dominates him. Do you wish then to know whether a certain priest is much or little devoted to Mary? Observe his manner, observe the sensations he expresses when he looks at an image of Mary, when he speaks of her, or hears others speak of her; penetrate, if you can, into his mind and heart to perceive the tenderness of his affection towards her. If in the course of the day, he turns often to Mary; if in the difficulties and vicissitudes of this life he puts his trust in her help; if in the exercise of his ministry, in the pulpit, in the confessional, in his familiar discourses, he is ingenious in seizing the least occasion, and is most dexterous in speaking of her, and if it is evident that this is not done artfully or by an effort, but naturally and joyfully, and even with transports of delight; if, I say, such effects result, then you may conclude that he is a true son of Mary. On the other hand, a dry cold manner of speaking of her is not a good sign; a priest may say nice things and even amazing things, but the most necessary thing is wanting: there is wanting that warmth, that heart-felt affection which is the characteristic of the lover; in a word, he does not speak as a son. Imagine to yourselves a son full of affection for his mother and imagine what he says about her; put these same words on the lips of anyone else; materially, there will be no difference; the same terms will be used in praising and extolling her, but you will see a great difference; in the language of the first you will see a different force, a different unction, and you will experience a different impression; the reason of the difference is that one is a son, the other is not; one loves, the other is cold and indifferent.
Consider the writings and the lives of the Saints of all times, such as St. John Damascene, St. Cyril, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, and in later times St. Alphonsus ; ponder over the way they wrote and spoke of Mary; what words inflamed with love they used, what beautiful ideas they expressed, what eagerness and joy they showed in praising and exalting her; is there any need to ask whether these Saints loved Mary and were devoted to her? Anyone will be persuaded and convinced that such language could only come from a heart that feels, from a soul that loves. All over the world innumerable good and holy souls, even among the simple and unlettered, have given proof of the same devotion to Mary. If you ask them are you fond of Mary? Do you love this good Mother? You may be sure that they will be all eagerness to satisfy you, and that they will say with emotion: And why not be fond of her? How would it be possible not to love her? Ah ! I only wish to know what I could do to love her more; if I knew it, I would do it at any cost. Thus those who are truly devoted to Mary feel, and thus they speak; can we say as much of the priest, this beloved eldest son nearest to the heart of this Mother?
HE WILL TAKE CARE NOT TO OFFEND HER.
Other indications of devotion to Mary, which are at the same time indispensable conditions that the priest can be truly said to belong to her, are these: that he take care not to offend her, and that he endeavor to imitate her Divine Son. In the first place he must take good care not to offend her, not to displease her, and that not only in matters amounting to grave sin which, as all can see, is incompatible with even an ordinary or common love, but also in small light matters. Between two people who love one another in such a way that they only stop short of not hating each other, of being outright enemies, small offenses, slight displeasures are not noticed very much. But between two hearts that love each other truly, between two persons who profess to love each other, even small acts of discourtesy are regarded as a great evil: an inopportune joke, a hasty word, a careless act, a want in showing esteem, may sometimes give rise to trouble, to unpleasantness, to coldness and suspicion. What would you say of a son who, in his conduct towards his own mother, just stopped short of not offending her gravely, but was completely indifferent about smaller offenses because they did not make her weep or die of sorrow? If you were to say to such a son: Look here, my dear man, don't you know that what you are doing displeases your mother, disturbs her mind and makes her uneasy, afflicts her and makes her spend her days in sadness and gloom? And if you were to get the reply: what does that matter to me? As long as what I am doing does not afflict her so far as to cause her death, it is sufficient for me, and I don't want any more. What would I say of such a man? Well, that is a picture of a priest who cares little about offending Mary in small matters: he knows that these jests, that light conduct, that want of guard in looking and speaking, although they do not amount to mortal sin, nevertheless cannot be pleasing to this Mother of purity and candor; he knows that they disgust her, that they afflict her, all the more because they come from the priest, her son of predilection; nevertheless, he will not abstain from doing them, he even beguiles himself and soothes his conscience by saying: it is not serious, it does not amount to a mortal sin. Ah! my dear Fathers, if that were true of any of us, it would be useless for us to pretend; we would be very far from being true and devoted sons of Mary.
O priest who aspires to become a true son of Mary, I give you as a rule to guide you that you have this thought ever present in your mind: never do anything that your heart tells you is displeasing to Mary; and in addition, never deny her anything that you know she would welcome and desire from you. Sleep protracted in the mornings to the detriment of pious exercises and the works of the ministry, haste in celebrating Mass and in Church functions, eagerness to gain from the exercise of the ministry, hours lost in useless secular affairs, frequent visits to certain persons, looking at and losing time with everything that presents itself, are not things that a good priest will do, and certainly cannot be pleasing to Mary; I must therefore abstain from them. And then, in order to please this Mother, I will make some act of mortification: I will cast down my eyes, suppress that word, deny myself that amusement; I will make a visit to the church, practice some devotion, some act of virtue. I know that there is no harm in this, that there is no obligation to do that, but I know also that they provide an occasion to please Mary, I will therefore give her the pleasure. Give me a priest who allows himself to be guided by this thought during the day, and without seeking any other indication, I will give you a true and devoted son of Mary.
The second means, no less essential, by which we can become pleasing to Mary is to make ourselves true copies, true portraits of our great Exemplar, her Divine Son. Our Divine Redeemer on the Cross, with His Own lips, entrusted us to the care of the tender heart of His Blessed Mother. He left us to her to have instead of Himself, to occupy His place in her heart, so that in looking after us, loving us, working for us, she regards us as holding the place of her Son. Mary, as was natural, knew to its depths the spirit and the Heart of her Divine Son: she held Him in her arms, she had the care of Him for thirty years, she was constantly present at His discourses during the three years of His public life, she was present at the end when He hung on the Cross. All that, besides what she knew by other extraordinary means, rendered her conscious of the wishes and even identified her with the designs of her Divine son, for she saw His objects, His wishes, His desires, His designs; she knew the importance, the nature and the scope of His mission; the ways and means He used; the eagerness, patience and charity with which He labored to attain His objects; she knew the standard, the regulations, the lessons and example that He left His priests to whom He gave the charge of continuing His mission. Bearing this in mind, I ask you how can you expect that Mary will be satisfied and content with a priest whom, having been left to her and put in her charge as another son, she sees different from, and out of tone and harmony with her Divine Son; different in his tendencies, discordant in his affections, in his ends and his mode of working? Fine consolation that for a poor mother who having lost a respectful, obedient and affectionate Son, sees substituted another, indocile, cold, and disrespectful. Every look and every word of his would only serve to render more bitter the loss of the first, and more painful the exchange.
Who then among priests can be regarded as truly devoted sons of Mary? That priest, and that priest alone who renders himself conformable to the original, that priest who forms in himself a copy, a portrait of the great Son of Mary; that is to say, a priest who is hardworking and zealous, a priest who keeps himself aloof from the tumult and intrigues of the world, who watches carefully over himself and seeks no other end but the honor and glory of his God and the salvation of souls; so that, to use our earthly way of expressing it, every time that Mary looks down from Heaven and sees him, she will be able to hear reechoed and repeated to her: "Woman, behold thy son." Mother look at your son, study him carefully; you will see that he is a real son because he has a real resemblance to your Divine Son: he thinks and works like your Son. Like Him, he is retired, attentive, obedient and affectionate to you; like Him, he works solely for the interest of the Eternal Father and does nor occupy himself or lose his time with the wretched things of this earth. Conscious and persuaded of the importance of his Heavenly mission, he goes on repeating the words of your Divine Son. "I must be about My Father's business," and like Him, goes wherever the glory and the will of his Heavenly Father demands. Ah! yes, I repeat, he is truly your son, reborn, risen again, a true copy; take him, embrace him, love him: Woman, behold thy Son! He, the true son of Mary, alone has the right to expect the special graces and favors of this Mother; to him deservedly will come direct the beautiful words: "Behold thy Mother." Son, look and be consoled, I entrust you to My Mother, I place you in her arms. Oh! what a moment! what happy embrace of Mother and Son! In some danger, in some trouble, in some crisis of life and death, Mary will say: "Be of good heart, son, I am your Mother," and the priest will exclaim: "Save me, I am your son."
FRUITS OF DEVOTION TO OUR BLESSED LADY.
What shall I say to you about the happiness of a priest who is devoted to Mary? I do not intend to draw a picture of all that is reserved on earth for a son devoted to Mary, for it is impossible to conceive here below what things the maternal heart of Mary is capable of doing for her sons; only in Heaven will it be given to us to see and to measure her goodness and power. I shall merely recall to you that the help and intercession of Mary is not merely a pious belief, the effect of excessive, ill-directed piety, but is, as you know, a dogma of faith. [Emphasis added.] The authority of the Church, the unanimous consent of the Fathers, the voice of all the ages leave not the slightest doubt on this point; those mighty helps of Mary can therefore not only be hoped for but can be counted upon, specially by us priests, as a thing that is certain and unfailing, so long as we do nothing to deprive ourselves of them. This being certain, I shall mention for our consolation and comfort three special favors that we priests should expect from Mary, which are: the spirit of our ministry, a blessing on our labors and a great crown in Heaven proportioned to the love and zeal which we have had for her on earth.
(1) THE TRUE SPIRIT OF THE PRIESTLY VOCATION.
It happens often that a priest is assailed and troubled by the fear of having been mistaken about his vocation, especially when his ministry, whether through his own fault or the fault of others, has been useless and sterile. There is no denying that this is a terrible thought. I shall therefore speak more willingly on the point and say that we may banish every kind of uneasiness and lay aside all fear, if we are truly devoted to Mary, for we may be certain that we have not made a mistake, since devotion to Mary is one of the first and essential signs of a sacerdotal vocation. The spirit of Mary is the same as that of her Divine Son; whoever belongs to her cannot therefore be far from Him. Even if it should happen that a priest entered the ministry without a vocation, if he sets himself to become a true child of Mary and succeeds in doing so, you may be certain that this good Mother of mercy will obtain from her Divine Son that which he had not; that spirit, those gifts, in a word, that combination of graces which will makes him a true minister of the Lord, just as if he had been really called from the beginning. Although he may have lost his way, although he may have been tossed about on a stormy sea, if he has recourse to Mary, he will reach the port and be saved: He that shall find me shall find life; I love them that love me. And what has a good priest to fear or dread when in every difficulty, in every trouble, in every embarrassment, he can say and repeat to himself: I am a son of Mary, it is God Who has placed me in her hands, she has made me secure and I am certain that I shall be saved.
(2) ASSISTANCE AND BLESSING IN ALL OUR LABORS.
The second special fruit of our devotion to Mary is her assistance and blessing in all our labors in our ministry.
What heart was there ever in the world more zealous than the heart of Mary which cooperated in everything that her Divine Son wrought for the good of souls, and which itself felt at the foot of the Cross that ardor, that thirst with which He burned as He died. Ah! with what heart, with what promptness she will give her assistance to her son who demands it! You know better that I do the wonders and miracles of zeal that so many holy priests have wrought with the aid of Mary. The best fishers of souls have been always devoted to Mary, and it can be said frankly that the fruit of their sweat and labor increased in proportion to their devotion to Mary. How many accounts of conversions of sinners do we not find recorded in history to have been operated through Mary! And if we ourselves have sometimes done a little good, if we have gained some souls for her Son, if we only reflect a little, we will see the hand of Mary in it. A feast, a sermon on Mary, some pious practice in her honor, a grace received, sometimes just a look at her image may have been what enticed her and won her assistance. It has happened to ourselves more than once in the ministry that we expended both energy and time in vain to snatch from the hands of persons objects either evil or dangerous; that we found their hearts impervious to every reason and adamant against every loving attempt; but when the help of Mary was invoked and they were asked to give the object as a gift to her and not to refuse it to their good Mother, that they immediately yielded and surrendered. Let the priest therefore take Mary as his inseparable companion in his whole ministry; in the confessional with Mary, with her in the church and out of the church, in the house and out of the house, with people in health and with the sick; in fine, let him never give the signal of battle without invoking the aid of Mary. Let an Ave Maria, an aspiration, or even a look with faith towards an image of Mary, be the signal of combat, the first shot of the battle, and then let him not fear. She who has already conquered so many times, who already counts nineteen centuries of victories and triumphs, will never allow anyone who trusts in her to lose the battle.
(3) A SPECIAL CROWN IN HEAVEN.
Finally, the priest devoted to Mary will have a special crown in Heaven proportioned to what he has done for her on earth: "He that honoreth his mother is as one that layeth up a treasure." If such is the merit of a son who honors his earthly mother that he is compared by the Holy Spirit to a person who accumulates riches and treasures, what are we to say of a priest, of that son of Mary who spends and consumes his own life for her honor and glory? What treasures, what riches, what joys in Heaven! Every word said, every step taken, every labor endured for this good Mother will be remunerated, everything will get its reward in Heaven: "They that explain me shall have life everlasting."
My dear Fathers and brothers in Christ, I shall conclude with this consoling thought: If you wish to walk securely and be certain of your salvation, if you aspire to a great crown in Heaven that will never fade, love and honor Mary, and strive to make her known, loved and honored by others. A son who has honored Mary will never perish. Let us cherish all those pious practices, those ways of paying her homage, which the Church approves and recommends in her honor. Let us speak often of her and from our hearts; let us show all the way to honor her, so that every heart on earth and every tongue will have an affection, a word of praise to offer to this Mother. Happy the priest and happy the people who are devoted to Mary. I shall finish with the beautiful words of the devout author of Vita Sacerdotalis: Beatus ille sacerdos qui servus est Mariae, ipsique servos congregat! Beatus Populus qui illam colit! O Maria, serviant tibi populi; honorant te tribus Det mihi Dominus ut cullum tuum quocunque dilatare possim et hostes tuos debellare. Amen.
He 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. He had as contemporaries two other Saints who, like him, exercised their apostolate in the city of Turin: St. Joseph Cotelengo, who was twenty-five years his senior, and St. John Bosco, who was only a little more than three years his junior. St. Joseph Cotelengo was the founder of the famous hospital at Turin, which has now ten thousand patients and has existed for over a century, without bank account or funds, depending on Divine Providence alone.
Joseph Cafasso was the third child of a family of four. His parents, who were remarkable for their charity to the poor, were small farmers who had to supplement their scanty income by working on neighboring farms. Joseph was a Saint from his infancy; his sanctity was the result of victories gained over himself and it increased with his years. Even in his childhood he had certain days set apart for mortification, and he fasted every Saturday in honor of Our Blessed Lady. From childhood he attended daily Mass which he served with joy when permitted, and was a model of devotion. He was gifted with a keen intellect and a good memory, and was first in his class at school. He never lost a moment, he even took a short cut to the school and studied his lessons on the way. He appeared to be aware that his life was to be a short one, and that it would not be long enough for the work for God he hoped to accomplish. By his strong character based on humility, and his determination never to offend God, no matter what humiliation it might cost him, he gained an ascendancy over the other pupils and even over people older than himself.
As soon as he came to the age of reason, his mother accustomed him to give alms to the poor, which he gladly did, and even added the best of his own meals to what his mother gave him. When scarcely ten, he began his spiritual apostolate. He loved to teach catechism to the poor children of the district, and on Sunday evenings he would gather the neighbors and, standing on a chair because he was of small stature, he would repeat for them the sermon he had heard that morning in church.
Seeing such evident signs of a vocation, his parents decided to educate him for the priesthood. They sent him to a school in the neighboring town of Chieri, where he studied Latin and afterwards Philosophy. As there was no vacancy in the major seminary of Turin, he began the study of Theology under the Pastor of his native parish, and completed it at Chieri, when a major Seminary was opened there.
He was a model student, humble and always ready to help other students. His companions gave him the name of "the new Aloysius" on account of his modesty, gentleness and angelic disposition.
He was Ordained a priest in 1833 at the age of twenty-two, having gotten a dispensation for defect of age. After Ordination, he went to Turin to attend one of the post-graduate courses there. There were three such courses in Turin at the time. Having attended the lectures of the three in succession, he selected the one presided over by a very learned and virtuous priest named Don Guala. The course consisted of moral and dogmatic theology, Sacred Scripture, Patrology, Liturgy and Sacred Eloquence. He was easily the first among the young priests who attended the course, and when his three years' studies were completed he was selected by Don Guala as assistant professor. He was a brilliant lecturer. His fame soon spread over all Piedmont and even beyond it, and attracted students not only from Turin but from the surrounding dioceses. He aimed at making the young priests not only learned in theology but saintly men and efficient ministers of the Gospel.
Jansenism was rampant at the time. A large number of the clergy were tainted with it; they held rigorous views and deterred people from approaching the Sacraments, but their lives were far from virtuous. Don Cafasso was the apostle of hope and confidence and advocated frequent and even daily Communion. By correct explanation of the principles of Moral Theology, by preaching the mercy of God in season and out of season and by training the young priests to work with him in the prisons among men considered by the Jansenists as unworthy of the Sacraments, he fortified them against the errors of that pernicious heresy.
When Don Guala, the Rector of the Institute, became old and infirm, Don Cafasso took charge and was appointed as his successor when he died.
There was a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi attached to the College, of which the Rector was Pastor. Don Cafasso had charge of the Church and spent long hours each day, usually from 7 a.m. till 9:30 or even 11 a.m. hearing Confessions in it. His fame for learning and sanctity attracted great numbers of penitents there. He gave preference to working men and after them to servant girls, and if there was not time to hear the wealthy and the titled folk before his classes began, he asked them to return.
Besides performing all his duties as Professor and Pastor, never missing a class or being a minute late, he found time for other forms of apostolate in Turin, the chief of which were teaching catechism to poor children, visiting the sick and the various prisons of the city, and giving missions and retreats.
Don Cafasso and Don Bosco
Though Don Cafasso and Don Bosco were neighbors, they did not become acquainted till Don Cafasso had become a clerical student and was already sixteen years old. Don Bosco was then but a boy who loved games and fun, and Don Cafasso had already acquired the wisdom of a man of experience. He became Don Bosco's adviser, helped him in his difficulties, and when he was ordained Don Cafasso received him into the College of which he was now professor. Don Cafasso was accustomed to bring some of the young priests with him to help in teaching catechism; having found Don Bosco by far the most suited for this work, he advised him to devote himself to it when his three years course was finished. He procured a house for him, and when he was driven out of it on account of the noise the boys made, Don Cafasso got another for him and supplied him with funds for the work. He continued to help him and advise him until the time of his death, and Don Bosco, though only a few years younger than he, would do nothing without consulting him.
His Work Among the Poor
He sought out the poor in their homes and trained the young priests under his charge to visit them and help them. He never refused an alms. He gave away all that he owned himself, and generous people, knowing his great charity, gave him large sums of money, being persuaded that it was the best way to help the poor. He was particularly kind to those who, as the result of some calamity, had fallen into poverty. He did not, however, allow himself to be imposed on, and when he had prudent reason for suspicion, he sent a servant to visit the houses of people who appealed for help, to see what they had for meals. The servant often found that some of the people who said that they were in want had well-supplied tables.
Visiting the Prisoners
The prisons in Don Cafasso's time were gloomy places infested with vermin. There was communication between the prisoners, and of the inmates of the prisons, the wicked had the greatest influence. It was among these outcasts of society that Don Cafasso spent most of his free time. He visited each prison at least once a week, and some of them once a day, and spent long hours there, usually four or five hours at a time. He returned home each night bringing with him on his person, the vermin of the prison, which he jocularly called "living silver and moving riches."
He prepared the way for his spiritual ministrations by corporal benefits, but when actually hearing Confession he never gave anything, even a medal. His distributed various kinds of gifts among the prisoners: tobacco, money, fruit, clothes, religious objects.
He instructed the prisoners in the truths of religion, and not being in any hurry to leave, he did that work thoroughly. He prepared them for the Sacraments and heard their Confessions. There is no case on record in which he failed to convert even the hardened sinners among them. He brought some of the young priests under him to visit the prisons and made it part of their training to help the poor and needy and visit those in prison. He helped to get employment for those among the prisoners who from time to time were liberated.
Those Condemned to Death
Don Cafasso singled out for special kindness criminals condemned to death. He visited all these frequently, instructed them and prepared them for death. He accompanied them all to the scaffold--fifty seven from Turin prisons and seven others from other towns. He succeeded in getting all these to go to the Sacraments. He was not satisfied with merely converting them but endeavored to make them Saints. He exhorted them to accept capital punishment with resignation and told them that if they did so with perfect dispositions, they were in a state to go directly to Heaven without passing through Purgatory, for by dying a violent and dishonorable death they were performing the heaviest penance that could be imposed on anyone in this world. He even gave them a commission for him to execute when they went to Heaven, which was to kneel before the throne of Mary and intercede for him.
Adviser to Bishops and Priests
People of all classes not only from Turin but from distant places came to him for advice: bishops, priests, lawyers, titled folk, simple people and even non-Catholics. He solved difficult cases of conscience with marvelous facility. He was a very learned man and was hardly equaled by anyone of his time for practical knowledge of Moral Theology and then, he was a Saint and got special light in prayer. He was never known to give a wrong solution or wrong advice.
Don Cafasso as a Preacher
During the twenty-four years that he spent at the College of St. Francis, he was Professor of Sacred Eloquence as well as of Moral Theology. His knowledge of the art of preaching was not acquired by merely reading books but from life-long practice which began when he was a boy. He became one of the most effective preachers not only of his own time but in the history of the Church. He was both learned and eloquent, and had a beautiful delivery. However, he trusted in none of these things, but rather in prayer and penance. In each sermon he made it his aim that not one person would leave the Church without being converted. He preached every Sunday at the Church of St. Francis and he frequently gave retreats to both clergy and laity. His favorite place for giving retreats was at the Sanctuary of St. Ignatius where there was a church and residence on a mountain 2,800 ft. high. It was there that the Conferences in the volume cited above were first delivered. The Conferences which he gave on these occasions were always written and his manuscripts are still preserved. There are about sixty sermons in all, including those to the laity, covering about 1060 pages. These were published in Italy and have gone through several editions.
His Saintly Life
Don Cafasso was truly a man of God, a holy priest. All his words and acts breathed forth the delicious odor of celestial virtue. Some saw in him a resemblance to St. Philip Neri on account of his humility, others to St. Alphonsus Liguori for his learning, others to St. Vincent de Paul for his devotion to the poor and those in prison, others to St. Aloysius Gonzaga for the innocence and purity of his life, others to St. Francis de Sales for his burning love for God and his gentleness of manner, others to the Cure of Ars for the austerity of his life and his work in the Confessional.
In the matter of food, he mortified himself from his very infancy. One would imagine that he had no sense of taste for he preferred unsavory to tasty food. He fasted every Saturday even as a child, and from the time of his Ordination, every day was for him a fast day. For breakfast he took only a little bread without coffee or milk; for mid-day meal he took a plate of soup and a little bread but no fruit or sweets of any kind. When he became Rector, he began by waiting until dinner was nearly finished before he came; after some time, he did not come until dinner was over, and then he took a little bread and wine as he passed through the Refectory on his way to visit in the College Chapel.
He was a man of prayer; the views that he expresses in his Conference on Prayer were exemplified in his life. In spite of his many duties, he was able to find long hours for prayer. The secret of how he was able to do the work of several men and to do it well, and at the same time to find long hours for prayer lay in the fact that he spent little time eating, and little time sleeping. He was always last in the Church each night and was first up in the morning. After a long preparation, he began his Mass each morning at 4:30 a.m. He spent no time idly. He had taken two vows: one to do what was most perfect, the second to waste no time. St. John Bosco stated in his panegyric that in the thirty years that he had known him, he had never known him to waste time. Besides his fasting he practiced other rigorous austerities; he used instruments of penance: the hair- shirt, chains, the discipline. His undergarment was found each week by the woman who washed it to be stained with blood. Whenever a criminal was to be executed he watched the whole night before the Blessed Sacrament and often scourged himself to blood.
His great devotions were: to the Passion, to the Sacred Heart, to the Mass, to the Stations of the Cross, to the Blessed Sacrament, to our Blessed Lady, to St. Joseph, to many of the Saints, to the Souls in Purgatory in whose favor he recommended the Heroic Act.
His Holy Death
When he was completing his forty-ninth year his health was still good, and to judge by appearances one would say that he had many years still to live. He himself was aware that such was not the case. St. John Bosco was convinced that the day and the hour of his death had been revealed to him, and in his panegyric of him gives several reasons for this belief.
Judged by the amount of work he had accomplished, and the small amount of time he spent at meals and in bed he had lived a very long life. "For venerable old age is not that of a long time, nor counted by the number of years. A spotless life is venerable old age. Being made perfect in a short time, he fulfilled a long time."
He made his preparation for death on the first Sunday of the month and devoted the whole day to it. He made his Confession as if it were to be his last, received Holy Communion at Mass as Viaticum, and received Extreme Unction in spirit as if he were a dying man. He recited the prayers for the dying and kissed the Crucifix as if it were the moment of expiring, and then imagined that Our Lady obtained for him another month to prepare for death.
His last illness began on the 9th June as he was hearing Confessions. He was obliged to go to bed and, on the third day of his illness, finding that he had still a little strength left, he got up and spent a few hours in the Confessional until he became quite exhausted. He had great devotion to Our Blessed Lady and it was his constant prayer that he should die on a day dedicated by the Church to her. His prayer was granted, for he died on a Saturday, a day consecrated by the Church to Our Lady. It was a Saturday. within the Octave of the Feast of Mary Consolatrix, and was on the vigil of St. John, who is the principal patron of pious works of mercy for those condemned to death, to whose benefit he had devoted so much care. St. John Bosco believes that Our Lady appeared to him at the moment of death and conducted him to Heaven.
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