Holiness is Contagious: The “Social Saints” of 19th Century Turin

Holiness is Contagious: The “Social Saints” of 19th Century Turin November 22, 2018

The city of Turin in northwest Italy is famous for several reasons. During the 1860’s, it was the first capital of a united Italy. Today its Cathedral of St. John the Baptist houses the famed Shroud of Turin, Christ’s alleged burial cloth, whose authenticity has been long debated.  While the Church has never made an official pronouncement on this, in a 1998 visit to Turin, St. John Paul II noted: “For the believer, what counts above all is that the Shroud is a mirror of the Gospel.”  

During the nineteenth century, Turin was home to a remarkable number of men and women whose lives mirrored the Gospel, men and women since raised to the altar. Known as the “social saints” for their work with the poor and destitute, Pope Francis has called their ministry a school of mercy. They are:

  1. St. John Bosco (1815-1888), the most famous of the group. Don Bosco was one of the giants of nineteenth century Catholicism, founder of the Salesian Fathers and Brothers who dedicated their lives to educating and evangelizing the young.  Later named the patron saint of youth, he once said: “It is not enough to love the young; they must know they are loved.” (Don Bosco’s own mother, Margaret, was declared Venerable in 2006.)
  2. St. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860), a friend and mentor to young Bosco, Cafasso was a seminary professor and popular spiritual director. Known as “the patron saint of the gallows,” he also ministered to Turin’s death row inmates. Frail and sickly, he burned with an apostolic enthusiasm, once declaring: “Heaven is full of converted sinners, and there is room for more.” Don Bosco preached his eulogy.
  3. St. Joseph Cottolengo (1786-1842). In a city fraught with poverty and destitution, at middle age Don Cottolengo experienced a call to radical service. Through his House of Divine Providence (known as the Piccola Casa), he served and lived with the sick, the poor, the exploited, the dying, and the suffering. A strong influence on Don Bosco, he founded over a dozen religious communities.  
  4. St. Mary Mazzarello (1837-1881),  Together with Don Bosco, St. Mary co-founded the Salesian Sisters to serve young women in the classroom and beyond. They grew rapidly; by 1900 they had 800 foundations worldwide. Her zeal is reflected in the following quote: “If we can do nothing more than save one soul for God we shall be more than repaid for any sacrifice that we make.”   
  5. Venerable Juliette Colbert di Barolo (1786-1864). A transplanted French aristocrat, as a young woman she moved to Turin with her husband (who is also being considered for canonization.)  A philanthropist who supported the work of Dons Bosco and Cottolengo, as a lay person she founded two women’s religious orders. (Don Cafasso was her spiritual director.) In addition, she ministered personally to Turin’s women, especially to victims of sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation and abuse.   
  6. St. Leonardo Murialdo (1828-1900). A champion of Turin’s workers, he was called a Socialist for advocating an eight-hour workday. A protege of Dons Bosco and Cafasso, he also worked with abandoned youth and founded a religious order. Pope Benedict XVI noted that underlying his “vigorously flourishing works” was a “conviction of the merciful love of God.” 
  7. Blessed Francesco Faa di Bruno (1825-1888). A soldier and scholar who became a priest and social reformer through the influence of Dons Cafasso and Bosco, he founded a religious order and ministered to Turin’s exploited and needy. St. John Paul II called him a “giant of faith and charity.”  

Blessed John Henry Newman once remarked that the tremendous outpouring of saints in sixteenth century Europe, following the Renaissance papacy’s “monstrous corruption,”  was “one of the great arguments for Christianity.” The same could be said for nineteenth century Turin, which Pope Benedict XVI called “a land made fruitful by so many examples of holiness.”

Each of these men and women were remarkable in their own right, but together they are simply amazing. Between them, they founded nearly twenty religious communities, and many of the apostolates they began continue to this day. They worked with and inspired one another. Together they illustrate a central point: holiness is contagious.

It goes without saying that the Church is undergoing a tough time right now. But if nothing else, Church history shows us that we need not despair. There is hope. Nineteenth century Turin is a great example of that. Perhaps Father James Kent Stone, an American Passionist, put it best when he wrote: “Yes, there have been scandals, if we look for them. But there have been saints and martyrs,  of whom the world knows nothing. And there are saints still.”

*(The above drawing of St. John Bosco is by Pat McNamara.)

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