FFC SAINTS AND MARY
American Catholic >>Saint of the Day
The Conversion of Bl. Bartolo Longo
“With the boldness of desperation I lifted my face and hands to the Heavenly Virgin and cried, "If it be true that you promised St. Dominic that whoever spreads the Rosary will be saved, I will be saved, because I will not leave Pompeii until I have spread your Rosary. “ (Bl. Bartolo Longo)
Witchcraft and the occult have been drawing curious and spiritually-starved people for millennia. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has not died out; rather, it is increasing its hold on society. The following true story took place 100 years ago, but it is being repeated today in the lives of many, the young in particular. May the life of Blessed Bartolo Longo be an encouragement to anyone who finds himself caught in the web of superstition or occult practices, and to families and friends of such persons. Mary's Rosary is the powerful liberating force they seek.
Bartolo Longo was born of an upper class family in Laziano, Italy, in 1841. He was an irrepressibly lively and mischievous child. In 1858, his family faced a familiar parental dilemma - where safely to continue their spirited teenager's education. Warned against the University of Naples - “Here is the devil and the times threaten catastrophe” - he was sent to a private school near home. Then, as today, college was the occasion for partying, romance, and fascination with everything new. Italy was in upheaval; the Kingdom of Naples was crumbling before a revolution. Eager to see his future amidst these radical social and political changes, Bartolo, like other students, consulted a medium. Whether serious or not, this was his first, but not his last, contact with the occult.
Losing His Faith
In 1863, Bartolo arrived in Naples to study law. Garibaldi's victorious revolutionaries had, by then, completely transformed the university there. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas once studied theology, theology was now abolished, replaced by courses in the “history of Christianity” that taught the misdeeds and fanatical ignorance of the Church, the clergy, and Christians. He was plunged into anti-Catholic demonstrations, parades against religious “superstition”, and public lectures against religion. Hegelian philosophy reigned supreme over all disciplines. The new Italy could not live side by side with the old Catholicism and the Pope in Rome. Dissenting priests and monks flooded into Naples, some to become professors, proclaiming a new-style democratic church, a new creed, and a liberated code of conscience some seeking this new “church's” sanction to marry.
Bartolo was swept headlong into the effervescence of rebellion.
“Overwhelmed as I was in the ebullience of my youth, in the errors against the faith and against the true Church, as shown in the celebrated University of Naples, ensnared on the enticing hook of freedom of conscience and thought, seduced by the novelties of science, feeling secure in the reverberations of certain professors’ names echoing as far as the universities of Paris and of Berlin, discordant, it is true, among themselves in their opinions but all in agreement in denying the person of God, the Catholic Church, the religious orders, the Pope, the sacraments and the rest of truth which is part of faith, I too grew to hate monks, priests and the Pope, and in particular the Dominicans, the most formidable, furious opposers of those great modern professors, proclaimed by the university the sons of progress, the defenders of science, the champions of every sort of freedom.”
Eventually the excitement and pleasures of his new-found freedom left Bartolo empty; the Hegelians could not, in fact, give him the answers he was searching for; the destruction of true religion left him with no certain truth about life. Naples, how ever, offered another resource for youthful seekers.
A Priest of Satan
In 1864, the 23-year-old law student began to regularly visit the infamous mediums of Naples, whose revelations from the world beyond often made headlines. Thirsting after the supernatural, he was initiated into secret doctrines and anointed a priest of the occult. He came to the ceremony of his “consecration” skin and bones from fasting and with strained nerves, producing chronic illnesses that would persist throughout his life. His very appearance took on the demonic, a mephistophelean beard and the burning eyes of one possessed. Garbed in a black robe, he entered a darkened, draped room decorated with human skulls. There he recited occult formulas and promised to be a missionary of esoteric and anti-Catholic doctrines. After being anointed with holy oils, likely stolen from some church, Bartolo gave proof of his new faith by falling into a trance, during which Confucius and others spoke through him to the satanic assembly.
Though he managed to achieve his law degree, Bartolo henceforth was living in an unreal world of demons, obsessively seeking from them directions for everything he did. The demonic spirit - his “angel” - to whom Bartolo submitted his entire life, gave him dazzling visions and revelations. It denounced Christ and His Church, making the future Blessed ferociously anticlerical and blasphemous. Bartolo's health and sanity were rapidly declining under this spirit's influence.
But the faith was not dead in Naples. God had His own messengers. The first was a learned man and a solid Catholic, Professor Vincenzo Pepe. Disgusted at the state in which he found Bartolo, he warned the young man that he was headed for the “madhouse”, that his “revelations” were all lies. The truth did not immediately end Bartolo's babblings about visions. On 29th May, 1865, Professor Pepe finally convinced Bartolo to go to confession to a Dominican friar and scholar, Fr. Alberto Radente. For a full month, Fr. Radente listened, guided and enlightened Bartolo regarding his errors, each day delaying absolution while gradually exorcising the young man's mind. On the Feast of the Sacred Heart, 23rd June, 1865, Bartolo, newly absolved, received Holy Communion. In need of constant vigilance due to his weakened physical and spiritual condition, he moved in with Professor Pepe and for a period of time the two were together constantly. He was befriended by other faithful and dedicated Catholics. One was Caterina Volpicelli, a beautiful young woman his own age, who prayed intensely for the poor sinner. (She was declared Blessed in April of 2001.) For a period, he became the companion of Naples' “Mother Teresa”, a Franciscan friar, Father Ludovico da Casorja. Every day for two years, he worked in the Hospital of Incurables. There he discovered two severely ill patients who were deeply in love with God. They revealed to him “perfect happiness”: joyful acceptance of life's miseries out of love for Christ.
On the Feast of the Holy Rosary, 7th October, 1871, Father Radente received Bartolo into the Third Order of St. Dominic as Brother Rosario. Bartolo made his last visit to a séance, holding up the Rosary and crying out, “I renounce spiritualism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood.”
Mission to the Ignorant and Superstitious
Bartolo was a good attorney, but felt that God had a special religious mission for him. In 1872, he happened to be on a business trip. “I set out for the Valley of Pompeii without any apostolic design; I travelled there only to renew rental contracts, that is all. I thought I was arriving in the role of a lawyer but was instead, through the plans of God, setting out as a missionary. I was still a blind man and a youth, and Providence took me by the hand, as one would guide the blind and children.”
Only poor, illiterate and backward people lived in the district of Pompeii. Lacking any law enforcement, the countryside was a robbers' den. About 2,000 people lived in the parish, but less than 100, mostly older women, ever went to the one church, which was in ruins and rat-infested. The priest, an ignorant man himself, rarely administered a Sacrament.
Bartolo, so recently redeemed from the errors of Satanism, was overwhelmed with pity for the people.
“I was shocked at the degree to which these people had been abandoned. They were ignorant of the simplest prayers and the most rudimentary ideas of catechism …Their religion was a mixture of superstition and popular tradition, rather than a real and true cult of God. For their every need, even the basest, they would go to a witch, a sorceress, in order to obtain charms and witchcraft.”
His interviews with them rendered answers such as this:
“Do you know the Christian teachings, the catechism?”
“Then tell me, how many Gods are there?”
“When I was a child, I remember their telling me there were three. Now, after so many years, I don 't know if one of them is dead or one has married”
Bartolo knew the people were not to blame for their ignorance. He prayed in anguish for them, recalling his own past idolatry. One day he remembered Father Radente's exhortation:
“If you are looking for salvation, propagate the Rosary. It is the promise of Mary. He who propagates the Rosary shall be saved.”
“I prostrated myself and my eyes filled with tears. Queen of the heavens, to thee I shall listen ... I shall not depart from this earth without first displaying before thee the triumph of your Rosary.”
The Miraculous Madonna on a Cart of Manure
To establish a chapter of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary in Pompeii at a mission in 1875, Bartolo needed an image of Our Lady of the Rosary. He rushed by train to Naples and made a futile search in the shops. Providentially, he met his friend, Father Radente, who told him he had once bought such an image and left it at a convent in the city. Bartolo could go there and see it and, if he liked it, it was his. Bartolo hurried to the convent to ask about it.
“Dear me! I felt a tightening around my heart as soon as I set eyes on it! Not only was it an old and worn canvas; the face of the Madonna, more than that of a kind, holy, gracious virgin, seemed rather the face of a coarse and unrefined woman ... her entire cloak was chipped and worn by time with holes left by moths ... I was left speechless by the ugliness of the other figures. St. Dominic on the right seemed an idiot more than a saint; and on the left there was St. Rose, with a huge face, coarse and unrefined, crowned with roses ... I hesitated with indecision whether I should leave it there or take it away even in this state. The thought that the mission was coming to a close weighed me down; I had promised the picture of the Rosary to the three missionaries and to the people that very evening.”
Take it he did, but it was too large to carry on the train as baggage. Bartolo remembered that a man from Pompeii had come to Naples that same day to load his wagon with manure. Finding the parishioner, Bartolo arranged the Madonna on the cart and rushed off to catch the train to greet her at Pompeii. When the painting was unloaded from on top of the manure, it did indeed inspire horror, but was quickly touched up by a travelling artist. In 1879, the painting was beautifully restored, giving the Virgin a gentler and more refined face and changing St. Rose into St. Catherine. It became famous as the miraculous Virgin of Pompeii and can be seen there today.
The Virgin of the Rosary
By spreading devotion to the Rosary, Bartolo believed he could bring the people of Pompeii to the knowledge and love of their faith. Little by little he taught some to pray the Rosary, and gave each family an image of the Virgin of the Rosary along with Rosary beads. He arranged Marian festivals and processions; in the evenings he taught catechism. He also busied himself with restoring dignity to the little church by building a new altar. His Bishop, however, insisted that he raise the funds to build a new church instead, a church which would become a temple and one of the greatest Marian shrines in the world.
Whatever Bartolo undertook eventually exploded into a storm of grace.
“Then, all of a sudden, the supernatural took us by surprise and overtook us. We thought we were the founders of the work of Pompeii; we became the first spectators amazed at this great work ... We had planned a rustic church for poor peasants whose main ornament was to be the brightness of its painting; after barely a few years, as quick as a flash, we saw rising before our eyes a sanctuary, a monument of faith and a glory of art. We had only asked for a few pennies, a mere few pennies; instead, thousands of lire began arriving, thousands dizzyingly becoming millions. What’s more, we wanted to issue some publications promoting the works; instead, we succeeded in founding a magazine, without doubt the most widely-read in Italy; now the news of the miracles reaches even the remotest of peoples. We wanted only to provide for the religious life of poor peasants; we succeeded instead in producing a truly universal movement of faith, a Catholic movement, Catholic just as the Church is.”
Another Fight Against Superstition - Eugenics
Around the magnificent Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, Bl. Bartolo built a complex of charity. He established schools for poor boys and girls, nurseries for the children of impoverished families, an orphanage for girls, and a print shop and bindery where the young people could work to produce his magazines. Finally, he longed to found an orphanage for the sons of prisoners, children who were so often left to themselves and abandoned. So he began begging once more and laid the first stone of the orphanage in 1892. Within five years, it was caring for over 100 orphaned boys.
This project provided the opportunity for Bl. Bartolo to fight yet another war against superstition: the pseudo-science of eugenics. Its advocates studied the configurations of skulls, the sizes of brains, and the forms of noses and ears, drawing false conclusions about the nature of the human person. This was a foretaste of 20th century eugenics. One of their conclusions was that the children of criminals were doomed themselves to become criminals. It was, they asserted, in the children's genes, and no amount of training or education could change this reality. Not only was it hopeless to help them, but gathering them into one institution was dangerous and antisocial.
The orphanage for boys went against this “scientific” authority. Bl. Bartolo was urged to study their books to see the folly of his good works. He did and he undid the inhuman principles of the so-called anthropological science by the example of his boys, sons of the most desperate criminals, boys with physical characteristics that marked them as criminal types, yet the boys were well-educated, morally upright and well-behaved.
“Today this shelter, which upon its birth was greeted as a mere utopian idea, has been granted the support of the most worthy criminologists, penalists and scientists of Italy and of other countries as well, and with the facts as proof it has solemnly affirmed that the sons of prisoners can be educated. Today one hundred prisoners' sons are living in this home. One hundred and three have already been sent away as well-educated boys or have been taken in by honest and secure families. We have received good reports concerning all of them. They are scattered about in workshops, in the clergy, in the army, in the royal navy, in military bands; and many of them have even crossed the ocean to the distant shores of America where, in New York, they do honour to us, forming a true Valley of Pompeii colony.”
The Triumph of the Rosary
Thus the man who once listened to demonic spirits (and even became their priest) began his great work to bring souls back into the arms of the Church through Mary and her Rosary. Until his death at 85 in 1926, Bl. Bartolo worked untiringly in this apostolic venture. He built up one of the world's greatest Marian shrines and many institutions of charity. His life was not without conflict and struggle; he endured a difficult marriage, was dealt harsh criticism, and even had his work suppressed for a time, but what God accomplished through his humble service remains today as a monument of his devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary, a place of international pilgrimages. His dying words were, “My only desire is to see Mary, who has saved me and who will save me from the clutches of Satan.” He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.