In September I was privileged to be able to visit the spectacular Dominican Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii while leading a pilgrimage through some of the shrines of Italy.
The first thing that strikes you when you enter this magnificent basilica is its beauty; the stunning art which covers the ceiling and side chapels, all designed to give glory to God and to commemorate the lives of many of the great Dominican saints. But the beauty that this church contains is much greater than the outward show of its splendid art.
The real beauty is to be found in how Our Lady of the Rosary has showered down graces on many people who have prayed there. This great basilica contains within it an amazing story of redemption, the story of Bartolo Longo who’s body rests within. It was because of Bartolo that this beautiful shrine to Our Lady exists but from his early life, you would never have imagined that he would be the one responsible for it.
Bartolo Longo was born into a devout Catholic family near Brindisi, in southern Italy in 1841. During his studies to become a lawyer, Bartolo turned away from his Catholic faith and experimented with the occult and satanic worship. He found himself involved so much in a satanic cult that he claimed he was eventually ordained a priest of Satan. But this new path did not provide Bartolo with peace and happiness. The opposite actually occurred. After his ordination, he began to experience deep depression and suffered extreme bouts of anxiety.
Eventually these spiritual, psychological, and emotional problems led him to seek out the help of a Catholic priest. He was led to a devout Dominican priest, Fr. Alberto Radente who instructed Bartolo in the faith, helping him turn from the occult. But even still Bartolo was tormented and despaired of being saved. He couldn’t forgive himself or see how God could ever forgive him and he came close to committing suicide. What stopped him? He recalled what Fr Radente had told him about one of the promises that Our Lady made to St. Dominic about the Rosary: “He who propagates my Rosary will be saved.” From that day on, Bartolo devoted the rest of his life to promoting the Rosary.
One evening, while walking over to the dilapidated chapel in Pompeii where he used to pray, he had a mystical experience that called him to restore the place of worship and give the people a beautiful place to pray the rosary. With the help of a wealthy Countess, construction of the magnificent new church was completed in 1883.
In 1875, Longo had obtained the gift of a painting portraying Our Lady of the Rosary, with Saint Dominic and Saint Rose. The painting was in bad condition and Bartolo thought it was of poor artistic quality but he accepted the gift so as not to offend the donor. He raised funds and had the image restored and altered. St Rose was changed to St Catherine and the image was placed in the completed church in an effort to encourage pilgrimages. Soon after it was first displayed, miraculous healings were obtained through prayers to Our Lady of the Rosary.
The amazing story of Bartolo’s life teaches us several things. It clearly shows that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love and mercy and it shows the power of the Rosary to convert hearts and bring people back to God. Bartolo was beatified by St Pope John Paul II in 1980, who declared him the ‘Apostle of the Rosary’.
I would like to conclude this piece with a beautiful prayer composed by Bartolo.
“O Blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain that unites us to God, bond of love that unites us to the angels, tower of salvation against the assaults of Hell, safe port in our universal shipwreck, we will never abandon you. You will be our comfort in the hour of death: yours our final kiss as life ebbs away. And the last word from our lips will be your sweet name, O Queen of the Rosary of Pompeii, O dearest Mother, O Refuge of Sinners, O Sovereign Consoler of the Afflicted. May you be everywhere blessed, today and always, on earth and in heaven.”