Sinner. Satanist. Social worker. Saint. A strange progression taken by Blessed Bartolo Longo. On February 11, 1841, a sweet tempered physician’s wife of Latiano, Italy, gave birth to a son whom she named Bartolo. Devoted to Our Lord and His Mother, she taught all her children to pray the Rosary daily and to visit and care for the poor while Dr. Longo instilled in them a love of music and beauty. Bartolo would later describe himself as “a lively and impertinent imp, sometimes rather a rascal.” The priests who educated him found Bartolo to be highly intelligent, cordial, and accommodating although prone to a fiery temper.
When Bartolo was ten, his mother died. Slowly Bartolo began to drift away from his faith. Eventually he studied law from a private tutor, then attended the University of Naples to complete his education. It wasn’t the same University of Naples where St. Thomas Aquinas taught, but a dangerous place for Bartolo’s young mind. Searching for meaning in life, Bartolo became enmeshed in the political movements and spiritism so popular with college students at that time in Italy. Deeply involved with a satanic sect, Bartolo aspired to the satanic priesthood, so he entered upon a long preparation of studies, fastings, and mortifications. On the night of his ordination by a satanic bishop, the walls of the “church” shook with thunder while blasphemous, disembodied shrieks knifed the air. Bartolo fainted with fright and for a while afterwards was deeply tormented and physically ill. Despite this depression and nervousness, he exercised his satanic priesthood by preaching, officiating at satanic rites, and publicly ridiculing Catholicism and everyone and everything connected with it.
During these bleak years, the Longo family was besieging heaven for their wayward member. One day Bartolo seemed to hear the voice of his dead father begging him to return to God. Troubled, he paid a visit to one of his friends from Latiano, Professor Vincenzo Pepe, who was living and teaching near Naples. Shocked by Bartolo’s appearance, Pepe exclaimed, “Do you want to die in an insane asylum and be damned forever?” When Bartolo admitted his mental confusion, Pepe took him under his wing. He introduced the troubled young man to many holy people who gave him support and counsel. One of these was a well-educated Dominican priest, Alberto Radente, who gave Bartolo a detailed course in the Catholic faith which included the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. After much study, prayer, and a lengthy confession, Bartolo was again admitted to the sacraments. On the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1871, he was professed into the Third Order of St. Dominic and given the name of Brother Rosary in recognition of his favorite daily prayer.
To complete his break with satanism, the new convert made one final visit to a seance, held up a medal of Our Lady, and cried out that he renounced spiritism because it was “a maze of error and falsehood.” He then went to student parties and cafes, denouncing the “religion” he had formerly embraced and proclaiming his faith in the Catholic Church. This was a brave thing to do as the Catholic Church was, at that time, being suppressed. He considered becoming a priest but was discouraged by both friends and his spiritual director. After making a retreat, he discerned not to marry, but rather to devote himself unreservedly to God and Our Lady. He was later to write:
I place myself, my God, in your hands; as a son I abandon myself to your fatherly embrace; roll and roll again this mud, it has nothing to say; it is enough that it serve your designs and not resist your will for which I was made. Ask, command, prohibit. What do you wish that I do, or that I not do? Lifted up, knocked down, suffering, dedicated to your works by sacrificing my will to yours, I can only say, as did Mary: “Behold I am your servant. O Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word.”
Friar Radente told Bartolo that he had to repair the damage he had caused to others, so he joined his pious friends in caring for the poor, sick, and needy. One of this pious group was the wealthy widow Countess Mariana di Fusco. The Countess commissioned Bartolo, who was a lawyer, to collect the rent from poor farmers on a vast tract of land she owned near the ancient city of Pompeii. She needed the money to support her five children. In 1872, Bartolo arrived in marshy Pompeii, accompanied by two armed escorts to protect him from bandits that overran the area. He was shocked and filled with pity at the ignorance, lack of faith, superstition, poverty, and moral corruption of the people. The aging priest in a decaying church rarely saw any parishioners. People and animals slept together in ramshackle, filthy quarters. How could Bartolo help? Bartolo later wrote,
One day in the fields around Pompeii called Arpaia… I recalled my former condition as a priest of Satan. Father Alberto had told me repeatedly never again to think of, or reflect on (this), but I thought that perhaps as the priesthood of Christ is for eternity, so also the priesthood of Satan is for eternity.
So, despite my repentance, I thought: I am still consecrated to Satan, and I am still his slave and property as he awaits me in Hell. As I pondered over my condition, I experienced a deep sense of despair and almost committed suicide. Then I heard an echo in my ear of the voice of Friar Alberto repeating the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “One who propagates my Rosary shall be saved.”
These words certainly brought an illumination to my soul. Falling to my knees, I exclaimed: “If your words are true that he who propagates your Rosary will be saved, I shall reach salvation because I shall not leave this earth without propagating your Rosary.” At that moment the little bell of the parish church rang out, inviting the people to pray the Angelus. This incident was like a signature to my firm decision.
Later he wrote, “What is my vocation? To write about Mary, to have Mary praised, to have Mary loved.”
Bartolo lost no time. He made repeated trips to the Valley of Pompeii to teach the people how to pray the Rosary. Beginning in 1873, he organized a yearly Rosary feast, incorporating music, fireworks, races, and a lottery into it. In 1875, as part of a parish mission, he invited a group of priests to speak about devotion to the Rosary. To conclude the mission, he promised to display a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the painting that he obtained has been the cause of numerous miracles of healing. He constructed a church to hold this image and then, around it, an entire city dedicated to helping orphans and the poor. He also wrote books about the Rosary and composed novenas and a prayer manual. In all of these works, he was assisted by the Countess. When evil rumors began to spread about the relationship between the widow and the handsome, intelligent lawyer, Bartolo and the Countess consulted their friend Pope Leo XIII, a great devotee of the Rosary. “Lawyer, you are free; Countess, you are a widow; get married and no one can say anything against you.” So on April 7, 1885, they were married. In this chaste union, for Bartolo had taken a vow of chastity, the couple continued their charitable works until the Countess’s death in 1924.
Bartolo was tireless in his work. He founded a congregation of Dominican nuns to help educate the orphans in his city and also brought in the Christian Brothers for the boys. He urged people to learn the catechism and worked to have defined by Rome the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. After laboring 50 years for his “Lady,” Bartolo was the object of calumny and slander as lies spread about his mishandling of funds. He bore these with resignation and was cleared of all charges.
In 1906, Bartolo turned all his property, including his own personal property, over to the Holy See. He then assisted the new head of the administration and continued to work in the city he had built, but only as a humble employee. He remained at his work at the Shrine until he was 85-years-old, ever promoting the Rosary and going to confession twice weekly.
Over the years his prayer had become so intense that one of those who saw him could say, “I often saw him with his arms outstretched and his eyes fixed on heaven or on the image of Our Lady, or even with his eyes half-closed, totally enraptured without being aware of those around or near him.” Asked if he saw the Blessed Mother,
Bartolo would answer, “Yes, but not as she is in heaven.”
During his last hours on October 5, 1926, he prayed the Rosary, surrounded by the orphans whom he so loved. “My only desire is to see Mary, who has saved me and who will save me from the clutches of Satan,” he said with his final breath. On October 26, 1980, Pope John Paul II pronounced Bartolo Longo Blessed, calling him the “Man of Mary.”
Madeline Pecora Nugent, S.F.O.