On the day of Bartolo Longo's beatification, October 26, 1980, Pope John Paul II called him a "man of the Madonna"; he later called him "a true apostle of the rosary" and "a layman who lived his ecclesial pledge to the full". And John Paul II knew what he was saying — his own Marian spirituality was influenced deeply by what, as a young man, he had gleaned from Bartolo's life and works.
So who was this a man who so profoundly affected the greatest pope of the 20th century and who has had a permanent effect on the way we Catholics venerate Mary? Unfortunately, he is unknown to many of those in the English-speaking world. His name is Blessed Bartolo Longo. Most people who know of Bartolo have heard of him from asides made by John Paul II in his apostolic letter on the rosary — but there is much more to this remarkable man than a few pithy quotes. His feast day is October 6th, and this is his story.
In Bartolo's time, from the 1860s onwards, the Church in Naples was experiencing a spiritual crisis. Unbelief, rebellion, and the occult were widespread and affecting the souls of the faithful, especially college students. Many of them traded the theology of the saints for the philosophy of atheists, made street demonstrations against the pope, and — perhaps most dangerous of all — dabbled in witchcraft and consulted the famous Neapolitan mediums.
Among the wayward students in Naples, one stood above the rest in the depths of his depravity. As a young man, Bartolo not only participated in the anti-Catholic demonstrations, he not only preached publically and vehemently against the faith, he not only sought psychic mediums with his friends — he went even further and became a Satanic priest. Later on, Bartolo would describe how, in the rites of his blasphemous "ordination", he promised his soul to a spirit-guide, a demon, which shook the walls and manifested itself with blasphemous shrieks.
For over a year, Bartolo lived under the spell of the demon, practicing the rites that were a mockery of the Church's holy sacraments. Eventually, Bartolo's experiences as a priest of Satan became unbearable, for the torments of a demon made him go nearly insane. But his family had not given up on him; through their help, he sought refuge in the sacrament of confession.
Bartolo became associated with a Dominican friar who led him to a love of God through devotion to the rosary. Soon thereafter, Bartolo became a Dominican tertiary and took the name "Rosario". Around this time, he visited a séance and in his zeal held his rosary aloft, declaring, "I renounce spiritualism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood." He also came to know some holy Franciscans with whom he helped the poor and incurably ill for two years. While performing these good works, Bartolo kept up his law practice, which took him to the nearby village of Pompei.
Though Bartolo went to Pompei as a lawyer, he left as an apostle. There, Bartolo later recounted, he was shocked at the erosion of the people's faith. He wrote, "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." Through talking to the citizens, Bartolo came to recognize their severe lack of catechesis. When he asked one man if there was only one God, the fellow answered, "When I was a child, I remember people telling me there were three. Now, after so many years, I don 't know if one of them is dead or one has married."
It was around this time that Bartolo was beset with another temptation: despair. Thoughts about his sinful past began to overwhelm him so much that he contemplated suicide. When he was on the verge of taking his life, a divine inspiration came to him. It was a thought that changed his life, the diocese of Naples, and the lives of millions around the globe: "One who propagates the Rosary shall be saved." Falling to his knees, Bartolo made this vow to the Blessed Virgin Mary: "I shall not leave this earth without propagating your Rosary." At that moment, he later recalled, "the little bell of the parish church rang out, inviting the people to pray the Angelus." He regarded this incident as a confirmation of his resolution.
From then on, Bartolo's life was dedicated to teaching others about Mary, praising her, and making her loved among the faithful. His approach to the apostolate had many different aspects. For catechesis, Bartolo wrote many books and pamphlets and gave conferences on the mysteries of Christ's life and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. To appeal to man's love for beauty, he obtained a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary which in time procured many miracles. In the practical sphere, Bartolo founded many charitable institutions in Pompei, including an orphanage, a trade school, and a congregation of sisters to staff them; he built so many buildings that the complex became known as the City of Mary.
When Bartolo was about to die in 1926, his bed was surrounded by the orphans whom he had worked with such affection to educate. They prayed their beloved rosary together and, when finished, he said with his last breath, "My only desire is to see Mary, who has saved me and who will save me from the clutches of Satan."
Through Bartolo's tireless efforts, the occult arts were practically eradicated in the region of Naples, a worldwide Marian movement was started, and a church that was once used by about 100 elderly people became a basilica shrine that is now visited by about 10,000 a day.
Bartolo's Marian and rosary-centered spirituality was so influential that, in his own day, he was directly encouraged by Bl. Pius IX, St. Pius X, and Leo XIII, the last of whom has been called the Pope of the Rosary. After his death, Bartolo's influence on the very highest circles of the Church did not wane. It was due largely to the popular movement which Bartolo started that Pius XII made the infallible declaration on the Assumption of Mary. Even in our own time, Bartolo continues to inspire the Church.
(Quotations and other facts for this article are taken from Marian Shrines of Italy ed. Br. Francis Mary Kalvelage F.F.I., Mocksville: Academy of the Immaculate, 2000.)