One of the most incredible testimonies to the ability of the rosary to bring back a soul from the brink of hell is the life of Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841–1926). Bartolo grew up in southern Italy during a time when Italy was experiencing a very strong nationalist movement. The movement was particularly known for turning people away from Catholicism and her teachings. Bartolo got caught up in this movement during his college years in Naples and fell away from the faith. He became so infatuated with the movement and its ideology that not only did he abandon the Catholicism of his youth, but he also became heavily involved in the practice of spiritualism and the occult. His fascination with mediums and witchcraft led him to participate in many séances, and he was eventually ordained a priest of spiritualism. Later in life, he would state that he had in fact become a servant of the devil and a priest of Satan.
Contrary to what he was promised by the practitioners of the occult, abandoning Catholicism and being ordained a satanic priest 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, by the advice of friends. A very learned man, Fr. Radente instructed Bartolo in the faith, helping him turn from the occult and renounce his involvement in spiritualism. Bartolo discovered that, once he did this, he began to experience peace and have a deep desire for a conversion of heart. It did not take long for him to completely reject and renounce the false teachings and practices of spiritualism. In his zeal, he even once barged into a séance, raised a rosary high above the attendees, and rebuked the assembly for what they were doing. He warned them that their practices were false and they needed to turn to Catholicism to find truth.
A lawyer by profession, Bartolo continued his legal practice after his initial conversion. Since he had been brought back to Jesus, Mary, and the Church through the instruction of a Dominican, Bartolo decided to become a Third Order Dominican himself. His initiation ceremony took place on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7, 1871. As part of the ceremony, he was given the name “Br. Rosario.” After becoming a Third Order Dominican, he made a trip to Pompeii in order to help a wealthy countess named Marianna de Fusco with her legal matters. Upon his arrival in Pompeii, he was taken aback by the state of the city, and especially the degradation of the people, both spiritual and material. He was shocked to find that very few practiced Catholicism or understood its teachings. Many people had even fallen into the occult and were practicing the same forms of spiritualism that he had once observed. This situation greatly distressed him because he knew that he himself had led many people away from Catholicism during his stint in the occult.
Historically, the city of Pompeii had not experienced any major development since it had been buried in volcanic ash in 79 AD. Now, as a fruit of the anti-Catholic movement in Italy, the people of Pompeii had fallen away from their Catholic heritage and become spiritually dead. Seeing these things all around him caused Bartolo to fall into a terrible depression. He realized that it was people like him who had helped extinguish the light of faith in souls through the anti-Catholic and spiritualist movements. He feared that, because he had been an ordained satanic priest, the devil still had a stranglehold on his soul. Though Bartolo had undergone a conversion, the situation of Pompeii reminded him of his past and haunted him. He was on the verge of total despair and even contemplated suicide.
As his heart sank deeper and deeper into despair, Bartolo forced himself to reflect upon what Fr. Radente had once said about the life and preaching of St. Dominic. He remembered that the rosary had brought erring souls back to the truth and restored hope to lost souls during the life of St. Dominic. He remembered that the Dominican priest had taught him about how Mary had once made the promise to St. Dominic that those who promote the rosary will find salvation. These words kept repeating in Bartolo’s mind and heart, and were the answer to his despair. The rosary became his way of beating the bondage of Satan forever. At this point, in 1873, he made a firm decision to stay in the valley of Pompeii and promote the rosary. He started immediately by initiating the restoration of an old dilapidated church.
In addition to fixing up the church, he also sought to establish the Confraternity of the Rosary in Pompeii. By means of the rosary, its mysteries, and its Confraternity, he would seek to re-educate the people in the truths of Catholicism. In those days, however, it was required that confraternities have an image of Our Lady of the Rosary. The image had to depict Our Lady giving the rosary to St. Dominic. Bartolo had no such image, but was able to acquire one through the generosity of Fr. Radente, who had purchased it at a junk sale for practically nothing. Due to his many responsibilities, however, Bartolo was not able to return to Naples to pick it up himself, so it was held by a nun in Naples until it could be delivered to Pompeii. When the image finally arrived in Pompeii in 1875, it arrived on a cart of manure and was in very bad condition. Upon seeing the image, Bartolo was so taken aback by how unattractive it was — this was his first time seeing it — that he thought of sending the image back. He described it as an old, worn, faded painting that had an unattractive depiction of St. Dominic and St. Rose. He thought the depiction of St. Dominic in the image to be so horribly distasteful that he did not even think it was worth the little it had cost. However, out of respect for the nun and the kindness of Fr. Radente, he humbly accepted the image.
As Bartolo had sought to restore the church building, so now did he also seek to have the image restored. He desired that St. Rose be replaced with an image of St. Catherine of Siena, in keeping with the practice of other confraternities. The restoration resulted in a beautiful depiction of Mary and the Baby Jesus giving the rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine. Unbeknownst to Bartolo, the image would become very popular. God would use it to work miracles and build a world-famous basilica around it.
In his newfound zeal for helping others, Bl. Bartolo established religious communities, orphanages, hospitals, schools, and many other institutions and foundations as part of his plan to bring Catholicism back to the area and restore the ancient city of Pompeii. Heaven was very pleased with his efforts, and in 1884, something wonderful happened that caused the entire Catholic world to turn its gaze toward the forgotten city of Pompeii. A little girl named Fortuna Agrelli claimed to have received a vision of the Mother of God and experienced a healing through Bl. Bartolo’s rosary image. Fortuna had been suffering from a variety of illnesses for several years. All the physicians her parents had consulted had given up on her. The family, however, did not give up. They began a series of three novenas, praying the rosary for 27 days total, asking for a healing for little Fortuna. At the end of the novena, the Queen of Heaven appeared to Fortuna looking exactly like her depiction in the confraternity image restored by Bl. Bartolo: She appeared holding the Baby Jesus and giving the rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena. During the apparition, the little girl begged Mary for a healing by calling on Mary specifically as “Our Lady of the Rosary.” In response, Mary informed the girl that this title was most pleasing to her, and that she would be healed. Mary also informed her that, in the future, anyone who desired to receive graces from God should pray this 27-day rosary novena and add an additional 27 days (three more novenas of rosaries) in thanksgiving. This novena became known as the 54 Day Rosary Novena and is often called the “Irresistible Novena to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii.”
News of Fortuna’s healing spread quickly. When word of it finally reached Rome, Pope Leo XIII became even more inspired to promote the rosary, and began to write an encyclical on the rosary almost every year. The miracle through the image of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii strongly confirmed the pope’s teaching that the pious tradition was worthy of belief. Heaven itself had affirmed the pious tradition through the apparition given to Fortuna, since the miracle was given through an image that depicted the rosary being given to St. Dominic.
In 1885, Bl. Bartolo married Countess Marianna de Fusco, and together they continued to develop the Shrine and its good works. As time went by, Bl. Bartolo and his wife observed how devoted Pope Leo XIII was to the rosary. The couple decided to donate the entire Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii to the Holy See when Pope Leo XIII died in 1903. It took several years to work out all the details, but the Shrine was finally handed over to the Holy See in 1906.
Blessed Bartolo lived for 20 more years and continued to conduct great works of charity in Pompeii. His apostolate was very fruitful, even helping to form his collaborators into saints. Bartolo instilled in his physician, St. Joseph Moscati (1880–1927), a great love of the rosary. Saint Moscati had become a close friend of Bl. Bartolo over the years, and would make frequent visits from Naples to Pompeii in order to see his friend and visit the Shrine. The saintly physician prayed the rosary every day and never went anywhere without his beads in his pocket.
Today, the church restored by Bl. Bartolo Longo has been declared a basilica and officially designated as the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii. It receives millions of pilgrims each year. Bartolo Longo was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1980, and has gained the honor of being one of the greatest champions of the rosary in the history of the Church. His feast day is October 5, the same day as St. Faustina Kowalska.