In last month’s Nova et Vetera we saw how Don Bartolo went from being a priest of Satan to a follower of Christ. This month we continue following his progress to the culmination of his life – the propagation of the Holy 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 of st pius x 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.