A year or two back, Pope Francis asked the Church to pray the prayer to Saint Michael for the protection of the Church from the Devil. Indeed, there had been many previous occasions on which the Holy Father spoke of the reality of Satan, and he reminded us of the core task of the evil one –
“The Prince of this world, Satan, doesn’t want our holiness, he doesn’t want us to follow Christ. Maybe some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here … even in the 21st century!”
On another occasion, the Pope reminded us of the means at our disposal in order to protect ourselves from the wiles of the Tempter –
“For this spiritual combat, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation.”
The Pope has said nothing new – the Church has always taught (and continues to teach) the reality of Satan; this is why at each Easter Vigil, we renew our Baptismal pormises and in these, we explicitly reject ‘the Devil, his pomps and his works, and all his empty promises’. These are not simply words from a bygone age – they express a reality as true today as in the time of Christ. For He, too, rejected the Devil – right at the beginning of His public ministry, when tempted terribly by the Deceiver. Now, as then, the Devil is puffed up with pride, wanting to be adored as God, and making all sorts of promises which he cannot – and will not – keep.
It is true that the Devil is ‘the Prince of this world’ (cf. Jn.14:30) and he has a certain amount of power, but he is not God – he is a created being and subject to the one true God. The Devil can do nothing the Father does not permit. Furthermore, the ultimate defeat of Satan is already assured and the day will come when he will be chained up forever in the bowels of Hell. But until that day, he will continue to tempt, torment and assail us.
In the present age, there are a great many souls who, for one reason or another, succumb to the wiles of the Tempter.
Some of these are posessed in the true sense of that word, often through no fault of their own – and posession should never be viewed as a judgement against such people, nor as a mark of the retribution of God. In the history of the Church, there have been a number of souls who have ascended to the heights of sanctity despite being posessed. Possession pertains to the body, never to the soul.
Others deliver themselves into the hands of the Deceiver quite willingly, on the promise of wealth, or power, or fame, or beauty or some other vain and passing thing.
What is perhaps indisputable is that occultism and satanism is now coming out of the shadows where it has hidden itself for so long – an example of this being the very public erection of a satanic statue in the United States. Social media also reveals something of the extent of the reach of satanism. And unfortunately, the spiritual state of the world provides a potent agar in which this evil can grow and take hold. This, too, is not really anything new – other than the visibility now, perhaps.
One of the tenets of satanism is that once made, a deal with the devil is irrevocable – this is absolutely not true. A person can at any time revoke their decision and return to God, and God will welcome that soul back to Himself, for His mercy is endless.
Such a soul was Bartolo Longo, an Italian lawyer. As young man, the local political situation and the example of others around him, led to his beginning to despise the Catholic Church into which he had been born. He commented that being around people who hated the Church, “I, too, began to hate monks, Priests and the Pope”. It wasn’t long before he was consulting mediums and spiritualists and this led to his becoming involved in satanism. And then, he was ordained as a satanic priest, spending a period of time presiding over satanic ceremonies. Now, satanic ceremonies generally try to present a reversal of Catholic ceremonies – the features are the same in many respects, but reversed and made evil. This should come as no surprise – the Gospels point out that the Devil was more than able to quote Scripture. It is interesting, though, that satanism apes the Catholic Faith and no other – true satanists will often attest that they believe in God and the Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus, even if they do not follow Him and indeed, burn with hatred of Him.
The protestations of family and friends were of no avail in changing Bartolo’s mind and making him take a different path, but they were able to engage the support of Professsor Vincenzo Pepe, who met with Bartolo and pointed out the marked change in his physcial and psychological state, something Bartolo had already noted – thin and ill-looking, he was experiencing depression and anxiety and a degree of paranoia. Professor Pepe arranged for Bartolo to meet a Dominican Priest, Father Alberto Radente, who, three weeks later – and on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – heard Bartolo’s confession, gave him absolution and welcomed him back to the state of grace and the sacramental life of the Church. Bartolo then voluntarily undertook penances to atone for his sins and began to do good works. But he was not certain that he had truly been forgiven, perhaps because he had not yet forgiven himself. Later on, he wrote about this experience –
“One day in the fields around Pompeii, I recalled my former condition as a priest of Satan… 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.’ 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.’”
And so, for the rest of his earthly life, Bartolo kept this promise to propagate the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, writing books about the Rosary and eventually becoming friends with the great Pope of the Rosary, Leo XIII, who would write so many beautiful Encyclicals on this heavenly devotion.
Later, he would profoundly influence another Pope, Saint John Paul II, who had read Bartolo’s writings on a new set of Rosary Msyteries, outlining them in detail and focussing on the public ministry of the Lord; we know them today as the Luminous Mysteries.
Writing his encyclical ‘Rosarium Virginis Mariae’ in 2002, Pope John Paul explicitly mentioned Bartolo –
“As a true apostle of the Rosary, Blessed Bartolo Longo had a special charism. His path to holiness rested on an inspiration heard in the depths of his heart: “Whoever spreads the Rosary is saved!”. As a result, he felt called to build a Church dedicated to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Pompei, against the background of the ruins of the ancient city, which scarcely heard the proclamation of Christ before being buried in 79 A.D. during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, only to emerge centuries later from its ashes as a witness to the lights and shadows of classical civilization. By his whole life’s work and especially by the practice of the ‘Fifteen Saturdays’, Bartolo Longo promoted the Christocentric and contemplative heart of the Rosary, and received great encouragement and support from Leo XIII, the ‘Pope of the Rosary’.”
The Holy Father also wrote about the beads themselves, on which we pray the Rosary –
“As a counting mechanism, marking the progress of the prayer, the beads evoke the unending path of contemplation and of Christian perfection. Blessed Bartolo Longo saw them also as a ‘chain’ which links us to God. A chain, yes, but a sweet chain; for sweet indeed is the bond to God who is also our Father. A ‘filial’ chain which puts us in tune with Mary, the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ (Lk 1:38) and, most of all, with Christ Himself, who, though He was in the form of God, made Himself a ‘servant’ out of love for us (Phil 2:7).”
This beautiful Encyclical ends with a prayer written by Bartolo, and introduced by the Pope with these words –
“May this appeal of mine not go unheard! At the start of the twenty-fifth year of my Pontificate, I entrust this Apostolic Letter to the loving hands of the Virgin Mary, prostrating myself in spirit before her image in the splendid Shrine built for her by Blessed Bartolo Longo, the apostle of the Rosary. I willingly make my own the touching words with which he concluded his well-known Supplication to the Queen of the Holy Rosary:
“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 Pompei, 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.”
Bartolo is perhaps most well known for having restored an old and dilapidated Church in Pompeii. Bartolo had been horrified by the poor faith of the people there, knowing little of what the Church actually taught, such that one man he spoke to wasn’t sure if there was only one God or three. Perhaps this situation reminded him of the breeding grounds for his own descent into hatred of the Church and then further, into outright evil. He would write later –
“Their religion was a mixture of superstition and popular tradition. … For their every need, … they would go to a witch, a sorceress, in order to obtain charms and witchcraft”.
He decided to remain in Pompeii and do all he could to bring the people there back to God.
After restoring the old Church, he installed within it a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary. This painting was a gift from the Dominican Priest, Father Radente, and it depicted the Blessed Virgin giving the Rosary to Saint Dominic, with Saint Rose also pictured on the right. It been found in a junk shop and was both old and worn, and not especially attractive, aesthetically speaking. Bartolo was so unimpressed that he almost gave the painting back! But, to save having to buy an expensive alternative, he kept the painting and then raised funds to have it restored and partially repainted, replacing Saint Rose with Saint Catherine of Sienna.
Following the installation of the painting in the Church, various miracles were reported by those who venerated the image – and this brought many people to the Church, which was soon replaced by a larger one, which is now known throughout the world as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii.
Bartolo would go on to marry his friend, the Contessa Marianna di Fusco, although their marriage was continent. In 1906, the couple donated the Basilica and it’s grounds to the Church. Bartolo continued to do good works and to do all in his power to propagate the devotion to the Rosary, until his death at the age of 85 on 5th October 1926. His relics are in a glass sepulchre there, wearing the mantle of a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Bartolo Longo, the former satanic priest, and who once contemplated suicide, was declared a ‘Blessed’ of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II on 26th October 1980 – the Pope would call the new Beata the ‘Apostle of the Rosary’.
The life of Blessed Bartolo Longo is a testament to the infinite mercy of God and to His infinite power even in the face of great evil, and even when human beings willingly embrace that evil and take it into their hearts. He is also a role-model and a sign of hope for those who are in the service of the Demon – and there are many such souls.
Bartolo Longo is proof that such a soul can change it’s ways and return to the Lord, if it wants to do so. Yes, the Devil is powerful and yes, he draws many souls into his service, one way or another; but he is also limited in what he can achieve, even with his angelic intelligence and all the power and temptation at his disposal. All of this is no match for the grace of God and for the powerful and maternal intercession of She whom Bartolo and the Church salutes as the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary.
Visitng the shrine in October 2008, Pope Benedict said –
“Before entering the Shrine to recite the Holy Rosary with you, I paused briefly before the tomb of Bl. Bartolo Longo and, praying, I asked myself: ‘Where did this great apostle of Mary find the energy and perseverance he needed to bring such an impressive work, now known across the world, to completion? Was it not in the Rosary, which he accepted as a true gift from Our Lady’s Heart?’
Yes, that truly was how it happened!
The experience of the Saints bears witness to it: this popular Marian prayer is a precious spiritual means to grow in intimacy with Jesus, and to learn at the school of the Blessed Virgin always to fulfil the divine will.
It is contemplation of the mysteries of Christ in spiritual union with Mary as the Servant of God Paul VI stressed in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis cultis (n. 46) and as my venerable Predecessor John Paul II abundantly illustrated in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium virginis Mariae that today I once again present in spirit to the Community of Pompeii and to each one of you.
You who live and work here in Pompeii, especially you, dear priests, men and women religious and lay people involved in this unique portion of the Church, are all called to make Bl. Bartolo Longo’s charism your own and to become, to the extent and in the way that God grants to each one, authentic apostles of the Rosary.”
Blessed Bartolo Longo, Apostle of the Rosary, pray for us.
Pope Francis visits the shrine and venerates the relics of Blessed Bartolo Longo