Unique among those beatified by the Church was the Italian attorney Bartholomew Longo. Who else in Christian history has started off as a Satanist and ended up as a saint?
Bartholomew (or Bartolo) started out all right. Born in 1841 into a respectable, indeed, well-to-do South Italian family, he was given a good Christian education, and developed into a youth of marked literary and oratorical abilities, to say nothing of skill at fencing, dancing, and music. An extrovert with a talent for leadership, he chose law as his profession, and the University of Naples as his law school.
Then came a phase in his life during which this ardent young man was seduced by the university atmosphere into losing his faith. If the liberal academic atmosphere of most universities can cast a secular spell, the University of Naples in the 1860s was notoriously libertine. Bartolo soon found himself not only participating in antipapal demonstrations but dabbling in spiritism and even Satanism. Publicly ridiculing the Catholic Church, Catholic priests, and Catholic doctrine, he was even ordained a priest of a satanic cult.
Fortunately, Bartolo’s family and friends, aware of this trend, prayed earnestly for his spiritual recovery. Finally, a respected professor from his home town was able to break through the armor of his apostasy. He referred Bartolo to an able Dominican friar, Father Albert. Albert gradually guided him through the final stages of deprogramming.
Young Longo, restored to his senses, was now anxious to do anything he could to repair the great scandal he had caused. Fr. Alberto helpfully introduced him to a group of Catholic laypersons who were seeking to improve the lot of the sick and the needy. One of this group was the Countess Mariana di Fusco, a widow who owned much property in the neighborhood of Pompeii, the site of the ancient eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Since he was a lawyer, she asked Bartolo to collect the rent from her 300 very poor tenant farmers. Bartolo’s visit to this impoverished valley opened his eyes to the grinding poverty in body and soul of its residents. At that moment, he recalled the words of Our Lady quoted by Friar Albert, “One who propagates my Rosary shall be saved.” Falling to his knees, he promised, “Mary, I shall not leave this earth without propagating your Rosary.”
He began as a Rosary leader by establishing a shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in the little neighborhood church. Here he set up a discarded painting of Mary under that title. Pilgrims began to venerate it; favors and miracles performed there increased the crowds so at the recommendation of the local bishop, he undertook construction of a magnificent church. Begun in 1876, it was dedicated in 1887. In 1901 Pope Leo XIII designated this church as a basilica. The shrine’s press has for years circulated a periodical on its activities and run off many books and pamphlets on Rosary devotion. Daily some 10,000, mostly people from southern Italy, flock to this notable sanctuary of the Rosary.
The church was erected on property donated by Countess di Fusco. She and Bartolo gradually surrounded it with a number of charitable institutions, so as to constitute what is variously called “New Pompeii”, “The City of Charity”, and “The City of Mary”. Because the attorney and the Countess worked so closely together, tongues eventually began to wag. Pope Leo XIII suggested that the couple consider marriage. Bartolo had considered taking a wife before, but had eventually made a private vow of celibacy. Now Mariana and Bartolo followed the Pope’s recommendation, but although joined in matrimony, they lived as brother and sister.
One of the institutes the couple set up in New Pompeii was an orphanage. To take charge of the orphans, Longo founded a religious order, the “Daughters of the Rosary of Pompeii”. Another of his institutes was a trade school for the “Sons of the Imprisoned”, that is, the children of jailed fathers. In his day, people tended to assume that the children of criminals were doomed to grow up criminals themselves. Longo denied this assumption, and the alumni of this school, directed by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, proved his point that criminality is not hereditary. In 1922 he established a similar school for the daughters of imprisoned parents. These institutions won high praise from penal experts.
Bartholomew Longo had to pay a price for his worthy efforts. Throughout his administration he suffered poor health. In the first decade of this century his impious and envious enemies also assailed his reputation, charging him with profiteering, dishonesty, insanity. It seems that even Pope St. Pius X was taken in briefly by the accusations. Pius did recommend in 1906 that the founder of the “City of Mary” retire. Bartolo had already handed the Sanctuary over to Pope Leo III in 1894. Now he consigned the rest of the Center to St. Pius X. Henceforth, as a man without property, he worked in New Pompeii as an ordinary employee. But he continued to serve Mary, and in later years he urged bishops to seek papal definition of the Assumption as a dogma.
Bartolo Longo died, aged 85, on October 5, 1926. He and his wife were buried in the crypt of their Rosary Basilica. The Queen of the Holy Rosary had kept her promise. On October 20, 1980, Pope John Paul II beatified Bartholomew. The former priest of Satan had been redeemed. That was because, as John Paul declared, he had become a “Man of Mary”.
–Father Robert E McNamara