For the second consecutive year, the folks living in the neighborhood of Pompeii made the headlines. In 2014, Pompeii the film premiered with a PG-13 rating starring Kiefer Sutherland in theaters across the world. Just a year later, Pope Francis arrived by helicopter to the Shrine of Pompeii for a Lenten visit on March 21, where he called the Rosary a “weapon of peace and forgiveness.” From all Eternity, Divine Providence planned a 2015 papal trip to the only church in Christendom built by an ex-Satanist. For some in our world who are seduced by cultural compromise and spiritual mediocrity, the papal helicopter landing in Pompeii is merely a happy coincidence. For others who have ears to hear, Divine Providence planned for all Eternity a fourth papal trip to the same neighborhood in the last 35 years. Who can measure adequately the importance of one man’s spiritual crisis and conversion? Pope Francis answered this question when he stepped from a helicopter in the ancient Roman city, once buried under the ashes of Vesuvius, and taught the city and the world about the relevance of Pompeii in the twenty-first century, saying that Jesus is “our only salvation in the world.”
The film Pompeii earned $117.8 million worldwide. While the characters were fictional, Pompeii received high marks for both scientific and historical accuracy. Paul Anderson, who directed and produced the film, relied upon the insights of Pliny the Younger, who was a witness to the burial of Pompeii under the ashes of Vesuvius on August 24, 79AD. Pompeii begins with Pliny’s famous quote, “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.” According to Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the 2014 film “realistically captured the earthquakes that preceded the eruption, the explosions and the pyroclastic flows of hot ash and gas that buried the city and its residents.” Today’s Pompeii is a crossroads of people of every culture who are attracted by the archaeological site. The movie invites posterity to explore Pompeii today with an unfailing openness to mystery and a boundless desire for knowledge.
As Tommaso Caputo reminded us, Pope Francis became the third Pope in the last 35 years to stop by the neighborhood. Archbishop Caputo described the March 21 visit of Pope Francis as “an event of extraordinary ecclesial importance.” St. John Paul the Second visited Pompeii twice: October 21, 1979 and October 7, 2003. Pope Benedict XVI visited Pompeii on October 19, 2008 and reminded the world that “wherever God arrives, the desert blooms!”
Old-fashioned disaster movies like Pompeii help mankind to understand the tragedy of a neighborhood being plunged into eternal darkness. Centuries later, on the same continent, neighborhoods were plunged again into darkness, causing Sir Edward Grey to say from shelter in England at the beginning of WWI: the lights are going out all over Europe, not to be rekindled in our time. Divine Providence gave mankind hope, though, with the rebuilding of Europe and raising up two men, one from Poland and one from Germany, to guide Christendom in leading people to Jesus Christ who brought lights to the lamps again. And the 2015 Pope Francis Pompeii Pilgrimage reminded us who have ears to hear about the resolute message of the Gospel: in every generation, God raises up men and women who are outstanding in holiness to pass on the torch to keep it lit for posterity. A shepherd from Argentina knelt and prayed at a Shrine in Pompeii thanks to the conversion of one man who gave in to the Dark Side but was rescued by the Light of the World: Bartolo Longo.
Bartolo Longo, like the city of Pompeii, plunged into darkness. Like the city of Pompeii, thanks to Divine Providence, this darkness would not be eternal in the life of Bartolo Longo. A native of Latiano in southern Italy, he was the son of Dr. Bartolomeo Longo and Antonina Luparelli. Thanks to his mother Antonina, Bartolo experienced every night the Family Rosary. Young Bartolo loved music and played the piano and the flute. With a keen intelligence and an inquiring mind, Bartolo received his law degree in 1864 from the University of Naples at the age of 23. Bartolo Longo’s alma mater included previous graduates St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori. As one of Christendom’s newest lawyers, Bartolo Longo was unaware of the wisdom of St. Peter Chrysologus who once warned Christians how the devil tries to destroy the “beginnings”: “the devil ever disturbs the first beginning of good; he tests the rudiments of the virtues, he hastens to destroy holy deeds in their first origins, well aware that he cannot overturn them once they are well-founded.” Bartolo Longo ignored the wisdom of this fifth century Church Doctor almost to his own peril. During his studies in Naples, Bartolo was seduced by demonic worldliness and pessimism. Bartolo gave in to the bitterness that the devil offered him every day. Bartolo Longo became involved with the occult, attended séances, and worshipped with a satanic cult. The “father of lies” oppressed Bartolo Longo with despair, fear, hate, anger, an inability to forgive, resentment, and thoughts of suicide.
Bartolo Longo plunged into further darkness until he was rescued by Divine Providence who let him hear a voice one day of his deceased father, who said “Return to God! Return to God!” The darkness began to be eclipsed by the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, who led Bartolo Longo to confide in Professor Vincenzo Pepe, a friend from his neighborhood. The good professor led Bartolo to turn forever from the “father of lies” and the satanic cult by making a choice of biblical proportions: meet the Dominican Friar Alberto Radente. Father Radente helped Bartolo Longo re-discover the Face of Christ, who gained a triumph in his soul. God began to shine his light forever on the soul of Bartolo Longo, who would be used by God to shine his light on the ruins of a darkened city of Pompeii to begin building a Shrine for God’s glory with 3 million visitors a year. After spending several minutes in quiet prayer at the Shrine built by Bartolo Longo, Pope Francis greeted the faithful on March 21, saying,
Thank you. Thank you so much for this warm welcome. We prayed to Our Lady, so that she might bless us all, you, me, and the whole world. We need Our Lady to watch over us. And pray for me, don’t forget. Now I invite you all to recite a Hail Mary to Our Lady and then I will give you the blessing.
Bartolo Longo, by the grace of God, experienced a conversion which has been recorded in the Book of Life. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, “It is the paradox of history that every generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it the most.” Bartolo Longo, holding the hands of the Blessed Mother, became what Scripture invites us all to be: a sign of contradiction in a world of cultural compromise and spiritual mediocrity to be heroic for Jesus. As a sign of contradiction, Bartolo Longo returned to the satanic séance and said for all who had ears to hear: “I renounce spiritism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood.” On the Feast of the Annunciation 1871, Bartolo became a Third Order Dominican. On April 7, 1885, he married the Countess Marianna de Fusco.
The fruit of his labor became the Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompeii, whose cornerstone was established on May 8, 1876. Bartolo Longo was committed to building a church for the worship of Jesus Christ, so the children of God could be rescued from eternal darkness, in the same city once thought to be forgotten by history and now in the headlines for God’s glory. Bartolo Longo had prophetic intuition and combined prayer and action. St. John Paul the Second said he had an intuition “whose timeliness does not escape us at the beginning of this millennium, already so battered by the winds of war and streaked with blood in so many parts of the world.” Thanks to this Satanist turned saint who died at the age of 85 in 1926, Pope Francis visited Pompeii, a Marian city which Bartolo refounded to shine for our generation. Pope Francis prayed to God in Pompeii and echoed Bartolo Longo who once told God after his conversion from Satanism, “The first fruit of your grace inspired within me an irrepressible, insatiable desire for you, truth, light, food, the peace of man, your creature.” Bartolo Longo had a tremendous influence on the pope from Poland, who mentioned him by name on five occasions in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae when he gave the Church the Luminous Mysteries.
The Pope’s Pompeii Pilgrimage to a Shrine by a Satanist turned saint invites us to make our own what Bartolo Longo did in his own neighborhood: the discovery of God’s True Face. Bartolo Longo was not impressed with the recognition of man on Earth; he waited for those applauding in Heaven. He was beatified on October 26, 1980 by a Polish pope who was inspired himself to take the hands of Jesus Christ to be rescued from the darkness of the Iron Curtain.
Pope Francis reminded us in Pompeii of the new battleground in twenty-first century spiritual warfare: how the culture has succeeded in making ambiguous what belongs to Jesus Christ and what belongs to Satan. Pompeii has a relevance as a city in our world that Blessed Bartolo Longo discovered in his conversion: we must decide to worship Jesus Christ so the devil does not plunge us into eternal darkness. Pope Leo XIII, who befriended Bartolo Longo, taught that “Catholics are born for combat.” We know that in all the 30,000 verses of Scripture, Christians are never told to fear the devil. The life of Bartolo Longo, a former Satanist turned saint, teaches us from his personal experience: we are to resist him in the certainty that he will flee from us (James 4:7) and to remain watchful against his attacks by remaining firm in our faith (I Peter 5:7-9). Albert Einstein observed “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” May we follow in the spiritual footsteps of Pope Francis all the way from Pompeii to Heaven to meet Bartolo Longo and tell him face to face: we were heroic in our generation to make God’s world a less dangerous place to call home.