By Elise Harris
Later this month Pope Francis will head to Pompeii: a city which lays claim to the curious story of a former Satanist priest – now on the way to sainthood – and his miracle-working Marian devotion.
Blessed Bartolo Longo is considered the founder of modern Pompeii, which was established in 1891 after he commissioned the building of the city’s sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Holy Rosary.
The sanctuary is home to a miraculous image of Our Lady of the Rosary, which was given to Longo by his confessor, Father Alberto Radente, in 1875.
Originally born into a devout Roman Catholic family, Longo fell away from his faith while studying law in Naples in the 1860s – a time when the Catholic Church faced opposition from a nationalist movement fighting for Italian unification, and which viewed the Pope as an antagonist to their cause.
In addition to political problems, the Church was also fighting against the growing popularity of involvement in the Occult, which at that time had a strong presence in Naples.
Longo himself became involved in a Satanist cult, and eventually claimed to have been ordained as a Satanist priest.
However, after struggling with anxiety and depression, at times even suicidal thoughts, over the next few years, a university professor from his hometown urged Longo to abandon Satanism and introduced him to his future confessor, Fr. Radente.
Under Fr. Radente’s guidance Longo began praying the rosary and converted back to Christianity.
He developed a great devotion to the rosary, and became a third order Dominican in 1871, working to restore the faith of the people in Pompeii by promoting Marian devotion, particularly to the rosary.
The image of Our Lady of the Rosary that hangs in the sanctuary at Pompeii is a work from the school of Luca Giordano in the 17th century. It portrays Mary seated on a throne holding the child Jesus and handing a rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena, who are standing at her feet.
Originally an old, worn-out painting belonging to the Rosariello Convent in Naples, the image was delivered to Longo by way of a cart, which in those days were used to transport manure.
A few months after he received the image of Our Lady of the Rosary given to him by Fr. Radente, miracles started to happen.
The first miracle took place the same day Longo exposed the image to the public after scrounging funds for its restoration when 12-year-old Clorinda Lucarelli was completely healed of epileptic seizures, after being deemed incurable by distinguished doctors at the time.
Pope Paul VI later crowned the image in St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was restored again by the Vatican Museums in 2012.
Pompeii’s Archbishop, Tommaso Caputo, told CNA Feb. 28 that Longo “made an immense work of promoting devotion to the Virgin, inviting the faithful to pray to her so that she would spread her mercy.”
“And so it was. This is a testimony to the numerous offerings by faithful donors from the entire world in a sign of gratitude for received mercy.”
Longo died in Pompeii in 1926, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. He is known as the “Apostle of the Rosary.” His last words were: “My only desire is to see Mary who saved me and who will save me from the clutches of Satan.”
Pope Francis visit to the sanctuary will mark the third time a Pope has stopped to pray there, the first being St. John Paul II in 1979, followed by Benedict XVI in 2008.
Francis’ decision to stop at Pompeii’s renowned Marian shrine ahead of his March visit to Naples is a move the archbishop said shows the Pope’s devotion to Mary, and will root the trip in prayer.
“This seems to be a unique pilgrimage, from which this city of Mary will lead through the gateway of prayer.”
“The road that leads to Mary is a fertile land for every pontificate,” he said, noting that this is all the more true for Francis, “the Pope who does not take a step of his travels in the world without first relying on Mary.”
It has become a habit for the Pope to entrust all of his apostolic and pastoral visits to Mary. Each time he goes on a trip, Francis stops and prays at his favorite Roman parish – the Basilica of St. Mary Major – when he returns, before heading to the Vatican.
Before heading to Naples March 21, where he is scheduled to meet with the sick, youth, prisoners, priests and religious of the diocese, Francis will spend an estimated 30 minutes in Pompeii in order to pray at the Marian shrine.
Archbishop Caputo said that it is “a great joy” to welcome Pope Francis to his city, particularly because the pontiff hails from Argentina, where devotion to the Virgin of Pompeii is “very vivid.”
“We all know (Francis’) personal devotion to Mary, which has been manifested from the first moments of his election,” the archbishop noted.
One of the Pope’s greatest strengths is his love of praying the rosary, he said, noting how Francis has often referred to it as “the prayer that always accompanies my life, also the prayer of simplicity and of the saints and the prayer of my heart.”