Naples, 1864. Bartolo Longo, A young law student was very eager to be in attendance at a seance. A medium was lost in a trance and was inviting demons to occupy his body and give answers to the people gathered around the table in front of him.  Bartolo leant towards the medium, stared at him with dark penetrating eyes and asked, "Does hell exist?" The medium replied, "No."

Bartolo was initially very satisfied with the answers the demons gave. He felt he had finally found the truth after years as a disillusioned Catholic. His faith in Christ and His Church had been perverted by teachers at his university, which included bitter ex-priests who did their utmost to rinse the Catholicism from the souls of their students. 

He got further along in his legal training  and more avidly than ever participated at seances, quizzing the mediums who were flesh puppets in the hands of the demons. But as he came ever closer to graduating with his law degree, Bartolo found that the mediums often gave wildly opposing answers to the same question. 

Bartolo was an alpha male who lost patience with others posing questions to demons on his behalf and he wanted to solicit answers from the demons himself. Here was his fatal flaw; in his pride he thought that he could do better and could cross-examine the demons to give logical, straight answers when the mere concept of getting a truthful answer from a demon is a contradiction in terms. But the young lawyer thought he could depose the demons successfully. So, he sought to become a satanic priest to do just that. 

First, he had to undergo a novitiate in satanism. He studied and fasted so severely that his health suffered. He'd been a sickly child who'd known the trauma of losing his father when he was 10. But Bartolo was so determined to prove himself that he wasted his body so as to offer a sacrifice to satan. He took part in orgies with the aim of insulting his purity as much as possible. 

The night of his consecration to satan came. In a dimly lit room, Bartolo was barefoot and dressed in a black cloak with skulls of the dead facing him. Sets of crossed shin bones cluttered the room. Bartolo recited certain oaths to satan. Then came the moment he made his trade; he offered his soul in return for a fallen angel to become his guide. The offer was accepted and there was a spectacular bolt of thunder. The fallen angel came from Hell and its dreadful presence caused the building to shake violently and blasphemous screams filled the air.  

From the moment his satanic ordination was complete, Bartolo felt weighed with a foul depression and a heavy weariness as though he was slowly plummeting to hell. He felt the constant presence of a fallen angel who gave him answers which were contradictory and which were different from the answers that that evils spirits gave his friends. Disappointment and self-hate filled him. He had expected to be the exception; the bright lawyer who could interrogate the infernal spirits to give cogent, consistent answers, but to his horror he found that he was just a meat package for a demon to hide out in, and escape the pains of hell for a time that he occupied Bartolo's body. 

Bartolo could not bend the demon to give him consistent answers however hard he tried to cross-question the demon who he had let into his mind. Bartolo felt a fool and was greatly humiliated. The demon was forcing Bartolo into a mental breakdown where Bartolo's mind would close in on itself.  

At the same time, it was approaching 20 years that Bartolo had lost his father who had died in a state of grace, having lived life as a faithful Catholic and a good medical doctor. One night Bartolo heard his late father pleading with him, "Return to God".  Bartolo was seized with the idea to see an old friend of his, Professor Vincenzo Pepe, and to confide in him. When Professor Pepe learned what had become of Bartolo, he demanded of him, "Do you want to die in the asylum and be damned forever?"

Professor Pepe led Bartolo to a dynamic priest, a Dominican named Father Alberto Radente who was smarter than Bartolo and was able to argue him out of satanism. Impressed with the sanity and consistency of Father Radente's case for breaking soul ties with satan, Bartolo submitted to Father Radente exorcising his mind, and he made a thorough confession. 

But he visited one last seance. Once there, he held up a rosary with a medal of Our Lady and shouted, "I renounce spiritualism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood." 

While he was free from the fallen angel who had possessed him, Bartolo was not relieved of his depression, and felt that he was still bound for hell. He remembered, however, that there was a promise given St Dominic that those who propagate the Rosary will be saved. He made this promise the law of his life. On the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, Bartolo took vows to be a third-order Dominican and he took the name Brother Rosario. 

He moved to Pompeii and did all in his power to promote the Rosary. He organized Rosary groups, gathered groups of peasants who he taught to pray the Rosary which was no easy task since many of them did not know the Hail Mary, held processions in honor of Our Lady and did his best to found a shrine to Our Lady of the Rosary. Pompeii was far behind the other Italian cities in its cultural development and Bartolo's followers and friends felt the lack that they had no classic painting of Our Lady of the Rosary to have as a focal point of their shrine. In an impulsive move, Bartolo promised the people that he would find a grand picture of Our Lady. He hurried to Naples and scoured the city for a classic work of art. But he could find nothing, which was not entirely surprising because he had so little money. His friend, Fr Radente was still living in Naples and he came to Bartolo's aid. Fr Radente had bought a painting in a junk store of Our Lady with St Dominic, and he offered it to Bartolo. At that time,  the painting was being stored by a convent of nuns. When Bartolo beheld the painting, his heart sank. The canvas was worn and shot through with moth holes. Our Lady was painted as being a crude, uncultured woman and her cloak was chipped. St Dominic looked so ugly that he rendered Bartolo speechless. Most insultingly, the figures had facial expressions of ignorance, as though they were empty-headed. 

Bartolo was in two minds when the nun who was showing him the painting said, "Take it with you, you will see that the Blessed Mother will use this painting to work many miracles".  The nun's words would turn out to be prophetic, but on that day, Bartolo only thought of not disappointing the people back in Pompeii, and so he took the painting. Bartolo knew a man who was going from Naples to Pompeii on a horse and buggy, and he asked the man to transport the painting on his cart. The cart happened to be filled with horse manure, and on top of this dung, the painting rested 'til it reached Pompeii.

The people were disappointed that the painting was so foully painted that it was almost a satire of sanctity. But a skilled artist began restoring the painting 'til it was transformed into a magnificent work of art. St Catherine of Siena was painted in over the original painting of St Rose and St Dominic's face was augmented to be that of a handsome, earnest-faced youth who is in awe as the Divine Child hands him the Rosary. 

While Bartolo busied himself begging for money that would be used to build a new church that would house the painting, miracles were happening, just as the nun had foretold. A priest who was riddled with typhus and a skin disease was totally healed after he prayed before the image. A young girl afflicted with epilepsy was relieved of all her symptoms and never had another seizure after she was brought before the painting. Even Bartolo's mother who was on the edge of death was brought back to full health after she went before the image. Most notably, Our Lady appeared to Fortuna Agrelli, a young girl who was dying in Naples. Our Lady miraculously brought Fortuna back from the throes of death to being fully healed and healthy, and she gave Fortuna a new devotion: the 54 Day Rosary Novena and said that all who would make this novena would receive special graces. The 54 Day Rosary Novena has two parts; the first 27 Rosaries are offered in petition, and the second 27 are offered in thanksgiving. 

Bartolo's soul had known the same journey as the painting. Just as the painting had been shockingly ugly, decrepit and so crudely painted that it was like a mockery of faith, until such time as great care and skill was brought to bear on it and it became a work of beauty and the vehicle of many miracles, Bartolo's soul went from being a slave of the satanic, filthy with sin and beaten by the rod of satan, to being lustrous with sanctity and a fine instrument in the hands of Our Lady.

May 8th is the Feast of Our Lady of Pompeii, may I wish you all a very happy feast which is one of the most important days in the year for me personally, and may I encourage all of you to offer the 54 Day Rosary Novena. 

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The pictures that accompany this post are in the public domain. 

This post was informed by the book The Blessed Bartolo Longo by Gennaro Auletta.