Why you should care
Because the horrible and the holy can reside in the same person.
It’s never too late to repent! Even some of the most venerated saints have had a naughty past. Explore the fine line between sin and sanctity in this original OZY series — Before They Were Holy: Saints Gone Wild.
Emaciated from fasting and cloaked in a black robe, Bartolo Longo entered the satanic church in Naples, Italy, determined to go to the dark side. The 23-year-old law student with the devilishly pointed beard walked skull-lined halls to the sacrificial altar, his eyes glittering. Much later, Longo would recount that night in 1864, when the walls of the church shook and the air filled with the unearthly shrieks of demons. After reciting occult dedications and swearing an oath, he was anointed with defiled sacred oils, whereupon he entered a trance. It was in this dream state that Longo pledged his soul to the assembly, abandoning the God of his upbringing for the Prince of Darkness.
More than a century later, in 1980, Pope John Paul II — now St. John Paul II — beatified Longo in front of 30,000 of the faithful, calling him an “apostle of the rosary,” “a man of Mary” and elevating him to a status that’s just one step from sainthood. The journey from disciple of Satan to Blessed Bartolo Longo was long, twisting and truly bizarre.
One day, while in a paranoid stupor, the young man heard the voice of his dead father call out: “Return to God!”
Born in 1841 to a wealthy family from the small town of Laziano in southern Italy, Longo was raised a devout Catholic. But a rebellious streak ran through him from a young age, and his governesses frequently complained of his mischievous and overly excitable nature. When his mother died in 1851, Longo began to lose his faith, an erosion that continued as he headed off to study law at the University of Naples in 1861.
The 1860s in Italy were marked by a fierce conflict between the Catholic Church and a nationalist movement spearheaded by Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who saw the pope as a threat to Italian nationalism and unification and called for the abolishment of the papal office. When Longo arrived in Naples, he found himself immersed in a deeply anti-Catholic environment: Parades and protests calling for the end of religion in Italy were an almost daily occurrence. Bartolo said later of his time in Naples that he was “overwhelmed as I was in the ebullience of my youth, ensnared on the enticing hook of freedom of conscience and thought, seduced by the novelties of science.”
During the same period, the Catholic Church also faced stiff competition in the form of the wildly popular spiritualist movement. A mixture of science, technology and the occult, spiritualism was a creed for the modern era, famously telling its adherents that communication with the dead was possible. Fascinated by the movement’s tenets, the young man visited several mediums in his early days at the university.
Atheism never sat well with Longo, and spiritualism offered him a provocative alternative to Catholicism that simultaneously catered to his devotional needs. From meetings with mediums, he graduated to seances and ritualistic orgies. Possessed by the demon to whom his soul belonged, Longo even attempted to convert Catholic Neapolitans to satanism.
But, as Longo later recounted, his time as a satanist was marked by depression, extreme anxiety, insanity and delusions. One day, while in a paranoid stupor, the young man heard the voice of his dead father call out: “Return to God!” Panicked, he turned to a friend from his hometown who convinced him to seek spiritual guidance from a devout Dominican priest, Father Alberto Radente. Radente had an enormous influence on Longo, essentially reconverting him to Catholicism and steering him back toward a more righteous path. Frequent and impassioned recitations of the rosary helped Longo stay on the straight and narrow.
On March 25, 1871, Longo became Brother Rosario, a third order Dominican — that is, a lay brother who is not ordained as a priest. Later that year, on the recommendation of Pope Leo XIII, he married a rich widow named Countess Mariana di Fusco, with whom he started a confraternity of the rosary.
For this endeavor, Longo needed a painting of the Virgin Mary to serve as the focal point of a rundown church in Pompeii that he planned to renovate. In 1876, a nun from the Monastery of the Rosary at Porta Medina offered him a dilapidated, worm-eaten depiction of Our Lady of the Rosary that she had bought for a few lire at a junk shop in Naples.
This shabby artwork went on to play a major role in the beatification of Longo. After he repaired and installed it in his renovated church in October 1883, miracles reputedly began to occur. Pilgrims flocked to what would become known as the Our Lady of the Rosary Shrine in Pompeii; in 1884 one pilgrim, Fortuna Agrelli, claimed to have been miraculously cured of three terminal illnesses.
The shrine was consecrated in 1891. Longo spent the years until his death on October 25, 1926 — the eve of the feast of the Holy Rosary — establishing homes for orphans, the poor and children of the incarcerated. Today, the story of Longo’s journey to holy paragon continues to inspire Catholics and others. “The conversion of Bartolo Longo from satanist priest to an ardent Christian and apostle of the rosary shows that conversion is possible for anyone,” says the Rev. Roger Landry, chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. “We can learn both from the horrible and the holy choices he made.”