Bl. Dominic Barberi: Apostle of the Second Spring

In 1841, while still an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman said of the Roman Catholics:

If they want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns—let them preach to the people like St. Francis Xavier—let them be pelted and trampled on, and I will own that they can do what we cannot. I will confess that they are our betters far.

Little did Newman know that a group of Italian Passionists in black robes and sandals had just arrived in England for that very purpose: to preach in the cities, willing to be pelted and trampled on, and burning for the conversion of the English people.

Founded in 18th-century Italy by St. Paul of the Cross, the order's purpose is to promote Christ's Passion as the ultimate expression of Jesus' love for humanity. The Passionist lifestyle was intended, one scholar writes, to be "radically evangelical." Paul set his sights on the conversion of England, which he called "the lost daughter of the Church."

Father Dominic Barberi (1792-1849), the leader of the Passionist mission, inherited Paul's enthusiasm for the conversion of England. As a theology professor and high-ranking figure in the order, he spent his entire religious life in Italy and barely knew any English. Beginning in his early days in the Passionists, Barberi experienced a strong desire to work for the conversion of non-Catholics and set his sights set on England.

Born in a mountain village in Italy, Dominic Barberi was orphaned at an early age and raised by his uncle. Early on, he felt drawn to the Passionists, who had a monastery near his home, but had to face his uncle's opposition before joining. Poorly educated but intellectually curious, he was sent for priestly studies and ordained in 1819.

In religious life, he took the name Dominic of the Mother of God (taking a new name signifies a deeper change in the life of a new religious). His superiors' faith in him was justified, for he soon rose up the ranks of the order's leadership. In addition, he emerged as a distinguished theologian and author. In time he became head of the Italian Passionists and might well have become head of the entire order had he not set his sights elsewhere.

In his private writings, however, he expressed his deepest desire to "give my life and blood for . . . England's conversion." Finally, at age 49, he got his wish and set off for England—a country where anti-Catholicism had been a staple of national life since the mid-16th-century. One author recently noted that, at the time, nothing was more conceivably un-English than Roman Catholicism.

He preached on the streets, in town halls, and in churches. He was a small, rumpled figure with a poor command of English and was subject to ridicule from Catholics as well as non-Catholics. Sometimes he was subject to worse. On one occasion, an observer noted:

Hell was let loose against him. The Protestants, with their ministers in the forefront, rose up against him and declared implacable war. Every conceivable weapon was used   . . . sermons, commands, threats, satire, calumny, plots, derisions, insults, contumely and even blows. That he escaped with his life was a miracle.

Still, he and his fellow Passionists won people over with their sincerity and their courage. They made their presence felt in places like Manchester—the world's first industrial city. A place that one author called "Hell upon earth":

Of the irregular cramming together of dwellings in ways which defy all rational plan, of the tangle in which they are crowded literally one upon the other, it is impossible to convey an idea.

Both in his ministry to the urban poor and his evangelization efforts among the British elites, this humble character made a powerful impression. In October 1845, John Henry Newman asked Dominic to receive him into "the One Fold of the Redeemer." The Passionist remarked, "All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event, and I hope the effects of such a conversion will be great."

Father Dominic died of a heart attack on the night of August 26, 1849. Toward the end of his life, he felt there was "no prospect of the total conversion of England." Still, Newman's conversion led many to do likewise, and a year after the Passionist's death, the hierarchy was restored to England. In 1852, Newman preached in a famous sermon:

The English Church was and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again. This is a portent worthy of a cry. It is the coming of a Second Spring.

When Dominic's canonization cause was opened (he would be beatified in 1963), Newman wrote to Rome:

Father Dominic was a marvelous missioner and preacher, filled with zeal. He had a great part in my own conversion, and in that of others. His very look had about it something holy. When his form came within sight, I was moved to the depths in the strangest way. The gaiety and affability of his manner in the midst of all his sanctity was a holy sermon. No wonder, then, that I became a convert and his penitent . . . I hoped and I still hope that Rome will crown him with the aureole of the saints.

Many Newman biographers note the intellectual factors that led to his conversion, but the example of personal holiness as seen in the character of Dominic Barberi played an equally important role. Like St. Francis Xavier, he preached barefoot in the streets of England's industrial towns, he was pelted and trampled on, and he won over the people with his patient love. In this respect, Blessed Dominic Barberi was a true apostle of English Catholicism's "Second Spring."

12/2/2022 9:05:38 PM
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  • Pat McNamara
    About Pat McNamara
    Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.