A Debt English Catholics Owe To An Italian

Blessed Dominic Barberi

Feast Day: 26th August

A young Italian priest dreamed of making a missionary journey to England. There were many obstacles in his way but eventually his dream came true and his efforts were crowned by the reception of John Henry Newman into the Church. We English Catholics owe him a great debt of gratitude to Blessed Dominic Barberi.

Born in 1792 of a farming family his father died when he was six years old and his mother had to bring up 11 children and run the farm. Dominic was the youngest and favourite child. He was not good-looking, but had lively dark eyes. His mother had a great influence on him. She was kind to the poor and told her children that Our Lady loved them even more than she did. He was only 11 when she died and he turned to Our Blessed Lady for comfort, asking her to be his mother. This was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to her.

He was sent to live with an uncle to be brought up as a farmer's boy. When Passionist priests arrived in his village Dominic served Mass every day and they let him use their library. In time he made a vow that, if not conscripted for the army, he would join them, but then fell in love with a local girl. Eventually he realised that God was calling him to join the Passionists.

At the age of 21 he entered the novitiate. He began to receive visions, and in one of them he was told that he would go to preach in the Northern countries of Europe. The name which stuck in his mind was England, of which he knew nothing.

While training for the priesthood he was a good student, having a keen mind, clarity of ideas and a good memory. He was ordained at 26 and longed to go and convert England, but his superiors had other ideas. He became a professor of philosophy and later of theology, a successful teacher with great enthusiasm for his subject and a prolific writer and often his fellow friars would ask him to write their sermons for them. When not teaching, he was preaching missions and retreats. Unfortunately he had a squeaky and monotonous voice, but he used to say that the message was more important than the man and people were more interested in what he had to say than in his presentation. He always prayed to God and Our Lady before writing his sermons.

Later as Provincial of his Order he was sent to Belgium and in 1841 arrived in England, establishing a religious house at Aston Hall near Birmingham, and won 14 converts in the first year. From there Dominic went to Stone to say Mass for the local people but he was jeered at by the anti-Papist element in the town. Gradually, his heroism wore down the opposition and the Anglicans, seeing how effective his preaching was, tried to copy his methods but without success. Dominic was the real pioneer of parish missions in England. Two novices joined them. During the six years which remained of Dominic's life, several novices joined the Passionists. Those who stayed seemed to be lukewarm and mediocre, and were a great disappointment to him.

At the time when Newman was involved with an Anglican evangelical movement, he was visited at home by Dominic and felt at once that there was something holy about him. Dominic was influential in Newman's conversion, receiving him into the Church in 1845. Newman consulted Dominic on every problem and treasured his advice.

On a train journey to Reading he was taken ill and carried to a hotel. He died in the presence of a fellow Passionist who tells us that Dominic suffered great pain but accepted it all as God's will. Dominic was 55 years old and had spent only six years in England. But what a lot he achieved in his life!

Blessed Dominic Barberi deserves to be better known. At a time when English Catholics were few in number and lacking in morale, he came to put new heart into us. How happy we would make him if in our own little way we would have the conversion of England at heart, praying daily for it and being true witnesses in our daily lives.