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Blessed Dominic Barberi

Lucy Russell introduces us to Blessed Dominic Barberi who received Blessed John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church.

The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman was a highlight of the Pope’s visit to the UK last September. News of Newman’s beatification was met with excitement and enthusiasm. But while there has been great support for his canonization, the same cannot be said about the cause of the man Newman regarded as a major influence on his decision to become a Catholic. In 1926 Cardinal Francis Bourne wrote that ‘the wonderful supernatural story’ of Dominic Barberi was too little known. This remains true, but interest in Blessed Dominic (he was beatified in 1963) is growing in the light of Newman’s beatification.  

Dominic heard the voice of God tell him that he ‘was destined to bring stray sheep back to the way of salvation’Dominic was born in Italy in June 1792. He was brought up in the Catholic Church, but his faith waned, later to be revived by his contact with several Passionist priests living in exile locally after Napoleon closed down the religious houses in Italy. By 1812 Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia. Dominic’s name appeared on the draft. He prayed he would not have to fight and vowed if he escaped conscription he would become a Passionist. In a dream he saw his mother (who had died when Dominic was eleven). She reassured Dominic that he would escape conscription if he joined the confraternity of the Rosary. Remarkably, that is what happened. But Dominic forgot his vow and almost married. On his wedding day he became dangerously ill and received last rites. At death’s door he had a vision in which Our Lady interceded for him, promising her Son that Dominic would now keep his vow. Although modern medicine would probably explain the vision as an hallucination brought on by high fever, Dominic was convinced it was real. He was ordained in Rome on 1 March 1818.  

Towards the end of 1813 Dominic heard the voice of God tell him that he ‘was destined to bring stray sheep back to the way of salvation’. Nearly a year later, before the altar of the Blessed Virgin, Dominic was thinking about how and where this prophecy would be fulfilled when God communicated to Dominic again: his mission was to be in England.

Dominic’s first contact with the English came while teaching in Rome in 1830, when he made friends with three Catholic converts: Henry Trelawney, Ambrose Phillips and George Spencer. Together they talked about the development of Catholic ideas in England, which had been strengthened by the presence of French refugees who had escaped the Terror.

The Catholic Emancipation Act passed in 1829 restored to Catholics most of the rights they had been deprived of three centuries earlier at the time of the Reformation. Now Catholics could vote and occupy almost all offices of state. In July 1852 Newman gave a sermon about the ‘Second Spring’ (the flowering of the Catholic Church in England) which he saw as beginning in 1818 when the English College in Rome was reopened after the fall of Napoleon. It seems Dominic’s life is evidence that God had his plan for England. In this period from 1818 to 1852 social and political events moved to make manifest the intentions of God. Numbers of Catholics increased (largely due to Irish immigration as a result of the potato famine); and Italian missionaries (Redemptorists, Rosminians and Passionists) came to England. In February 1842, thirty years after God’s original communication to Dominic, a Passionist residence was founded at Aston Hall in Staffordshire.

A year earlier, Newman had set up a semi-monastic community with some friends in Littlemore. Dominic took an interest in the Oxford Movement – or Tractarians – as this group was known. He admired their religious fervour and intellectual honesty. Dominic met Newman for the first time in 1844. Newman wanted proof of the sanctity of the Catholic Church. ‘If they [the Catholics] want to convert England, let them go barefoot through our industrial cities, let them preach to the people like Francis Xavier, let them allow themselves to be beaten and spat upon, and I will recognise that they can do what we cannot…Let them use the true weapons of the Church, and by using them they will prove that they are “the” Church.’ Dominic’s mission in England gave Newman the proof he needed.    

It seems Dominic’s life is evidence that God had his plan for EnglandDominic was a holy and intellectual man; a scholar and able communicator. But at first he was ignored and treated with contempt. This gave way to open hostility from those who wanted to maintain the status quo. By August 1842 Dominic had received fourteen people into the Catholic Church. Most priests would be more than satisfied with fourteen conversions in six months, but Dominic was frustrated. He decided to establish a Mass centre in the village of Stone and hired a room in a pub. Mass was said at Stone – in the Crown Inn – for the first time since the Reformation on the first Sunday of Advent. Early every Sunday morning Dominic would walk eight miles to Stone to say Mass, hear confessions, preach and teach catechesis. For months he was followed by a rabble that called him names and threw mud and stones at him. Dominic walked on, saying his Rosary for his assailants. In the end his patience wore them down and he was left alone.

The high point in Dominic’s career came with Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. On 9 October 1845 Dominic was invited to Littlemore by a member of the community he had received into the Church. When Newman saw Dominic, he knelt and asked to become a Catholic. Dominic wrote, ‘What a spectacle it was to see Newman at my feet! I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great.’

Dominic was, to quote Newman, ‘gifted with remarkable powers’. These included discernment of souls – he always knew the conscience of those who came to him for confession – and bilocation. It was common for Dominic to make prophecies. One young woman who was about to enter a convent asked Dominic for a blessing, which he gave, saying, ‘May God give you the fecundity of Rebecca, and the fidelity of Rachel.’ Nine months later she married. My great-great-great grandfather, William Wallace, met Dominic, who prophesied (correctly) that William would become a Catholic.

‘What a spectacle it was to see Newman at my feet! I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great’ Dominic exercised the gift of miracles more rarely, but there is an account of him healing a ten-year-old girl with ulcerated eyes. (Dominic has made several appearances since his death.) Yet Dominic was humble and unobtrusive. He didn’t seek fame. Despite Dominic’s supernatural gifts, the people who met him were more impressed with his humanity than by his sanctity. His gifts which seem remarkable to us were natural to him. Perhaps it is because of the emphasis on his humility and humanity that his story is less well known; it is as though the humble obscurity he cultivated during his life has continued through time.

Dominic suffered ill health and several near-death experiences. Years before he came to England Dominic was on his way to give a retreat and had to cross a swollen river. The horse and rider were carried away in the raging torrent; Dominic twice sank beneath the waves. But as he was about to sink for the third time he appealed to the Blessed Virgin. The next thing Dominic knew he was standing on the river bank, cold and wet – but safe.  When questioned later about this he said, ‘I had a bad quarter of an hour, but I never really thought of death. I have to go to England, where I shall die.’

Dominic did die in England, suddenly, on 27 August 1849. Dominic seems to have known he was approaching the end, but others, including Newman, were shocked by the news. When Dominic’s remains were carried along the route from Aston to Stone there was no angry rabble; the streets were lined with mourners.

Newman asking Fr Barberi to receive himDominic’s remains were first interred in the Church of St Michael, Aston Hall. His incorrupt body was later moved to St Anne’s in Sutton, the last retreat he founded.  But the church and monastery in Sutton were lost to subsidence as a result of mining.  In 1973 the Church of St Anne’s was rebuilt and dedicated to St Anne and Blessed Dominic, where his shrine now is.

Dominic’s cause (which is now waiting for a second miracle) was introduced in 1889. Newman, who kept Dominic’s picture in his bedroom with a candle burning in front of it, was in favour of his canonization. ‘We must all be saints,’ Dominic said, ‘but not canonized ones; it is too expensive!’ Whatever Dominic may have thought, his story deserves to be more widely known. My own interest developed when I learned that one of my ancestors had met the priest who had converted Newman, but Dominic Barberi is more than a footnote in Newman’s story. In 1923 the Archbishop of Liverpool said Dominic had ‘sounded the trumpet which announced the birth of a new and better day for Catholics’. An article in The Times marking the centenary of Dominic’s death called him ‘a remarkable figure in the nineteenth-century revival of Roman Catholicism in England’. We owe Dominic the same enthusiastic support for the cause for his canonization that Newman has received.  

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