AGAINST ALL ODDS -
a reflection on Blessed Dominic Barberi
by Mr John Hartley
I was fortunate to have grown up near Aston Hall, in Staffordshire, partly because a favourite aunt of mine lived there, and partly because I learnt from her about Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Italian Passionist who lived there from 1841 until his death in 1849. The first thing I learnt about him was that he was the priest who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. It was a seminal moment for Newman; but for Barberi it was only a small piece in the jigsaw of his contribution to the Catholic Church in England. Born in 1792 as the youngest of eight into an Italian peasant family, Barberi rapidly exhibited a phenomenal memory and capacity for learning which set him apart from all his contemporaries. Having joined the Passionists, he eventually became a Professor of Scholastic Philosophy. However, despite rising to be the Provincial of his order in Italy, he had always harboured in his heart a vision of one day going to England to restore there the Catholic faith lost at the Reformation. But he had to wait 28 frustrating years before, in 1841, the order reluctantly allowed to him to go.
For the next eight years, based at Aston Hall, Barberi worked tirelessly to fulfil his vision for the conversion of England. Any observer at the time would have told him how unrealistic his aims were. His English was poor; his pronunciation even worse. And his preaching skills were uninspiring. Worse still, anti-Catholic feeling ran deep in those days, so much so that Barberi had to endure a level of scoffing and abuse which truly shocked him. To make matters worse, he suffered from extremely bad health. Despite all this adversity, Barberi succeeded in a five-year spell from 1843 in conducting hundreds of well-attended missions nation-wide, in creating many new Catholic parishes, and in receiving thousands into the Catholic Church. How was it that this strange foreigner in our native land succeeded against all odds? Quite remarkably, by his perseverance and energy, by his humorous and humble presence, and, above all, by his transparent holiness. At the end of one of his sermons an Irishman remarked that he hadn't understood a word he said, but he knew a holy man when he saw one!
The Shrine of Blessed Dominic
In 1849, at the age of only 57, worn out by his endeavours, and feeling that he had not succeeded in his vision to convert England, he died unexpectedly. But he had succeeded - by sheer perseverance. We are heirs to his achievements, his influence, and his saintliness. He was beatified in 1963, 47 years before John Henry Newman was beatified.
From the life of Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God (for that is how he is known) we learn that, with God on our side, nothing is impossible. Let us pray therefore that it will not be long before he too, like his more famous contemporary John Henry Newman, is proclaimed a saint. Amen.
This is the second reflection from Mr John Hartley. You can read his first reflection in our book 'A New Hope'. Purchase, here.
Photo of Shrine - By Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3473411