“I have chosen you to announce the truths of Faith to many peoples.”
These were the words heard by the young Dominic Barberi while at prayer. They were to translate into a deep, enduring love for the English people.
Born in a small town close to Viterbo, Italy on June 22nd 1792, he had entered the Congregation of the Passion when he was 22 but, because of his humble origins, was expected to remain as a prospective brother. His story is, from the outset, one of humility and patience. Convinced that he was destined to one day serve as a priest in England, he nevertheless took no steps to seek ordination. However his novice master, astonished by his grasp of Latin and finding him uneducated but of great virtue and acumen, recommended him for Priesthood.
After his ordination in 1821, twenty long years of study and teaching passed with no sign of a fulfilment of his promised mission. Dominic was 47 years old when, finally, an occasion presented itself. The General Chapter voted to make a foundation in England; although, unsurprisingly, Dominic’s name was not on the list of pioneers. Once again, however, the barriers fell away. At the last moment, the priest appointed Superior fell ill and Dominic was ordered to go in his place.
If arrival in England in November 1840 felt to Dominic like the crowning of his life’s dream, to the local people of Aston in Staffordshire it was perceived somewhat differently. Mass had not been said in Stone since the Reformation, and the people’s hearts were hardened with suspicion against Catholic practices. The Passionists were met with hostility, and Barberi furthermore with ridicule on account of his broken English, Italian gestures, and appearance. “As he entered town,” said an eyewitness, “the crowds rushed out to gape at and insult him, as if he were a savage beast. Hat in hand, and in perfect calm, he walked slowly along, bowing to all.” He was given the nickname Padre Demonio (Father Evil) and was threatened, suffered calumny and even physically attacked. On one occasion he was left with scar on his forehead when he was struck by a stone cast by a child. Dominic picked up the stone, kissed it and put in his pocket – later, the children responsible had asked to become Catholics.
Dominic’s mysterious love for the English people, fostered for twenty-five years, had brought him perseverance. His extraordinary patience, and the striking holiness of his life, began to have its effect, and the laughter began to cease. On one occasion, he related: ‘Some once told me that they had been converted by my first homily, even though they did not catch a word I was saying’. This radical example was, through an unexpected turn of events, also to have great consequences for the renewal of English Catholicism.
John Henry Newman was at this time considering becoming a Roman Catholic, and in a letter to a friend had wondered when he would see a Catholic priest go barefooted into the manufacturing towns and preach to the people like St. Francis Xavier. It seems that Newman, to his surprise, found in Fr Dominic a living response to his challenge. On 9 October 1845, Dominic was invited to Littlemore where he heard Newman’s confession and received him into the Catholic Church. Shortly before his death Newman was to write “Father Dominic 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 in itself a holy sermon… …I hoped and still hope that Rome will crown him with the aureole of the saints.”
On August 1849, as the body of Father Dominic was taken through the streets of Stone on its way to Aston, the very same people who had looked on as Dominic had been hooted at and insulted, now crowded the streets to show him their reverence and bid him farewell.