Nestled at the foot of Mt Vesuvius, the town of Pompei near Naples is perhaps best known for its spectacular excavations of the Roman city buried there by a volcanic eruption in 79AD rather than as a place of miracles. Wonderfully, this place has become known for just that and has inspired deep devotion to Our Lady and the Holy Rosary. Just this past week we celebrated the memorial of a nineteenth-century lawyer, now Blessed, Bartolo Longo. Bl. Bartolo, having fallen into depression and anxiety after becoming entangled in occultism, was converted to the faith by a Dominican friar who led him to recite the Rosary. Turning his life to one of prayer and service of the poor as well as practicing law, Longo moved to Pompei where he was shocked at the erosion of the faith of the people. A friend gave him a painting of Our Lady giving the Rosary to St Dominic, and erecting this in a shrine to Our Lady of the Rosary with fervent prayer, many miracles began to be worked through Our Lady’s intercession. The great festival of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei has transformed the faith of thousands.
Today we keep the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and it is good to remember that as well as this day, the month of October has traditionally been a time for special focus on this most Catholic of devotions. There are fewer more iconic symbols of Catholic devotional life than that string of beads leading to and from the Cross. Down through the ages, the Rosary has been a particularly precious means to grow in intimate friendship with the Lord and to learn at the school of Our Blessed Lady always to fulfil God’s will.
It is the simplest of prayers, but it must be admitted that it can be challenging. The repetition does always lend itself to prayer, at first, but this is not a quick-fix sort of prayer. It is an old friend for life and takes time to grow into. Pope Benedict reminded us that rather than get in the way of contemplation, “the cadent repetition of the Hail Mary does not disturb inner silence but indeed both demands and nourishes it.” The silence comes to the surface of the words, not in spite of them, but rather as we realise their deeper meaning and the meaning of the mystery of the Lord’s life on which we ponder.
So many saints attest to the spiritual good which can be gained by praying the Rosary — Padre Pio called it his greatest weapon, and St Phillip too was never to be seen without the Rosary in his hand. As with the whole spiritual life, it must lead us to imitation of the Lord Jesus — something Bl. Bartolo Longo knew well. As he himself wrote, “Just as two friends, frequently in each other's company tend to develop similar habits, so too, by holding familiar converse with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, by meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary, we can become, to the extent of our lowliness, similar to them and can learn from these supreme models a life of humility, poverty, hiddenness, patience and perfection.”
How fitting it is that the greatest weapon in the spiritual life is actually a means to friendship — and the greatest of friendships at that.