Dominic Barberi, born on June 22nd 1792, was the eleventh child of Giuseppe and Maria Barberi. His father died when he was six, his mother when he was eleven. So young Dominic was adopted by a maternal uncle and his wife to live and work on their farm near Viterbo in Italy.
Dominic received no formal schooling, but thanks to the interest of the Capuchin Friars, who had a convent in the village, he did learn to read. Then, when four Passionists came to live in the neighborhood, he quickly made friends with them. They had brought their library with them and, and because he was given free access to it, his process of self-education continued to blossom.
When he was twenty-one, Dominic received the first direct inkling of what the Lord's plans for his future might be. He writes: "One of these days (I think it was one of the last of the year 1813) as I was saying my prayers, I heard a voice which said to me, I have chosen you to announce the truths of the faith to many nations. 'After I heard these words the idea came to me that God wanted me to be a priest, and that I was to go and bring the light of the Gospel to a foreign nation. The idea pleased me."
In the summer of 1814 he applied to join the Passionist Congregation. His lack of formal education meant that he was accepted as a lay brother. However, while waiting admission into the novitiate he received a further premonition regarding his future. He writes; "On a certain day I went for a few minutes into the Church to pray before the altar of the Blessed Virgin, and while I was on my knees, the thought occurred to me. How was the prophecy of last year to be fulfilled? Was I to go as a lay-brother to preach, and to whom was I to go? While I was thus racking my brain, I understood that I was not to remain a brother, but was to study; and that after six years, I should begin my apostolic ministry; and that I was to labor in the north-west of Europe, and especially in England Soon after I was sent to Paliano to be received as a lay-novice, and yet I felt that I would, not withstanding, become a cleric and a priest." By an extraordinary sequence of events, Dominic was finally professed as a cleric and after a brilliant course of studies was ordained as a priest on March 1, 1818.
From 1820 to 1830 he taught theology and was director of students, first at the Passionists retreat at Vetralla and then in Rome. It was at this time that he first met George Spencer, the future Fr. Ignatius Spencer, who was in Rome studying for the priesthood at the English College. It was due to his influence that Dominic eventually came to England. But that was still in the future as he wrote to an English friend, "I shall cross the sea and convey my body to the island to which twenty-two years ago I sent my heart. "
During all these years Dominic was ever aware of the earlier call to work for the return of England to the Church. Wherever he went he would encourage people to pray for the conversion of that country. He began to study the English language.
In 1833 Dominic was a delegate to the general chapter. He requested the chapter to send missionaries to England. The request was not granted but the idea had been planted. Even when Dominic was made rector of the new monastery at Lucca and then provincial, he and others kept in close contact with the "new" Catholics in England.
In 1836 a new Pope was elected, Gregory XVI. He had been the prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Now as Pope he promoted missionary work throughout the world. He looked to religious orders to advance this missionary apostolate in non-Christian areas.
By the time of the 1839 general chapter the congregation was ready to move. There had been an increase of vocations during the past twenty five years. Some of the capitulars, especially Father Anthony Testa, remembered Dominic's suggestion at the previous chapter. The chapter recommended that the new general send several religious to England.
The new general superior was the energetic, charismatic Father Anthony Testa. He had been Dominic's vice-master and student director. He knew Dominic well, but he hesitated at first to send him to England because of his health.
By April of 1840 Father Anthony Testa decided that Dominic should go. He sent him with three companions to Belgium to make a foundation in that country with the hope that from Belgium the mission to England could be realized. The three companions were Father Peter Magagnotto, Father Seraphim Giammaria, and Brother Crispin Cotta.
The four missionaries had hardly arrived in Belgium when Brother Crispin died. Dominic wrote to the General: "Before he died, he assured me that in heaven he would intercede earnestly for the congregation and in particular for this foundation...He was scarcely dead when we began to experience marked effects of the loving providence of God".
Dominic established the first Passionist monastery outside of Italy in 1840 at Ere in Belgium. In November of that year he made a brief visit to England to survey the situation. He wrote on November 26: "Here I am on the eve of my first visit to England, if God should allow me to get there. A few moments ago I saw for the first time the coast of the island from the top of a lofty church. If I die now, it will be the death of Moses - but no! I shall not die but live to narrate the works of the Lord. Amen. I am dressed in secular clothes. If you saw me you would laugh! Still I'm sure that God recognizes me easily enough even in this get-up!"
Dominic's visit to England was brief. He still had work to do in Belgium before he could return to England for good. One of the first problems confronting Dominic was the type of formation to provide for candidates from northern Europe. Dominic insisted that the conditions in north Europe called for adaptations. The novice master, Father Seraphim Giammaria, wanted to form them by means of the Italian practices he and Dominic and all Passionists had been formed by. Thus from almost the very first year the question of adapting Passionist life outside of Italy was raised, and demanded an answer.
The response of the general, Father Anthony Testa, deserves our attention if we are to understand a problem that would vex the Passionists for more than a century. "He (Paul of the Cross) intended that there should be French Passionists, English Passionists, Flemish Passionists, Russian and even Laplander....Those who intend to keep the Order inside Italy are opposed to the mind of the founder and do not have the Spirit of God." The general continues: "Intending that there be Passionists in every country in the world, did he intend that in each nation they adopt Italian ways and customs? That they eat Italian foods? Think like Italians? Speak Italian? Act like Italians? Certainly not!...You will fail if you intend to make only Italian Passionists. You will never make them Passionists at all!"
Finally, the time came to establish the first Passionist residence in England. Father Dominic and a companion went over to England and obtained a house at Aston Hall in Staffordshire.
After spending some four months as guests of Mgr. Wiseman at Oscott Seminary in Birmingham, the Passionists moved into their first monastery in England at Aston Hall, Staffordshire, on February 17, 1842. It was from Aston Hall that Dominic would firmly establish the Passionist Congregation in this country, making foundations at Woodchester in Gloucestershire, Hampstead in London and choosing the site for a foundation in Sutton.
While these building projects were in progress, Dominic continued his crusade for the conversion of England and Christian Unity - preaching, teaching, writing and receiving converts.
As soon as possible Dominic began giving parish missions in England. He was assisted by Gaudentius Rossi who quickly acquired a rather fluent use of English. Many of the Catholics they preached to were the newly arrived Irish immigrants who in England were working long hours in hard labor. Father Gaudentius realized that the method of giving missions should be adapted to the needs of the Catholics in England whether they were 'old' Catholics, Irish immigrants or recent converts. The methods used in Italy were not always suitable. Dominic feared that the Passionist method would be lost if too many changes were made. Eventually necessary adaptations were made.
Another problem arose in England in regard to undertaking parish ministry. St. Paul of the Cross, aware of the abundance of priests in the Italy of his times, did not make parish work one of the major apostolates of his new community. In mid-nineteenth century England the situation was entirely different. There were few priests. The ever growing number of Irish immigrants to England made parish work more and more necessary. Bishops expected the Passionists to accept parishes, especially when a new foundation was being made. Dominic himself accepted parishes, even though as he wrote in the introduction to the Life of St. Paul of the Cross "it would be to be wished that they should not have the care and responsibility of any particular congregation (parish), so that they might be free at all times to go wherever they are called; but in the present circumstances of this country it may easily be understood that it would not be possible for them to decline this charge" of caring for a parish. This would become a serious problem for many years in the English province and elsewhere in the congregation.
While still in Belgium Dominic read in the Paris paper L'Universe an article by a scholar of Oxford on the relationship of the Church of England with the Church of Rome. Dominic was deeply moved, for the Oxford Movement seemed almost ready to bear fruit in a reunion of the two churches. He sat down and wrote a long letter to "the Gentlemen of Oxford." He responded to their questions, discussed their positions, clarified the teachings of the Church.
But he did more. He opened his heart to them, told of his years of prayer for his English brothers. Above all, he treated them with respect. He dealt with them as sincere men. He showed them he loved them. While many Anglicans were condemning these men of Oxford for being disloyal to their mother church, and many of the "old" Catholics cast doubt about their sincerity, this poor Italian monk treated them with respect and love.
When the sensitive John Henry Newman became aware of this letter, he at once felt attracted to this foreigner. Newman had left Oxford and was living a community life of prayer, penance and study at Littlemore. What he was looking for now was some appreciation of the predicament he was in as a sincere Anglican. He also wanted to see sanctity in the Roman Church. He had written: "If they want to convert England, let them go barefoot into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people like St. Francis Xavier - let them be pelted and trampled on, and I will own that they do what we cannot...Let them use the proper arms of the Church and they will prove they are the Church". Dominic's letter and example solved Newman's last hesitations.
The author of the Oxford letter was John Dalgairns who soon joined Newman at Littlemore.
When in June of 1844 Dominic was near Littlemore he called on Dalgairns and met Newman for the first time. He spent about a half hour with Newman. Neither man ever forgot this first visit. In July Dominic wrote to the general: "I was received with every token of cordiality and sincere regards by Dr. Newman and by his disciples. We talked of various matters of religion. I left them several of my polemical tracts" . Newman mentioned this brief visit to his friends when he later wrote of his reception by Father Dominic.
John Dalgairns continued to keep in touch with Dominic and in mid-September of the following year wrote to Dominic that he wanted to be received at Aston Hall. Afterwards, Dalgairns invited Dominic to stop at Littlemore on his way to Belgium. When Newman heard that Father Dominic would be stopping at Littlemore he felt that this was the external sign he was looking for. He would ask Father Dominic to receive him into the church.
Dominic arrived late at night, dripping-wet for he had been sitting on the top of the coach exposed to the continual rain. On entering the house he went at once to the fireplace to dry himself. The door opened quietly and Newman entered. In a moment he was at Dominic's feet, praying for admission into the Catholic and Roman Church! That very night he began his confession.
"What a spectacle it was for me to see Newman at my feet! All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event. I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great." Thus did the humble, joyous Dominic write to Father Anthony in Rome.
On the following Sunday, October 18, 1845, Newman and four companions went to the Catholic Chapel of St. Clement's at Oxford for Mass. All England soon knew that they were now Roman Catholics.
The news of this great conversion re-echoed throughout the world. Masses of thanksgiving were offered, and "Te Deums" sung in the churches of Rome, France, Germany and Belgium. Pope Gregory XVI sent the papal blessing. It was the beginning of "the second spring!"
From Rome the Father General, Anthony Testa, shared his joy and own feelings with Dominic: "First of all, I thank the Lord for the conversion of Newman and his companions, and that of the other Oxford men...These are all works of God, and to Him let us give the glory. I pray that these may be the first fruits of an abundant harvest. For our part we must be very humble if we do not want to place an obstacle in the path of divine mercy, and if we are to be used as His instruments in the gathering in of the harvest."
Father Anthony also reminded Dominic that if they are to fulfill their mission in England they needed, not Italians, but English vocations: "I am more and more convinced that success requires nationals, who have a command of the language. Foreigners will be able to do something, if they have a good reputation; but they cannot gain or win the people by their speech. This reason, together with the fact that it would not be easy to send many Italian subjects, makes it desirable that God should send us English vocations."
The problem of English vocations continued for many years. Father Anthony for a long time felt that the wearing of sandals was a deterrent to vocations. For years Father Anthony and Father Dominic exchanged their views on the question of whether the religious should wear sandals in Belgium and England. In this case the general was willing to allow the use of shoes, especially during the winter months. Dominic wanted to retain the use of sandals. Perhaps we should remember that in England religious did not wear the habit (and sandals) in public. So Passionists in England would be going out in the cold in secular attire (including shoes). In Belgium, as in Italy, religious wore the habit in public. This would mean that even in the damp Belgian winter they would be wearing sandals outside.
Dominic feared that a relaxation in this matter would lead to other mitigations and the English Passionists would not image the sanctity and austerity the English were looking for from the Roman Church. He remembered what Newman had written earlier at Littlemore. Many Englishmen, as had Newman, were looking for this penitential austerity from religious of the Church of Rome.
English vocations were few, but Dominic was deeply consoled by the arrival of Father George Spencer who received the habit on January 5, 1847 and the name Fr. Ignatius of St. Paul. Spencer was a convert of some years and already ordained when Dominic came to England in 1841. Now as a fellow Passionist he proved a great comfort to Dominic and the Passionists.
In 1847 a plague struck England, due to a great extent to the vast throngs of starving Irish poor from potato-famine stricken Ireland. Living conditions were dreadful in the industrial towns of England. The cholera spread rapidly. The Passionists assisted the sick and dying, supplying for the secular priests who were overworked and falling victims to the plague. At one point a report went forth that Father Ignatius Spencer had been stricken. Fortunately, this was not the fact.
In the final years Dominic was able to begin a foundation in London at Poplar House. Ultimately the London foundation would be at Highgate, near the cemetery in which Karl Marx is buried. It is interesting to reflect that both men were in London at the same time, one to bring the English into full communion with the Catholic Church of Rome, the other to lay the foundation for atheistic Communism! Like Dickens, both saw the plight of the poor in the factory towns of England.
In August, 1849, Dominic was returning to Aston Hall from London. He was accompanied by his cousin, Father Louis Pesciaroli, who has just returned from the disastrous Australian venture. About five miles from Reading, Dominic got desperately sick. He was taken off the train to be attended by a doctor. There was not a room for him at the small station of Pangbourne. Father Louis put him back on the train for Reading. Broken finally by his labors, he died at Reading on August 17, 1849, at the age of 57.
From England Dominic's sons would spread to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. English Passionists would establish the order in Australia. Father Gaudentius Rossi, the parish missionary in England, would cross the Atlantic to the United States to begin Passionist parish missions in that country. After the Second World War English Passionists would go to Sweden. Irish Passionists would be in Africa. And, of course, Dominic had founded the Passionists in Belgium. From Belgium they spread to The Netherlands, and France, and eventually to Zaire, Brazil, Israel, Bulgaria and Indonesia.
Dominic was enrolled among the Blessed by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council, on October 23, 1963.