Today – both in this column and on my weekend radio program, “Vatican Insider” – I am going to take you on a very special trip, a pilgrimage actually, to the shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii, a half hour south of Naples, which has a beautiful and even touching story.

This weekend, Saturday, March 21, Pope Francis will pay a brief visit to this shrine where he will pray before the image of Our Lady and then meet with some of the recipients of the good works of this shrine such as the homeless, the poor, and unwed mothers. (JFL photos)



I was in Pompeii for Mass last Sunday and took some photos to share with you on this pager as I tell the story of the shrine. An acquaintance of mine from the days we both worked in the Roman Curia, Archbishop Tommaso Caputo, the prelate of this beloved Marian shrine, celebrated the 11 am Mass and I was blessed to have a chance to speak with him in the sacristy before Mass, with the help of a volunteer Dame of Malta, Cristiana.


My very first encounter with a prelate of this beloved Marian shrine is at the end of this story – a surprising and unexpected encounter that will help you understand why I have a special place in my heart and my memories for the late Archbishop Francesco Saverio Toppi.

That first meeting in 1997 was exceptional in many ways, as you will see, but I am heartbroken at not being able to find the photos I took during that visit! I have thousands of printed photos in albums and over 100,000 digital pictures, although I did not own a digital camera in 1997.


I’ll start the story of the shrine with a quote from the man who founded Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii:

“With the boldness of desperation, I lifted my face and hands to the heavenly Virgin and cried, ‘if it be true that you promised St. Dominic that whoever spreads the rosary will be saved, I will be saved because I will not leave Pompeii until I have spread your rosary.” These are the words of Blessed Bartolo Longo, said in Pompeii, Italy in October 1872.

But to go back a bit in time for the story of Blessed Bartolo and the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii.

At 1 PM on August 24, 79 B.C., Mount Vesuvius rumbled, roared and then erupted, heaving its molten insides onto the populace of Pompeii and burying the ancient city. What remained was only a ghostly silence of a once flourishing center.

The new Pompeii would arise 1,796 years later. Called the “miracle city” by its inhabitants, Pompeii as we know it today is the result of that promise made by Bartolo Longo, a lawyer and devout laymen, a promise that became a reality in 1875 when work began on the construction of the church dedicated to our Lady of the Rosary. The church, and the buildings housing the charitable works associated with it eventually led to the birth of the city, the new Pompeii.


Bartolo Longo was born in 1841 near Brindisi on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Those who knew him as a young man described him as cordial, easy-going, of a lively intelligence and devoted to the Church. However, his university years were to be troubled ones as anti-clerical sentiments were running strong in newly unified Italy. Prodded by anti-church liberals Bartolo “tested the waters” of spiritism and went through a crisis in his faith.

Aided by two good friends, Professor Vincenzo Pepe and the learned Dominican Father Alberto Radente, he not only rediscovered his faith but renounced his legal career and devoted himself to works of charity and religious studies.

Providence brought Bartolo Longo to the little town of Pompeii, a half-hour south of Naples, in 1872 where a widow and mother of five, the Countess Marianna De Fusco, asked him to administer her property. Struck by the human and religious poverty of the peasants of the area, Bartolo anguished over how he could help them better their lives. Following a divine inspiration, he decided to devote himself to teaching the catechism and spreading devotion to the rosary, remembering Father Radente’s words: “if you are looking for salvation, propagate the rosary. It is the promise of Mary. He who propagate the rosary shall be saved.”

For three years, Bartolo Longo organized yearly festivals in the fall to bring the people together for catechesis and to pray the rosary. This could be best achieved, he felt, if the people had a proper church with an image of our Lady of the Rosary as the focal point. Thus, in 1875 he began searching the stores of Naples, hoping to have one in time for that year’s concluding ceremonies on November 13.

The ever faithful and supportive Father Radente recalled that years earlier he had bought just such an image which he had entrusted to Sister Maria Concetta of the Conservatory of the Rosary at Porta Medina. Bartolo hurried to Porta Medina, asked for the painting and was horrified when he saw how ugly and in need of repair it was. He would later write: “Dear me! I felt a tightening around my heart as soon as I set eyes on it.”

When Countess De Fusco saw the painting of the Virgin with the Child Jesus handing rosaries to St. Dominic and St. Rose of Lima, she said: “it seems to have been made specifically to discourage devotion!”

To make matters worse, the size of the painting precluded Bartolo taking it to Pompeii on the train. The only other possible form of transportation was through a wagoneer who weekly transported a load of manure to Pompeii. So the wagon it was to be!

The painting was touched up for the November 13 ceremony and has since been restored three times, during which St. Rose was changed to St. Catherine of Siena. Today the painting hangs above the main altar of the basilica, beckoning to several million pilgrims annually as strongly as it once repulsed Bartolo Longo and his loyal supporters.



By 1885 some 940 cures and miracles were ascribed to our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii. The number well exceeds that today as witnessed by countless ex-votos lining the walls of the shrine and adjacent buildings. On my first visit, as I lingered to study several hundred of the votive offerings – the ex voto –  a catechesis to Mary’s intercession, I realized that here was the true history of the shrine: A single man’s love for the rosary, transmitted to generations of faithful. He loved, they believed, and together they built what is today one of the preeminent Marian shrines in the world.


The ex votos are are too numerous to count at this shrine (though someone must know the official tally because they do keep records), as they are at so many other shrines in Italy and throughout the world. They line the walls of chapels and corridors – anywhere there is some space. Pilgrims buy (they can be purchased at shrines or in stores that sell religious objects) or often make their “ex votos” PGR.

Ex votos, as you can see in some of the photos, are usually in silver and come in a wide variety of shapes, frequently a heart with a flame and the letters PGR, indicating love and gratitude. Often the shape refers to a part of the body that the faithful consider to have had a miraculous cure – a silver ex voto in the shape, for example, of a leg, an arm, a head. An ex voto can be also a letter or some other form of missive, often addressed to God or His Mother Mary.


These votive offerings frequently have something to do with what is considered to be a healing or cure – a crutch, a piece of clothing from the person (baby clothes are numerous), a medical instrument, etc. You will see sports uniforms, parts of bikes (or a miniatuire bike or car), tennis rackets, deflated soccer balls – some object associated with the patient’s personal life.  There is no end to the imagination when it comes to votive offerings!

Each year on May 8 and on the first Sunday of October, thousands of faithful gather at the shrine for the feast of the supplication, to petition favors and to offer thanksgiving for favors received. In fact, most if not all the plaques of thanksgiving that line the walls and halls and corridors of the shrine, have the letters PGR on them: PER GRAZIE RICEVUTE – For Favors received.


The neoclassical pontifical shrine and Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii in all its frescoed, marble splendor was dedicated in 1891, 15 years after Bartolo began to collect pennies from the peasants to build this citadel to Mary. But our devoted lawyer felt that this monument would be incomplete if works of charity were not part of it and so, over the years, until his death in 1926 Bartolo founded homes for orphan girls, for the sons of prisoners, and later orphaned boys.



Today this monumental complex, the pulsating heart of the new Pompeii, includes administrative offices, a chapel for confessions, a school, a home for elderly women and the offices of the monthly publication, The Rosary and the New Pompeii, that began in 1884. It also houses the living quarters and offices of the prelate of Pompeii and the shrine director.



On my first visit to the shrine a number of years ago, I had a long conversation with the then director, Msgr. Pietro Gaggiano who was also my guide to the shrine. It was a Sunday morning and after Mass we began our tour. At the end of our visit, Msgr. Gaggiano left his office for a minute, and when he came back, he asked me if I had lunch plans. I said I had nothing special planned and he said that Archbishop Francesco Toppi, the prelate of this shrine, wanted to invite me for lunch! (Photo: – this was taken in the basilica and you can see the image of Our lady of the Rosary above the altar. The prelate’s full title is Prelate of the Territorial Prelature of Pompeii o Beatissima Vergine Maria del Santissimo Rosario)

Archbishop F S Toppi

It was a great lunch with marvelous conversation, and I was struck by one thing which I have since learned was a well known trait of this beloved archbishop, small in stature but a giant in his love for the Church, the shrine, Our Lady and his fellow human beings.

While I felt honored to be dining with the archbishop and I wanted to learn all I could about him and the shrine, he told me after lunch that he was honored by my presence and our conversation and by everything I could tell him about the Vatican and the Holy Father!

After lunch, Archbishop Toppi took my arm and walked me through the halls of the building we were in – shrine offices, visitors quarters, the prelate’s residence, etc. – a tour of places that the faithful and pilgrims never see – the private reception rooms, the impressive entrance for VIP visitors and guests, etc.

Towards the end of our visit, I had a very special treat when I was escorted to one of the rooms that Saint John Paul had been in during his 1979 visit. Abp. Toppi walked to an immense piece of furniture (just a tad taller than he was!), opened the top drawer and took out a very large book – the shrine’s VIP guest book.  He proudly opened it to John Paul’s signature, then showed me a few more famous names and then opened to a blank page and asked me to sign the book. I said I did not feel worthy to be part of such an important volume, and he replied, “But we are all children of God!”

My signature has now been immortalized in Pompeii.

The devotion of this Capuchin archbishop and Msgr. Gaggiano to the shrine and to Bartolo Longo was palpable as they spoke reverently of his exemplary life and emphasized the fact it was a layperson who accomplished the “miracle of Pompeii,” who founded the still flourishing works of charity and who in 1897 founded the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Rosary of Pompeii.

They also pointed with pride to Pope John Paul’s 1979 visit to the shrine and to the tomb of the man he would beatify the following year. In fact, Blessed Bartolo Longo is buried beneath the image as he had wished.

We spoke of miracles and of Saints.  I asked if it was harder today, in a fast-paced, secular world with temptations on every corner, to become a saint. Archbishop Toppi answered: “Every time has its trials and its temptations and every time has it Saints. We are conditioned by the times in which we live and we adjust to meet those times and face up to those trials.”

POST SCRIPTUM:  On April 2, 2014, exactly seven years to the day of his death, the cause for canonization for Archbishop Toppi was opened. The current prelate of the shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii, Archbishop Tommaso Caputo, having asked the opinion of the other bishops of the Campana region and having obtained the nulla osta of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decxreed the introduction of the caiuse. The request was put forth by Fr. Carlo Calloni, OFM, Cap, postulator general of the cause of beatification of Archbishop Toppi.

Last April, Msgr. Gaggiano, former administrator of the shrine, was named rector of the seminary.


The Dean of the College of Cardinals today, March 20, released the following communiqué:

“The Holy Father has accepted the resignation of the rights and privileges of a Cardinal, expressed in canons 349, 353 and 356 of the Code of Canon Law, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, after a long period of prayer. With this provision, His Holiness would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all… the faithful of the Church in Scotland and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation.”

This is a very rare move.

On February 25, 2013, days before his official resignation, Pope Benedict XVI accepted Cardinal Keith P. O’Brien’s resignation, and the cardinal announced at the time he would not attend the conclave that eventually elected Pope Francis. In a February 25, 2013 statement, the cardinal said: “Approaching the age of seventy-five and at times in indifferent health, I tendered my resignation as Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh to Pope Benedict XVI some months ago. I was happy to know that he accepted my resignation ‘nunc pro tunc’ – (“now, but to take effect later”) on November 13, 2012.”

The Pope decided on February 18 that he would accept O’Brien’s resignation effective February 25.

The cardinal had become the focus of allegations by three priests and a former clergyman who say they received inappropriate sexual advances from him during the 1980s.

Cardinal Keith P. O’Brien will be spending several months in penance and prayer outside of Scotland after meeting with Pope Francis, said the Vatican at the time.

The Vatican press office released a one-paragraph statement on May 15, 2013 saying that Cardinal O’Brien, “for the same reasons he decided not to participate in the last Conclave, and in agreement with the Holy Father, will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance.”