In 79 A.D., when Christianity was just beginning to spread throughout the Mediterranean, a violent explosion shook the southwestern coast of Italy.

Mt. Vesuvius had suddenly erupted, sending fiery ash across the bay and covering the elegant Roman city of Pompei, killing most of its inhabitants.

This part of the world was ignored after that for centuries, until finally a farmer came upon some artifacts and an elaborate excavation was begun. As one of Italy's most popular travel excursions, the tragic ruins of Pompei now draw millions of tourists each year.

As a traveler and writer, I have often spent a day walking, awestruck, about Pompei's streets, stilled on that fateful day. But it was not until this year that I realized the importance of the Sanctuary (shrine) of Pompei, a place as vibrant as the ancient city is lifeless. It's only a short distance from the ancient site.

Having heard about the Year of the Rosary from Brother Michael at my parish in New York — Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei — I decided to visit the original shrine in Italy, Santuario della Regina del S. Rosario (Sanctuary of the Queen of the Holy Rosary).

The Manhattan church had inspired Italian immigrants to recreate part of their homeland, and so they built a partial replica of the shrine. Last October, pilgrims from Pompei went to the Vatican carrying the precious icon of Pompei (a painting of the Madonna and Child) to the Holy Father, who opened the Year of the Rosary and declared that peace would be the priority of the rosary prayers.

May being a Marian month, and this Sunday being Mother's Day (remember the Blessed Mother in your May 11 prayers), I recall the happy memories of my pilgrimage with special relish.

Blessings of Bartolo

Once in the town of Pompei, you'll have no trouble finding the sanctuary. A very tall campanile (bell tower) beckons like a lighthouse to all parts of the city, with Christ extending comforting arms just beneath the cross at the top. (Take the elevator to the top to see as far as Naples and Capri.) When I reached the piazza in front of the tower, I was startled to see a mirror image of the facade of the church I saw daily in Manhattan.

The campanile and adjoining church, together with the myriad buildings that make up the shrine, clearly reflect their overall purpose: to reach up to God and out to mankind.

Inside the church, all familiarity vanished. It is an enormous cathedral, a symphony of vaults and arches, columns and pilasters, frescoes and statues, hanging lamps and candelabra set the tone for the soft lighting. It is dazzling in color and line, and yet restful and comforting at the same time.

Above the main altar, the icon glows, inspiring pilgrims to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving. The Madonna sits on high, a crown above her head and above the Child Jesus. From their hands, rosaries flow down to St. Dominic and St. Catherine.

This icon was brought here by Blessed Bartolo Longo, a truly remarkable layman who is the founding father of the miraculous Shrine of Pompei.

The Pope quoted Longo, now on the way to sainthood, in his apostolic letter on the rosary.

In brief, Bartolo Longo was born in Puglia, Italy, in 1841 and went to Naples as a law student. His years at the university, just prior to Italy's War of Independence, were a time of questioning all authority, including that of the Church. Longo's spiritual side was drawn to other mystic forms, and he became a “priest of spiritism.”

In practicing this cult he fasted for long periods, endangering his health. Then one day he turned from this life and went to a Dominican confessor in Naples, never to leave the Church again. His past life would always trouble him, and perhaps it spurred him to seek forgiveness in a productive life that most could not even imagine.

Among his friends was the widowed Countess de Fusco, who owned land in the Valley of Pompei. He became administrator of this estate. While walking alone one day through the fields, a voice spoke to him: “If you wish to be saved, you must spread the rosary. This is Mary's promise.”

‘Parish of the World’

Falling to his knees, Longo experienced a peace he had never known. The evil had been driven out, he felt. From the passion of this experience, his mission to spread the rosary grew. Needing a painting of the Virgin, when he decided to build a church, he went to Naples and found the icon, which he had a farmer carry to Pompei, unceremoniously, atop a cart of fertilizer, it turned out.

The painting was restored and its figures beautified. The altar was consecrated for the cathedral in 1887. On that day the social work of Pompei began, and prayer and charity were forever linked here.

Longo and the Countess, now married, came under criticism for their work, partly because it had required raising money. The accusations reached the Pope. Longo suffered for years as a result of unjust accusations, and they decided to give all the land to Pope Pius X in 1906, making this a papal property within Italy.

Now that the Pope was aboard, the mission soared. Calling Pompei “the parish of the world,” Pius directed that pilgrimages be sent to Pompei, and Longo's hope for a Pious Union for the reciting of the rosary was fulfilled.

When he died in 1921, Bartolo Longo left a growing treasure. From his miraculous conversion, a shrine would become an outreach to God through the rosary, whose inspiration made possible a mini-city of good works beneath the bell tower. Among these are schools, as well as foundations for the elderly and orphans.

The publications division of Pompei is extraordinary, printing quality color work that is used in hundreds of volumes and the monthly Il Rosario (The Rosary) magazine, which is shipped throughout the world in many languages.

When Pope John Paul visits Pompei in October to close the Year of the Rosary, he will find a shrine city built by prayer, whose social outreach is incalculable.

As Msgr. Caggiano, administrator of Pompei, explained to me: “Prayer and social work are a synthesis of the Gospel. Charity here comes straight from the rosary.”

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.