As the ‘year of prayer’ in preparation for the next Jubilee begins, let’s be energized by the
example of Dominic Barberi’s holiness and his desire for Evangelisation. As John Henry
Newman wrote of him to Isaac Williams on the night before his conversion: “He is full of love for
religious men among us, and believes many to be inwardly knit to the Catholic Church who are
outwardly separate from it…” (Letters and Diaries XI, p.10).
Newman would have told Barberi of the impact that the prophecy from Isaiah had on him, when
he quoted from one of his epiphany season sermons as an Anglican Vicar, the verse: “Arise,
shine for your light has come.” (IX, I) (Parochial and Plain Sermons 5,12).
Dominic abundantly shared with John Henry the gifts inspired by the Saints he admired, who
are recorded in his spiritual journal. Alfred Wilson, in his biography Supernaturalised Briton,
reveals that Barberi chose St Joseph and St Theresa of Avila to foster the spirit of prayer; St
Francis of Assisi for his love of poverty and Christ’s passion; St Paul the Apostle and St
Gregory the Great for the grace of conversion and St Dominic for his faithfulness to Marian
devotion. Finally, like Newman, Barberi also included his “Angel Guardian” to keep raising his
awareness of God’s presence – alive in every moment of his life.
Newman recognized Barberi’s shrewdness, child-like simplicity of heart and profound holiness
when, with tenderness, he was described by him as “a babe in Christ”.
The impulse to express the truths of faith, hope and love united John Henry and Dominic. There
are also similarities of mindset between them. Wilson remarks that a handwriting expert
interpreted Barberi’s intense scribblings as revealing “a character of inflexible firmness,
calculated to sweep aside obstacles like a mounting torrent swelling with devilish energy
through gorges.” (Supernaturalized Briton, p.75).
Both men had firm views about a priest’s core mission of preaching the gospel. Every sermon
was to be born out of meditation, careful reflection upon life’s experiences and, above all,
soaked in scripture – rather than seasoned with quotes from works of popular culture. Perhaps,
influenced by Barberi, Newman, as a Catholic clergyman, adapted his approach so that it was
more natural, and conversational in tone, given the socio-economic educational diversity of his
Birmingham city centre congregation. He memorised his text, hid any notes discreetly within the
pulpit, but avoided what he called “really extempore matter” (The Idea of a University).
One can imagine that St John Henry suggested that he, and Blessed Dominic, make the
conclusion of another of Newman’s epiphany sermons their own:
“Let us think much, and make much, of the grace of God; let us beware of receiving it in
vain; let us pray God to prosper it in our hearts, that we may bring forth much fruit. We
see how grace wrought in St Paul: it made him labour, suffer, and work righteousness
almost above man’s nature…it was its triumph in him, that it made him quite another
man from what he was before. May God’s grace be efficacious in us also. Let us aim at
doing nothing in a dead way…Let us pray to be filled with the spirit of love. Let us come
to Church joyfully; let us partake the Holy Communion adoringly; let us pray sincerely; let
us work cheerfully; let us suffer thankfully; let us throw our heart into all we think, say,
and do; and may it be a spiritual heart! This is to be a new creature in Christ; this is to
walk by faith.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons 5,12).
Fr Peter Conley