The Station Church yesterday -San Giorgio in Velabro - and that of today - Santi Giovanni e Paolo - have an interesting link, and it is John Henry Cardinal Newman. San Giorgio was the Englsih Cardinal's titular church from 1879 when he was made a Cardinal through to 1890 when he died. There is a plaque there which celebrates this great theologian and founder of Birmingham Oratory, but it noted that he was "before all else a Christian." Given that it is the church of St George, the Patron Saint of England, it is a good place to pray for the conversion of England, unless you are one of those who think that such an intention is no longer valid... Heaven forbid that an ecclesiastic should think such a thing!
The church of Ss John and Paul belongs to the Passionists and it is here that the founder of the Passionist Congregation is buried, St Paul of the Cross. Here too there is a shrine to St Gemma Galgani who died on Holy Saturday April 11th, 1903, aged 25, after having led a life of great holiness and prayer. The narthex of the building was built by the one and only English Pope, Adrian IV, (we didn't get one at the last Papal election!). However, the link with the church of San Giorgio lies in the fact that at the house belonging to the Passionists beside the church Blessed Dominic Barberi lived. He had heard and felt a call to go to England, to work for the conversion of England (oops!), and he desired to go there all his life. Eventually he was permitted to go and the England he converted was none other than Newman himself at Littlemore near Oxford. Newman knelt before the rain-soaked priest in October 1845, asked to be a Catholic and made his first confession to him.
He arrived in England in 1841 and was at first greeted with suspicion and ridicule. This was an England where Catholics had been emancipated only 12 years before and where the hierarchy had yet to be restored (this would happen in 1850, when Blessed Pius IX was Pope). Yet as Fr James Broderick says, the "Second Spring" of Catholicism really took form in this strange arrival of an Italian priest who spoke very little English: J. Brodrick S.J. in his work on the 'Second Spring' of Catholicism in England, says of Father Dominic's arrival;
"The second spring did not begin when Newman was converted nor when the hierarchy was restored. It began on a bleak October day of 1841, when a little Italian priest in comical attire shuffled down a ship's gangway at Folkstone."
Yet it was a hard path. His English was so poor even his congregation at Aston would laugh at him. In his journey children would throw stones at him. Ridicule seemed to surround him. However, slowly his holiness, goodness and abundant sense of humour drew love from many who met him and got to know him and he began to have a large number of conversions. One of them was an ancestor of Francis Thomas: the family lived at Stone, in Staffordshire: Francis Thomas would eventually become the ninth Bishop of Northampton.
He is said to have told some nuns who were instructing groups of people in the Faith and who were worried about the appropriateness of teaching men: "Have no fear, Sisters. You are all too old and too ugly." Luckily they understood his sense of humour!
Blessed Dominic died on 27th August 1849 at the Railway Tavern near Reading.