The Blessed Dominic Barberi, whom the Church in England commemorates today, is now chiefly remembered, if at all, as the priest who received the Blessed John Henry Newman into the Church. But Dominic Barberi is in fact a most important historical figure.
He was an Italian and a Passionist, and he worked as a missioner in England for a very short time, essentially the decade of the 1840’s, a period of rapid industrialisation in England, and of huge immigration from Ireland and Italy, as well as mass migration from countryside to town. The burgeoning northern industrial cities (of the sort we read about in the novels of Mrs Gaskell and Disraeli) had little by way of infrastructure, which meant, among other things, that they had few places of worship. Catholics were particularly badly provided for, and many of the Irish were poorly catechized and Catholic in name only.
One of the things that Dominic and other priests like him did was found missions that later became parishes; but far more important was their work as evangelists, which entailed giving missions. A typical mission lasted a week: each day there would be seven or eight sermons preached in the church or the hall hired for the occasion; interspersed with these sermons would be Mass, Benediction, others devotions and sometimes processions, along with confessions. The first sermon would often be before dawn, in order to catch people on their way to work, and the last one late at night, to get them as the last shift ended. Dominic would also spend hours in the confessional, and food would be brought to him there, as the number of confessions meant he could not have time off to eat.
Dominic, despite his heavy Italian accent, became something of a celebrity and must have been an excellent preacher, and his sermons were huge draws. Missions often attracted thousands of people, and not only did they bring into the Church those whose practice had been weak in the past, they also led to many conversions.
Hardly surprisingly, Blessed Dominic died of exhaustion at the relatively young age of 57, having been taken ill on a train. He passed to God from the Railway Tavern in Reading.
All this seems a bit old-fashioned nowadays, and it is hard to see how a priest could set himself up as a missioner in contemporary England. The structure of the traditional parish mission might be inappropriate today, but there are effective ways of evangelising that can bear fruit in the present climate. But the essential question that Dominic’s life poses is as follows: is the raison d’etre of the Church maintenance (of structures, buildings, parishes and schools and so on) or is it mission? Are we here to safeguard the inheritance of the past, which, ironically, consists of structures built on the success of Dominic and other missioners’ preaching, or are we here to preach ourselves?