This month, Pope Francis has petitioned all the faithful to pray the Saint Michael the Archangel Prayer. While it might be common at times for a pope to ask for the intercession of God’s people, this is – admittedly – a charged request for a unique prayer.
What is the Saint Michael Prayer? Why would it be requested by Pope Francis? And, in spite of everything else, what might be some of the surprises by the devout offering of this prayer?
The story is told that Pope Leo XIII wrote the Prayer of Saint Michael after he had a distressing spiritual vision. The pontiff was the pope at the end of the nineteenth century, which saw massive social and ecclesial changes and reforms. In particular, Pope Leo saw the end of the Papal States, the central Italian kingdom once ruled by the popes, and the emergence of republican and democratic forms of government.
Pope Leo sought to repel these political and cultural changes and defend both the life of the Church and the exercise of the magisterium against them. While his campaign was well-intentioned and understandable in light of his state of affairs, the pope took on a defensive posture. And such an approach was not helpful to the vitality or growth of the Church. In this approach, there was little room for vulnerability, active listening, or flexibility in the face of extensive social change. Scholars can wonder what could have been, if the bastions had been razed earlier and the Great Commission had been at the forefront of papal efforts. With both the good and the bad, however, the pope ushered the Church into the twentieth century.
In Leo’s spiritual experience, God indicated to the pope that Satan would be given a hundred years to test the faith of his people. While the account can be questioned by some, anyone can look at the wars, destruction, and devastation of the twentieth century and clearly observe that something sinister was at play. For Pope Leo, this would be the clear workings of the Evil One.
In petitioning the great Archangel Michael, “the prince of the heavenly host,” the pope wanted evil to be combatted. The Church, however, was ill-equipped to play its part. And so, in Michael’s battle, evil boiled to the top. Having no other possible human confrontation, it exploded in raw war and human wreckage.
Believers recognize that when Michael is called, he comes fiercely and mightily. He seeks to root out wickedness and bring about God’s kingdom of goodness and light. In the archangel’s intensity, there is little that can dissuade or diminish his vehemence as he labors to vanquish evil in any place or in any form.
Pope Francis has regularly spoken of the Devil in his speeches and homilies. He denounces the influence of the Evil One to harm the Church, society, and families. The pope’s request of this prayer emphasizes his belief, and that of the Christian faith, that there are bad spirits “who prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.”
In calling for Michael’s intercession, however, the pope might receive more than he’s expecting.
Prayer is a powerful thing. It should not be underestimated. The joke is often made among believers: Don’t pray for patience… because God will give you opportunities to exercise it. Yes, God will send every imaginable test to your patience, if you ask for it. In prayer, God takes us at face value. If we ask, he will answer. If we knock, he will open the door. If we seek something, he will let us find it.
In similar fashion, if we pray to the Holy-One Michael, who is hailed in the Sacred Scriptures as the great commander of God’s angelic forces, he will come with sword in hand, separating good from evil and truth from darkness. If petitioned, Michael will come and he will fight against any and all evil. And so, as his presence is sought, we have to be ready for him to expose and fight even against the evil within ourselves and within the leadership of our Church.
In appealing to Saint Michael, we have to be aware of what we are asking. He will come, defend the righteous in battle, protect the innocent, rebuke the wicked, and cast into hell all that is against God and his holiness.
And so, we pray for Saint Michael to come. We ask him for his help and purification. We pray for his work and purgation among us.