St Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
It was Pope Leo XIII who ordered this prayer to be said at the end of Mass in 1886. He had written it himself after, according to varying accounts, having gazed upon something indiscernible whilst celebrating the sacrament, and later collapsed – so moved and terrified was he by a terrible vision of the coming century. He died in 1903 and the ensuing 100 years proved to be a time of war, bloodshed, and enmity. His prayer to St Michael, recited by the faithful as part of the conclusory rite, was a call to holiness and a recalling of how the Church Militant is both sinless and ultimately victorious. (It was suppressed in 1968 by Pope Paul VI’s Novus Ordo of the Mass, along with the Final Gospel.)
Unsurprisingly, St Michael has also figured largely in exorcism rites. ‘Most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Army, Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle against the princes and powers and rulers of darkness in this world, against the spiritual iniquities of those former angels.’
His iconography features a dragon This too has echoes in some images of Our Lady as the Second Eve, bruising the serpent’s head which so shamefully brought about the Fall. For the Church Fathers, Michael stood at the gate of paradise after the banishment of Adam and Eve, and he continues to be depicted as both a warrior-knight with a sword, vanquishing the powers of hell, and standing for justice with scales or the Book of Life.
There is perhaps a further contemporary resonance to St Michael. In 590, Pope St Gregory led a penitential procession through the plague-stricken streets of Rome. Arriving at the tomb of Hadrian, now the Castel St Angelo, he prayed for healing and forgiveness. St Michael appeared and sheathed his sword; the plague was over. The thankful Holy Father erected a chapel to the archangel and a large statue of St Michael remains there to this day.
St Michael is considered to have four main responsibilities: to fight valiantly against Satan and other fallen angels; to save faithful souls from the clutches of Satan most notably at the time of death; to protect the holy people of God, both Christians and Jews; and to present the souls of the faithful for judgment and at the Last Day. He is something of, in modern parlance, a ‘bridge ministry’ and popes as ‘pontifex maximus’ in every generation will have been acutely aware of this,
pontifex coming from the Latin for bridge builder.
The readings for the Feast of St Michael often include
Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob’s own vision:
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.” (Gen 28.12-13)
John’s Gospel describes Jesus as ‘the One who comes from above’ (8.23), and as Jesus is essentially not of this world he is the bridge to the next, connecting earth to heaven and our way, truth and life to God the Father. This ladder is referenced in the Gospel reading (Jn 1.47-51) – “You shall see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Jesus is the stairway to heaven upon which those winged evangelists (angeloi being Greek for messengers) operate, and an unbroken communication between the two realms.