Peter FeuerherdApril 19, 2021
A statue of St. Michael the Archangel is displayed at the Church of St. Michael in New York City. (CNS Photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

St. Michael the Archangel is back, invoked to defend Christians from the snares of the devil. Or at least his prayer is.

The Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel is now a staple of liturgies in many parishes, often recited at the end of Mass or immediately after. The prayer, invoked in various forms from 1886 to 1965, was shelved as part of the Mass after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

But renewed interest in the prayer developed in the fall of 2018 in the wake of concerns about church unity and new revelations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy. In October of that year, Pope Francis invoked the prayer and suggested it be recited at liturgies. The comments were made following a highly publicized dispute between the pope and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano and also followed the release in August 2018 of the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing sexual abuse and coverup of the abuse in the region.

A Reuters report at the time described Pope Francis as not being shy about citing the devil as a cause of evil and disunity in the church.

Renewed interest in the prayer developed in the fall of 2018 in the wake of concerns about church unity and new revelations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

“[The church must be] saved from the attacks of the malign one, the great accuser and at the same time be made ever more aware of its guilt, its mistakes, and abuses committed in the present and the past,” Francis said in a message on Sept. 29 of that year.

In its basic form, the prayer consists of the following:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense 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.

The prayer was composed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, who added it to the Mass. The threat to the church at the time was the Italian government’s campaign against the Papal States, which was settled in 1929 with an agreement setting the current boundaries of the Vatican State. Later, the prayer was invoked to ask for the conversion of Russia during the Soviet regime.

The return of the prayer has been met with some criticism, particularly its inclusion into the end of the Mass. Much of the reform of the liturgy inspired by Vatican II focused attention on the Eucharist and de-emphasized devotionals incorporated into the Mass. Others find the language of the prayer old-fashioned and jarringly aggressive.

Its supporters argue that a church besieged by sex abuse scandals and internal conflict needs the prayer more than ever.

But its supporters argue that a church besieged by sex abuse scandals and internal conflict needs the prayer more than ever.

Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel of St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana noted on the Pray Tell Blog, which is devoted to discussions of liturgy, that the prayer was endorsed by Pope John Paul II in a 1994 Angelus reflection referring to threats against unborn life.

The more recent effort to revive the prayer has included the support of more than a dozen American bishops, particularly following the news of the sex abuse crimes leveled against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, as well as the dispute between Pope Francis and Archbishop Vigano.

Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Conn., in a letter to his priests, called for the recitation of the prayer at the end of Masses in his archdiocese in a Sept. 11, 2018, statement.

“In modern times, perhaps we have been lulled into complacency about the power of evil,” he wrote.

St. Michael is noted in the Book of Daniel as a protector and defender, and he also appears in the Book of Revelation.

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., also endorsed the prayer to be recited at the end of Masses. Bishop Caggiano cited St. Michael’s biblical roots. St. Michael is noted in the Book of Daniel as a protector and defender, and he also appears in the Book of Revelation.

“Christ has conquered sin and death, but we are still in the midst of a spiritual battle,” Bishop Caggiano noted in a 2018 statement. “I believe that the Church is facing a moment of crisis that demands honesty and repentance from the bishops and decisive action to ensure that these failures will never happen again,” he added, in a reference to the sex abuse crisis.

Similar statements were issued at the time by bishops in Portland, Ore.; Kansas City, Kan.; Toledo, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pa., among others.

The prayer continues to be invoked at St. Anne’s Church in Mattawa, Ontario. The pastor, Father Scott Murray, sees it as a defense against both societal evils and personal sin.

St. Michael, he said, is an aid in “the spiritual battle that we need to remain in the state of grace and fight off temptations that will lead us to sin.”

Father John Madden, pastor of St. John’s Church in Worcester, Mass., said the prayer was instituted at his church in response to a parishioner’s request. It has met with a favorable reaction.

“The Evil One is about in the world. There is no doubt about it,” he said.

But support for the incorporation of the St. Michael prayer into the Mass is not unanimous.

Benedictine Father Anthony Ruff, professor of theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., wrote that devotionals like the one to St. Michael have their place, but should not become a part of the Mass.

Support for the incorporation of the St. Michael prayer into the Mass is not unanimous.

“Let the liturgy be the liturgy and, in general, follow the wise prescriptions of the reformed rite. To be sure, liturgical law is not absolute. There will be cases where pastoral sensitivity suggests flexibility. It has always been so, throughout liturgical history. But don’t change the rite unless you have very good reasons,” he wrote on the Pray Tell Blog.

He said the St. Michael’s prayer does not reach that bar. Father Ruff noted that the Roman rite is “rigorously theocentric” and has relatively little invocation of Mary or the saints.

“This is not to downplay the value of praying to Mary and saints (I pray to St. Benedict every night before falling asleep), but to preserve an important characteristic of the Roman rite. I would advise against adding the prayer to St. Michael to Sunday Mass. Promote this powerful devotional prayer, but in other contexts. Put it in the bulletin. Pray it with liturgical ministers in the sacristy before the opening procession. Pray it at liturgy committee and parish council meetings. But don’t add it to Mass,” he wrote.

Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the prayer has gained favor as a sense that the church has been under siege has grown.

“People latched on to it as an appropriate response,” he said, emphasizing the addition is usually recited at a time that is technically outside of the Mass, towards the dismissal, and therefore is not an official change to the Mass itself. It is more akin, said Menke, to the rosary recited before or after Mass.

The prayer, he said, recognizes “an intrinsic desire to pray against evil.” He added, “It’s a good thing. I don’t see any harm in it.”

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