Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Prayer to St Michael - A lesser-known piece of Catholic folklore

Before the Catholic liturgy was reformed in the 1960s, every Low Mass in the world ended with the recitation, in the local language, of a set of prayers known as the "Leonine Prayers" or the "Prayers for Russia".  These prayers are still sometimes recited today after celebrations of the Tridentine Mass.

At the heart of the Leonine Prayers is an invocation of St Michael the Archangel against diabolical powers:

          Sancte Michael Archangele,
          defende nos in proelio;
          contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
          Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
          tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis,
          Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
          qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
          divina virtute in infernum detrude.

          Holy Michael the Archangel,
          defend us in battle;
          be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
          May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
          and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
          by the power of God,
          thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
          who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.


In 1859, in the course of the Risorgimento, Pope Pius IX ordered certain prayers to be recited after Mass in churches in the Papal States.  This directive was extended to churches throughout the world by Leo XIII in 1884.  In 1886, the Prayer to St Michael was added to these prayers.  In 1930, Pius XI directed that the prayers be said for the interests of the Church in communist Russia.

The story is that Leo ordered the Prayer to St Michael to be added to the prayers because he had a supernatural vision involving demonic powers.  Whether this is literally true or not is a question that lies beyond the scope of this post.  What I am interested in is the ways in which the story of the vision has evolved over the years to respond to contemporary concerns.

Leo does seem to have had a particular interest in St Michael and demonic powers.  In 1890, he released another prayer, entitled "Exorcismus in Satanam et angelos apostaticos" (Exorcism against Satan and the apostate angels), though this was never incorporated into the liturgy.


1.  Report of a priest in the Kölner Pastoralblatt (1891) 179 - refers to the year 1886
"When the prayers which the priest says after Mass were be­ing instituted, I happened to have a short audi­ence with the Holy Father. During the conversation Leo XIII men­tioned what he was go­ing to prescribe and re­cited all the prayers from memory. This he did with such deep-seated con­vic­tion of the power of the cosmic rulers of this dark­ness and of the beguilement which they cause, that I was quite struck by it."
2.  Report of an account by Fr Franz Brehm - refers to the year 1928
Brehm is said to have reported that, at a session of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, a decision to scrap the prayer was halted when an elderly Cardinal recounted that Leo XIII had said that he had introduced it in response to a supernatural revelation relating to "the threat of Freemasonry". 
3.  H. Schnell, Konnersreuther Sonntagsblatt 39 (1933)
This appears to be the first written report of the story.  It states that Leo XIII collapsed in a meeting with his cardinals and saw a vision of the coming worldwide "seduction and fury of the Devil", culminating in the victorious appearance of St Michael.  The prayer, it reports, was introduced "shortly after 1880".
4.  Fr Bers, "Die Gebete nach der hl. Messe", Theologisch-praktische Quartalschrift 87 (1934)
The writer tried to trace the origin of the story, but without success: "Wherever one looks, one may find this claim - but nowhere a trace of proof."  He noted that sources from the time of the prayer's institution provided no assistance.
5.  Fr Carl Vogl, Begone Satan (English trans. from German original published 1935)
An account closely similar to 3 above. 
6.  Cardinal Giovanni Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano, Dio-L'uomo-il Diavolo (pastoral letter for Lent) (1946)
The Cardinal recounted that Leo XIII's private secretary, Mgr. Rinaldo Angeli, had "many times" (più volte) told the story that Leo XIII had composed the prayer after seeing "a vision of infernal spirits that descended upon and infiltrated the Eternal City" (visione degle infernali spiriti che si addescavano sulla eterna Città).  He added that Leo had frequently prayed exorcisms.
7.  Fr Domenico Pechenino, La Settimana del Clero (1947)
The author was a priest who had apparently worked at the Vatican during the reign of Leo XIII.  It is not clear, however, that he was an eyewitness to the vision (this is lost in some translations, which present him as an eyewitness).  Leo was attending Mass one day when his attention was caught by something.  He showed "terror and wonder" (terrore... meraviglia), and walked out, shutting himself in his private office.  After about half an hour, he called for the Secretary of the Congregation of Rites and, handing him a sheet of paper, requested that it be printed and sent to all the ordinaries around the world.  The incident happened in the early 1890s.
8.  I.Piazzoni, "De precibus post Missam imperatis", Ephemerides Liturgicae 69 (1955)
This article mentions some of the preceding sources.
In later years, the story developed different forms.  For example:
  • Leo is said to have heard Christ and Satan conducting a dialogue about the events of the coming century.  This version was current by the time of the publication of "An Interesting Story," The Maryfaithful, Sept–Oct 1978.
  • The vision is sometimes stated to have taken place on 13 October, a date which later became significant in the context of the Fatima apparitions of 1917 (this version was current by the time of Arthur H. Durand, “Satan’s Hundred Year War,” The Remnant (15 January 1984), 9–10).
  • The story has been taken up by ultra-traditionalist Catholics in an attempt to explain the changes in the Church associated with the Second Vatican Council.
  • Another piece of traditionalist folklore holds that the Prayer to St Michael is a censored version of an earlier and stronger text which foretold the Vatican II changes.  This story appears to derive from yet another prayer issued by Leo XIII in 1888 whose actual target was the Italian government.  The harsh language of the prayer was toned down in later years to reflect changing political relations between the Italian state and the Church. 


It seems that the following conclusions can be drawn.
  1. Leo XIII had a genuine interest in demonic activity, and a conviction of its reality.
  2. The account of Leo's vision which derives from the source closest to Leo himself (no. 6 above) refers to demons menacing the city of Rome.  This would have made particular sense in the 1880s, given that Rome had been captured from the Pope by the Italian state a few years earlier, it had passed from ecclesiastical to secular control and its political status was then the single greatest preoccupation of the papacy.
  3. In later years, the meaning of the vision was construed in different, changing and often broader ways - as relating to "Freemasonry", worldwide demonic activity, the Fatima apparitions and the changes following the Second Vatican Council.
  4. The story grew in the telling.  Leo's vision was expanded into a dialogue involving personal appearances by Christ and Satan.  A conspiracy theory grew up around the alleged censoring of another similar text.