St. Michael the Archangel

The Church has never canonized angels. If we pay liturgical honors to the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, we give them the title saint because they have always been in heaven.

All three archangels are now venerated in a common feast on September 29, which used to be St. Michael’s feast alone. Because the new common feast seems to diminish his importance, let us consider him a little more at length in connection with his other feastday, the Apparition of St. Michael, formerly observed on May 8.

The name Michael means, of course, “Who is like God?” He is represented as perhaps the chief angel in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Several early apocryphal writings do the same. While these writings are not accepted as scriptures by the Church, they nevertheless testify to popular devotion to the “generalissimo” of the heavenly hosts.

Michael was regarded as the protector of the Israelites, especially in the days of their captivity in Babylon. “Michael, the great prince,” the Old Testament prophet Daniel calls him, “guardian of your people.” (Dn,12:1). In the New Testament Book of Revelation, St. John speaks prophetically of the ultimate victory of Michael and his regiments against the army of the great dragon, Satan. After a mighty struggle, Michael casts the enemy down to earth. (Rev.,12:7-9). Thus St. Michael, protector of Israel, was also hailed as the protector of the New Testament’s People of God.

Churches dedicated to St. Michael in the Mideast date from as early as the fourth century. In the West, the cult of Michael became widespread, particularly after his alleged apparition around AD 500 in a cave in Mount Gargano, southeast Italy. The archangel revealed to the local bishop, St. Lawrence of Siponto, that he should erect a shrine there in honor of the archangel himself and all other angels. This St. Lawrence did, and the “Mount Santangelo” soon became a noted place of pilgrimage.

St. Michael also figures in the annals of Pope St. Gregory the Great. During the pestilence that struck Rome in the year 590, Gregory organized a great penitential procession about the streets of the Eternal City to beg God to withdraw the plague. Tradition says that when the march passed by the massive tomb of Emperor Hadrian, St. Michael appeared on its summit sheathing his sword, and the epidemic ceased. Today Hadrian’s fortified tomb is called the Castel SantAngelo - Castle of the Holy Angel - and for centuries it has been topped by a statue of St. Michael, dressed in the armor of a Roman soldier, returning sword to scabbard. In Rome, therefore, St. Michael is considered both healer and defender.

The other major Western shrine of the Archangel is the famous Mont St. Michel, a rocky outcropping off the coast of Normandy, France, where the bishop of Avranches established a Benedictine monastery in AD 708; again, we are told, on the advice of the Archangel Michael. In Cornwall, too, near the city of Penzance, there is a little offshore island resembling Mont St. Michel, which in medieval times was likewise the site of a Benedictine monastery that became an English place of pilgrimage.

Pope Leo XIII had the soldier-angel in mind when he ordered that a prayer to St. Michael and several other prayers be recited by priest and faithful at the end of every low Mass. The date of this order was 1884 - an era in which Germany was engaged in a stern persecution of the Catholic Church. Vatican II cancelled the rule, but the invocation to the Archangel is still appropriate - indeed, necessary in our troubled times:

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O prince of the heavenly host, by the divine power, thrust into hell Satan and the other evil spirits who roam through the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara

(1998 article, revised in 2008)

Both the Old and the New Testaments of the bible give us a few glimpses of our fellow creatures, the heavenly spirits. Though superior to us in that they are pure spirits created to serve God directly, they are nevertheless sometimes assigned by God to serve us.

The scriptures indicate that there are several categories or “choirs” of these spirits. The cherubim and seraphim apparently rank highest; they surround God’s throne. There is another category called “angels”, from the Greek word “angeloi”, which means “those sent”; that is, as messengers or ambassadors, or as “those on assignment”. We are most familiar with the “guardian” angels who, according to the common teaching of the Church, are delegated to watch over each one of us.

Highest among these ambassadorial spirits are the archangels or “super-messengers”. Scripture tells us the names of three of them. God sent the Archangel Raphael to be a guide to Young Tobiah (Book of Tobit), and he sent the Archangel Gabriel to announce to Mary that she was to be mother of the Son of God (Luke).

Most widely venerated among the archangels is St. Michael. His name (which means “who is like God?”) has long been a popular forename.

Michael’s role has been “chief of staff” of the heavenly hosts. In the Old Testament he is referred to as “Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people” (Daniel, 12:1). In the prophetic New Testament Book of Revelation we are told that “Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.” As a leader of the loyal spirits he cast out from heaven the “dragon” Satan and all the other fallen angels. Hebrew apocryphal books and the early Christian book The Shepherd of Hermas hailed him as the heavenly protector.

In the Christian West, Michael has been venerated in the liturgy as the “generalissimo”, patron of soldiers and policemen, since the sixth century. He was assigned September 29 as feast day. This date was probably chosen because it was the date of a consecration of a church in his honor, either at Monte Gargano, Italy, where he appeared in a vision in 493, or (more likely) one in the outskirts of Rome itself. For centuries this feast was a holy day of obligation and the English honored it by eating a roast goose. It also marked the beginning of European autumn activities – a “quarter day” for local elections in some countries, and in English universities, the beginning of the fall semester, “Michaelmas Term”.

Although Raphael is recalled as healing Tobit, Michael is also associated with healing. When a grave pestilence struck Rome in 390 A.D., Pope St. Gregory the Great led a solemn penitential procession around the streets of the city. Tradition asserts that as the procession passed the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, Michael appeared on its crest, sheathing his sword. It was the signal of a petition granted: the plague ceased thereafter. (A statue of Michael now crowns the mausoleum, which is called the “Castel Sant’ Angelo.”)

As the “governor of heaven”, St. Michael has also been revered as the one who helps the dead to enter Paradise, and our funeral liturgy used to have the prayer, “May the standard-bearer Michael conduct him (her) into the holy light which was promised to Abraham and his seed.”

In the 1970 revision of the Roman Missal, the feasts of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, hither-to celebrated separately, were combined, the date of Michael’s feast being retained. It used to be that way any-how. September 29 was originally the feast of “St. Michael and all Angels”.

In the last century Pope Leo XIII ordered the recitation of several prayers after every low Mass, including one to St. Michael as protector of the Church against the powers of darkness. Public recitation of this prayer is no longer required, but it makes a good private prayer in our day when the dark powers are mounting a great onslaught against the Church:

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. Rebuke him, O Lord, we humbly pray; and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the divine power, thrust into hell Satan and the other evil spirits who roam through the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara