Many Catholics nowadays are no doubt unaware that for many centuries the Pope was the independent ruler of a large territory in central Italy. The Papal States extended roughly from Florence on the north to Naples on the south and the Bishop of Rome was just as much their ruler as King George ruled Britain or King Louis ruled France. In mid-nineteenth century Italian nationalists understandably strove to unite all of present-day Italy as a single nation. Austria ceded some northern territory, the Pope lost the central provinces and Naples and Sicily added their southern regions. Italy became a nation but the Pope was not pleased. For almost 100 years, the Pope became the “prisoner of the Vatican,” never setting foot into independent Italy and every minute resenting the loss of the extensive territory for which the Pontiffs thought they were entitled and responsible. The Swiss Guard were certainly no match for the Italian army and so the several Holy Fathers of the era had no recourse other than prayer.
The so-called “Leonine Prayers” were instituted by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 to be recited after all Catholic Masses throughout the world to invoke God for the restoration of the Papal States. The three Hail Mary’s, the Hail Holy Queen, the prayer “…for the liberty and exaltation of the Holy Mother the Church,” the prayer to St. Michael the archangel and the triple invocations to the Sacred Heart, were a daily addition to the Catholic liturgy until 1965. After Pope Pius XI and Mussolini reached an agreement in 1929 on the Papal territories, the “prayers after Mass” were accorded a new intention: the conversion of Communist Russia, apparently with some success.
Today the Church of Rome is beset again with struggles both within and without. Revelations of harmful conduct by some clergy and allegations of ignoring issues by some prelates along with the last half-century of strife between liberal and conservative elements within the Church have taken their toll on the Catholic laity’s enthusiasm for their Church. A dramatic decline in priestly and religious vocations in Europe and America is a challenge to the traditional structure of the Church. The Catholic Church is at odds certainly with the secular world as well as with many other Christian communities regarding unborn life, authentic marriage, gender issues, and assisted suicide. Even within the Church, attitudes toward the vernacular liturgy, immigration, communion for the divorced and re-married, and lately capital punishment, have been the occasion for many to take sides.
In the face of this internal and external strife, a number of good Catholics of all ranks have found the traditional “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel” a source of consolation and, even more important, a source of hope. The first reading at Mass this coming Sunday cites Archangel Michael as “the great prince” and “guardian of your people,” words that connote the relentless Providence of God even in “a time unsurpassed in distress.” St. John in his Apocalypse will again cite the Archangel Michael as the decisive foe of evil who cast Satan out of heaven. But then St. John notes that once Satan is hurled down from the skies to the earth, the dragon “went off to wage war against the rest of the offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” Indeed, the Church’s present day conflict is not solely against a few wayward clergy — no matter how despicable — nor against the world’s unbelieving politicians and godless media — no matter how contemptable. Catholics and all believers must recognize that Christians and other persons of good will are truly in a struggle against “principalities and powers.” St. Paul wisely and painfully insists to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.”
A daily review of the Providence Journal, an afternoon listening to talk-radio, and time taken for the nightly news on CNN, can be very discouraging. The Christian world can seem to be completely out of touch, and sometimes even reactionary and regressive. But as St. Paul urged his readers during their difficult times, “In all circumstances, have faith as a shield…” And the prayer to St. Michael might just be that daily act of faith needed in the current struggle with evil: “Saint Michael 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 Divine power, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”