The prayer goes: “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.”
We’ve always needed Michael’s help against “the wickedness and snares of the Devil” as much as we do today. St Peter warned in the earliest days of the Church: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” The Holy Father has spoken a lot about the devil in the same way as his predecessor.
We’ve always needed Michael’s help against “the wickedness and snares of the Devil” as much as we do today.
Making the prayer once again a part of normal Catholic experience did something unintended, but needed. It made the Mass a thicker experience, closer to what it had once been. The changes made after the Second Vatican Council thinned out Catholic practice, in an attempt to make Catholics practice it better. The Church weakened its practice in the same the way you might clear out the brush from a stand of trees to make a place you can sit, or the way you take the things you don’t really need out of your backpack before a long hike.
Thinning the practice was a reasonable idea, and one that animated the Council of Trent. People carried it much too far. They took down most of the trees when they cleared out the brush. Most of those people meant well.
The Church thinned out the Mass to make people focus completely on the Eucharist and to do that together. The traditional devotionals were felt to be distractions. The Mass should end with the blessing and the dismissal call to go and serve the Lord, not with another prayer.
Adding the prayer does have the effect of saying, “Go! Now! No, wait, don’t go.” Saying the prayer of St Michael, we lose a little of the drama of the Mass, putting a kind of pause between the instruction to go out into the world and our actual going out into the world. But we gain a prayer we need to say and declare truths we need to remember.
We need to know that unseen creatures work to do us ill, while others work to protect us.
Saying the prayer to St Michael declares that the Devil wants your soul but God’s angels will protect you — that a world we don’t see directly affects our lives. We need to know that unseen creatures work to do us ill, while others work to protect us. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our everyday ways of thinking. What you don’t know can hurt you, or help you.
The Church could do more. We could add the Hail Mary at the end of the prayers. And for the same reasons, say the Confiteor instead of cheating with the Kyrie. Maybe the Hail Mary doesn’t fit the theory, but it feeds the piety, and that’s what we need most. We need more explicit acts of the supernatural, of the peculiar truth we see and can offer the world. Most of us need it for ourselves, as a reorientation of our determinedly worldly minds.
It is a great truth that the prayer to St Michael proclaims. We need a church life in which the supernatural — not just the comfortably abstract idea of God, or the affirming proclamation of Jesus’ love for us, but the reality of demons and angels — has a constant felt presence. We need a thicker Catholicism than we have now.
David Mills is a Chapter House columnist.
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