One expects that after having restored Friday abstinence and holy days of obligation, the bishops of England and Wales may look favourably upon requests to resume the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel, recited after “Low Mass” from the time of Pope Leo XIII to the reforms of Blessed Paul VI.
St Michael’s feast falls this Friday, hence the English custom of referring to autumn schooldays as the “Michaelmas term”. As we mark the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, there are suggestive links between Leo XIII, the St Michael prayer and Fatima for those who are anniversary-minded.
We do not have a definitive historical account of what exactly happened to Pope Leo XIII, but there is a consensus on what roughly took place in the 1880s. After offering the Holy Mass one morning, Pope Leo was making his thanksgiving by attending another Mass, the custom for high-ranking prelates at the time. At some point those observing Leo noticed that he seemed transfixed, as if seeing a vision. Visibly troubled, he made his way from the chapel to his private office, his alarmed aides following with concern.
He emerged from his office a short while later, having composed the prayer to St Michael. It was added in 1886 to the other “Leonine prayers” which the Holy Father had mandated be recited after Low Mass in 1884.
What moved Pope Leo to write the prayer? Accounts vary in the details, but the general gist is that he had a vision akin to the scene at the beginning of the Book of Job. The Devil challenged the Lord Jesus that he “could destroy the Church” if he had more time and more power. Jesus, again like the Lord God in the Book of Job, grants the Devil his request, a century in which his power will be greater. Some accounts have Pope Leo actually hearing the conversation between voices divine and diabolical.
Pope Leo, intuiting then that dreadful terrors would soon descend upon the Church and the world, wrote the prayer beseeching the protection of St Michael and mandated that it be universally recited, countless times each day in every part of the world.
What then of the connection to Fatima? Although there is no contemporary documentation, the more common accounts put the date of Leo’s vision on October 13, 1884, 33 years to the day before the final apparition at Fatima. If nothing else, that is certainly suggestive.
October 13 was the great Miracle of the Sun. Likely the most witnessed miracle in human history, it was documented by secular – and sceptical – sources and experienced by some 70,000 people. The Book of Revelation, in which St Michael battles the ancient dragon, speaks of the woman “clothed with the sun”. Again, the Miracle of the Sun in the context of the Marian apparitions and the anniversary of Pope Leo writing the St Michael prayer is more than suggestive.
When are the hundred years of the Leonine vision?
Were they from 1884 itself onward, concluding in 1984, during the special Jubilee Year of the Redemption, in which St John Paul II consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in accord with the request of Our Lady of Fatima?
Did the century of special trial refer to the entire 20th century, an era of unimagined bloodshed and persecution? That century began with Pope Leo consecrating the world to the Sacred Heart for the Jubilee of 1900, and John Paul renewing the consecration to the Immaculate Heart during the Jubilee of 2000 – before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, brought to Rome from the shrine for the occasion.
Or did it begin with the Great War – thought then, falsely, to be the “war to end all wars”? It was during World War I that carnage of a mass scale began, millions upon millions dead. The royal houses in Russia and Germany fell. In 1917 the Bolsheviks would begin their tyrannical reign in Moscow. The Nazis would rise within 15 years in Germany. The Habsburg dynasty fell too, and with it the saintly emperor Blessed Karl of Austria. The 20th century would leave little room for holiness in high office.
Is that why Our Lady appeared at Fatima in 1917? Did the same Lord Jesus who permitted – according to the inscrutable plan in which Providence deals with the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) in history – the Devil to have his century send the “woman clothed with the sun” into battle at the same time, to crush the head of the ancient serpent? When Our Lady of Fatima told the children that “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph”, was she speaking of the end of those hundred years? Of the rise of the evil empire and the erasure of the Soviet Union from history?
We cannot know and – as the Church insists about private revelations, even to popes or canonised saints – we do not need to know in order to receive the gift of salvation. Yet Fatima and John Paul and May 13 – the date of the assassination attempt – and St Michael and Leo and October 13 surely reminds us that the finger of God traces His purposes in history, and yes, in the history of our time.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the September 29 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here