Feast Day: September 29
Patron of: Brussels, Belgium, England, Germany, Umbria, Italy, Policemen, Soldiers, Firemen, Grocers, Mariners, Health, Knights
Invoked: for good health, physical protection, a holy death
Symbols: Sword, Scales, Defeating the devil or a serpent
As written in the Book of Revelation, Lucifer was the most beautiful and favored of God’s angels. When he dared consider himself God’s equal, war broke out between the angel who was Heaven’s protector and Lucifer and his faction. Throughout the battle the protecting angel and his legions cried out “Mi-cha-el?” (Hebrew, for, “Who is like God?”). When Lucifer was defeated and cast into hell with his followers, the protecting angel took the name Michael. The forces of Michael and Lucifer are perpetually at war to win over as many souls as possible.
Saint Michael predates all other saints, and even Christianity. Considered the most powerful in the hierarchy of angels, he is honored in the Muslim and Jewish faiths as much as he is by Catholics. Though he has never had a human existence Saint Michael is closely tied to the fate of mankind. He is the angel destined to slay the anti-Christ, end plagues and settle wars. Despite rabbinical warnings against appealing to anyone but God, the ancient Jews saw Michael as an intermediary devoted to their protection, as he had defended God against Lucifer. From its earliest days, church elders have looked to Michael as the Protector of Christianity as well. From scriptural passages in both old and new testaments, Michael has four mandates: 1) To fight against Satan. 2) To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death. 3) To be the champion of God’s people and protector of the Church. 4) To call away from earth and bring men’s souls to judgment.
Shrines to Saint Michael are always on rocky cliffs over the sea. In ancient times they were visible from great distances but nearly impossible to reach, increasing their mystical appeal. Skellig Michael, a steep rocky island eight miles from Kerry Ireland is home to a Celtic monastery built in 588. Monks lived there in the harshest conditions for over 600 years; its severe isolation ensuring its status as one of the most well preserved holy sites in the world. The most famous shrine to him is Mont-Ste- Michel in France. Situated on a rock rising out of the Atlantic Ocean a mile from the shore, this ancient monastery houses a relic of the cloth that Michael is said to have left on the altar at Gargano.
The Gargano caves in Apulia, Italy were said to be a sanctuary for the Archangel. In the year 490, a wealthy army commander was pasturing his herds on Gargano Mountain. When his finest bull wandered off, he went in search of it. After many hours, he found it standing at the mouth of a cave in an inaccessible part of the mountain. Enraged, he shot an arrow at the bull. Rather than penetrating the animal, the arrow was turned around by an unseen force and wounded the army commander in the foot. Shaken by this supernatural event, he sought advice from the local bishop who ordered three days of contemplative prayer. At the end of the third day Michael appeared to the Bishop saying, “I am the Archangel Michael, and am always in the presence of God. The cave is sacred for me, I have chosen it; I myself am its watchful custodian… There where the rock opens wide the sins of man can be forgiven… What is asked for here in prayer will be granted. Therefore, go to the mountain and dedicate the grotto to the Christian religion.” After much hesitation, the bishop agreed to consecrate the cave as a shrine. Michael returned to say, “I have already consecrated the grotto.” The town people marched in procession, sheltered from the glaring sun by the convocation of eagles soaring overhead. Arriving at the grotto they discovered that an altar, covered by a vermilion cloth, had been erected. Because it is the only place of worship not consecrated by human hand, this grotto is known as the “Celestial Basilica”. This became the first pilgrimage site in Christendom and is still much visited today.
During the Middle Ages Michael was the patron saint of Knights and there were many stories of his aid during battles and in warfare – in 1425, during the Hundred Years War between England and France, 120 knights dedicated to Saint Michael held off 8,000 invading English troops. News of this heroic defense gave hope to a mostly demoralized French public. Many biographers attribute the genesis of Joan of Arc’s loyalty to Saint Michael to her youthful fascination with this battle.
But in the early church Michael was called on for all manners of health. In the sixth century, as a plague devastated Rome, Pope Gregory I saw a vision of Michael sheathing a bloody sword over Emperor Hadrian’s tomb. He interpreted this as a sign that Rome was under the Archangel’s protection and that the plague would soon end. In gratitude, he had a church built over the tomb renaming it Castel San Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel). Michael was especially beloved for the creation of sacred springs in Greece and Constantinople, and the Christians of Egypt placed the Nile River under his patronage.
Catholics believe Saint Michael and the Virgin Mary are the only beings besides Jesus able to descend into hell and release the souls suffering there. Since Michael is said to weigh the souls of the dead to decide who gets into heaven, he is always depicted with a set of scales. For this reason he is the patron of greengrocers. Because of his great military achievements against Lucifer and his constant vigilance and defense of the faithful, he is the patron of police and firemen and those who protect the general public. Many shops and stores display a statue of Michael as a reminder that the shopkeeper is under his protection. By the Middle Ages, September 29, the feast day he shares with the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael, became a holy day of obligation. This day known as Michelmas Day was set aside for settling quarterly rents and choosing magistrates in England. These traditions began to wane in the 18th century.
Prayer Saint Michael the Archangel
Saint 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 evil spirits
Who wander through the world
For the ruin of souls.
Excerpted from the book “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua