The ‘Celestial Basilica'at Italy's Monte Sant'Angelo is the world's only Catholic church not consecrated by human hands. Why? St Michael the Archangel got there first.

This is an awesome place; it is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.” So reads the inscription above the entrance to the shrine of St. Michael the Archangel, on the eastern coast of Italy.

Recognized as one of Christendom's most celebrated shrines, the holy site has attracted pilgrims for the past 1,500 years. Some of the sanctuary's most famous visitors include St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Gerard Majella, St. William of Verceli, and six popes. All have knelt at the grotto to ask for St. Michael's protection.

Tradition mixes with legend in accounts of the apparitions of the archangel at Monte Sant'Angelo. The first apparition took place in 490, when Elvio Emmanuele, a nobleman of the area, lost the best bull of his herd. After endless searching, he finally found his bull kneeling in a deserted cave. Unable to approach the bull, the nobleman shot an arrow, but the arrow turned around and struck him. Bewildered, Elvio went to see the bishop about the matter. The bishop ordered three days of prayer and fasting.

On the third day, St. Michael the Archangel appeared to the bishop and said, “I am Michael the Archangel and am always in the presence of God. I chose the cave that is sacred to me. There will be no more shedding of bull's blood. Where the rocks open widely, the sins of men may be pardoned. What is asked here in prayer will be granted. Therefore, go up to the mountain cave and dedicate it to the Christian God!”

The bishop, however, uneasy about the whole affair, dismissed the angelic order. Two years later, in 492, the Christian city of Siponto came under attack by pagans led by the first barbarian king of Rome, the Germanic leader Odoacer. Begging for mercy, the bishop obtained a truce with Odoacer and asked for three days of prayer and penance. Again St. Michael the Archangel appeared to him. He promised the bishop victory if the townspeople would attack the enemy. After he accepted the archangel's promise, a violent storm engulfed the village of Odoacer, saving the people of Siponto.

In thanksgiving, the bishop led a procession to the top of the archangel's mountain. Yet nobody dared to enter the grotto. During the same year, the bishop consulted the Holy Father for his advice on whether to follow the archangel's previous order of 490.

For the third time St. Michael appeared to the bishop. He ordered him to enter the grotto and said, “It is not necessary that you dedicate this church that I have consecrated with my presence. Enter and pray with my assistance and celebrate the sacrifice. I will show you how I have consecrated this place.”

Following the archangel's order, the bishop entered the grotto and found an altar covered with a red cloth and a crystal cross. At the entrance of the cave, an imprint of a small foot was found. It was taken as evidence of the presence of St. Michael.

After the third apparition, the bishop commissioned a chapel to be built at the entrance of the grotto. Upon completion, the bishop dedicated but did not consecrate the church. It was not consecrated because St. Michael had already performed the consecration (it is the only building of worship in the Catholic Church that has not been consecrated by humans). In due time, the church earned the distinction of “the Celestial Basilica.”

The last apparition of St. Michael the Archangel took place in 1656. As a terrible plague afflicted Italy, the local bishop invoked St. Michael for protection. When the archangel appeared to the bishop, the plague ceased. Ever since, the mountain has been a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

St. Louis de Montfort once made a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel, “to pray to the archangel to obtain from him the grace to win souls for God, to confirm those already in God's grace, and to fight Satan and sin.” Not long ago, Pope John Paul II also made a pilgrimage to Monte Sant'Angelo.

Today, the Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel (Michalite Fathers) serves as the custodian of the shrine. The town of Monte Sant'Angelo is centered around the sanctuary. To reach the grotto, walk through the shrine's double archway entrance and take the flight of stone steps down to the magnificent Byzantine bronze and silver portals. From here, the doors open onto the holy cave itself.

Once inside, the pilgrim will find a 16th century statue of St. Michael that covers the spot where he is said to have left his footprint. Nearby is the main altar, which stands at the site of the first altar consecrated by the bishop of Siponto to St. Michael. Behind this is a small fountain of water, traditionally asserted to be miraculous. The grotto is holds a beautiful marble bishop's chair, resting on two lions.

Once outside, take the short flight of steps opposite the sanctuary to the Tomb di Rotari. Believed to have once served as a medieval baptistery, the room features some remarkable 12th century reliefs. A short stroll to the town's medieval quarter — perhaps best at sunset — affords visitors a sweeping and spectacular view of the coast to the south.

Many pilgrims combine their visits to the shrine of St. Michael the Archangel with a trip to Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary in San Giovanni Rotondo, fourteen miles away. This is the church and friary where Blessed Padre Pio served as a priest, and where the tomb of the beatified stigmatist lies.

There is regular bus service from Monte Sant'Angelo to San Giovanni Rotondo.

Perched amid olive groves on the rugged white limestone cliffs overlooking the eastern coast of Italy, Monte Sant'Angelo is easily accessible by car and bus. From the north of Italy, travel south on A14 toward Bari. Exit at San Severo and follow the road signs for San Giovanni Rotondo, passing through San Marco in Lamis. Once at San Giovanni Rotondo, follow the signs to Monte Sant'Angelo (14 miles). There is no railway station at Monte Sant'Angelo; the nearest one is at Foggia (there are daily train departures from Rome to Foggia). To arrive at Monte Sant'Angelo, take the bus from Foggia (a one-hour trip). There are also daily bus departures from Manfredonia, Vieste, and San Giovanni Rotondo.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Michael the Archangel, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations offering guided tours to Italy.

Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.