On the Prayer to St. Michael — and St. Joseph

In recent years, the St. Michael Prayer has made a comeback, the result of popular piety.

Johann Georg Unruhe, “Saint Michael the Archangel and the Fall of the Angels,” Untergriesbach, Germany, 1793
Johann Georg Unruhe, “Saint Michael the Archangel and the Fall of the Angels,” Untergriesbach, Germany, 1793 (photo: Public Domain)

A few weeks ago, controversy erupted over a claim that Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich had instructed a priest in that archdiocese to cease and desist from publicly reciting the “Prayer to St. Michael” and a Hail Mary at the end of Mass. 

Subsequently, it was said that the cardinal had not given such an instruction (did somebody else in the chancery do so?) and, even though nobody admitted giving any such instruction, the archdiocese wanted to affirm a distinction between the public prayers of the liturgy and any private prayers of popular devotions. 

The Prayer to St. Michael originated in 1888 as a result of a private revelation to Pope Leo XIII, who foresaw the Church being a battlefield between God and Satan (and as a result of the papacy’s continuing territorial dispute with the newly created Italian state). It was recited after Mass until 1964. 

In recent years, the St. Michael Prayer has made a comeback, the result of popular piety. As many Catholics looked at the evils besieging the Church and society — most especially the culture of death and clerical sexual abuse — many sensed that those evils could not be the result of human iniquity alone and so sought recourse to possible supernatural causes. One might intuit the process as an example of the sensus fidelium of the sheep, recognizing a problem and drawing — like good stewards (Matthew 13:52) — from the Church’s treasury of both old and new to seek Divine help to heal the Church. 

They might also have noted that, in 1994, Pope St. John Paul II had also referred to the value of the St. Michael Prayer.

Yes, the liturgy is the liturgy and the St. Michael Prayer is not part of the liturgy. Yes, we should recognize a distinction between the liturgy and popular devotions.

But “recognizing” that distinction has, in practice these past 50-some years, often taken the form of a kind of “cold war” or “high wall of separation” between the two. It has also been a “wall of separation” selectively open to breach. It seems time to ask whether this model itself deserves reconsideration.

“Popular devotion” has tended to be a term spoken with some measure of contempt by not a few professional liturgists. Anyone with a longer historical memory knows that popular devotion had flourished, e.g., in the Catholic Church in the United States. Novenas, tridua, pilgrimages, blessings of sacramentals, recitation of the Rosary, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament — all were vital (in the sense of lively) parts of American parish life through the 1960s and 1970s.

Nor were these devotions a-liturgical. My favorite illustration was my own experience, as a young boy, accompanying my mother Monday nights to Holy Spirit Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The founding pastor, Msgr. Joseph Kerr, scheduled a 7:00 p.m. Mass, during which Novenas to the Miraculous Medal and St. Jude were recited. His vicar sat in the confessional, hearing confessions through the Sanctus. Note that Mass (liturgy), novena (popular devotion) and Confession (sacrament) were all successfully combined. There were usually 70-80 people in church.

I know that vision would make a certain kind of liturgist cringe. What makes me cringe is that such a cramped and prejudiced vision killed that popular devotion. 

Getting 70-80 people to go to church on a Monday night for at least nine weeks (the usual course of a novena) was no minor feat: I wish, post-pandemic, some pastors achieve such success on Sundays. Giving people the opportunity to go conveniently to Confession and to receive Communion on a weekday struck me as pretty “active participation” in the liturgy.

But liturgical bias against popular devotion killed it. Sure, demographics changed, but there were still the “faithful” who showed up in church Monday nights, even though the new pastor couldn’t be bothered to lead them. Obviously, without the priest, Mass and Confession disappeared. In the end, so did the Novena and, not long afterwards, the parish was “renewed” into nonexistence and now looms, locked and empty, over Route 184. 

If that’s “liturgical success,” give me failure.

The Catholics praying the St. Michael Prayer after Mass have likewise revived a popular devotion that, while not part of the liturgy, fits with it (and had been ecclesiastically sanctioned in that nexus for decades). The fact that it is not “technically” part of the liturgy does not contaminate it, nor should lead to an automatic conclusion that praying it — even publicly — somehow undermines the liturgy.

How would it? By interfering with people’s time to pray after Mass? The entire St. Michael Prayer and Hail Mary could be said in less than 60 seconds, hardly an interminable burden. By proposing something someone might not want to pray for? Presumably, invoking the Mother of God and the Biblical enemy of the devil to protect the Church would not have many dissenters among the faithful. By encroaching on quiet after Mass? Liturgically stipulated post-Communion silence has long been encroached on by priests omitting it or throwing in their own reflections, commentators reading announcements, ushers passing baskets, and choir ladies belting out their own solos, with nary a chancery peep in most places. And, let’s be honest, how quiet after Mass is the typical parish, between people talking and ushers closing windows, giving folks the eye to wrap up and get out? 

Having heard priests unilaterally decide — on the basis of the alleged “liturgy/devotional” distinction — to stop people from saying Rosaries after Mass or even during Holy Hours (to the extent they have them), I remain unconvinced this “liturgical Maginot Line” serves any real spiritual purpose.

The Bible is clear. Mary is the “woman” whose offspring is promised already in Eden as the one to crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Michael is the victor who crushes Satan’s rebellion (Revelation 12:7, the chapter also mentioning “the woman clothed with the sun”). If liturgy and popular devotion are to draw from Scripture (Sacrosanctam Concilium, nr 24; Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy, No. 12), the use of the Ave Maria and St. Michael Prayer in this context seems well-grounded.

But I offer an additional thought. We remain in “the Year of St. Joseph” through Dec. 8 (a Marian feast). Pope Francis has presented his devotion to St. Joseph as a model for the Church (e.g., adding the invocation of St. Joseph to the Eucharistic Prayers and proclaiming the current “Year of St. Joseph”). 

Tradition has also identified St. Joseph as the “terror of demons,” particularly in his roles as a model of purity, patron of the dying, and protector of the Church (as originated in the domestic church of the Holy Family). I suggest adding invocation of St. Joseph alongside the Prayers to the Blessed Mother and St. Michael in protection of the Church. And, if — as Pope Francis has shown, devotion to St. Joseph can be extended to the Church as a community (even by amending the Eucharistic Prayer), then there seems to be precedent for adopting this proposal as the evolution of a received popular devotion.