When someone speaks of the Leonine Prayers, the first thing that might come to mind is a lion. After all, the first letter of Peter refers to the devil as “prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (5:8).
However, the Leonine Prayers refer to the pope who requested their usage after Mass: Pope Leo XIII, who was pope from 1878 to 1903. These prayers, said after what was then called “low Mass” (being less formal and intricate than a “high Mass”), included three Hail Marys, the Salve Regina (“Hail, Holy Queen”) and the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel (see below). In 1904, Pope St. Pius X added the petition: “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us,” to be repeated three times.
All these prayers were abrogated (removed by church authority) in 1964. They largely disappeared from use after the liturgical changes following Vatican II, which decreed that this form of devotional prayer was better suited for use completely outside the setting of the Mass itself.
No one knows exactly why Pope Leo XIII decided to add these prayers, but most authorities agree that they followed some sort of vision the pontiff experienced a year or two prior to his request. The vision took place during the celebration of a Mass by the Holy Father in his private chapel at the Vatican.
Again, while no one knows exactly what the pope saw, it seems to have been a vision about Satan and his plan to destroy Christ’s church within 100 years. Some say Pope Leo heard Satan and Jesus speaking.
Most of us are familiar with the prayer (see below). However, the late theologian Fr. Ray Ryland noted that the St. Michael prayer which the pope composed after his vision was “10 times the length of the version we use today.” This is because the longer version was “an exorcism prayer,” which is different than the actual prayers used at an exorcism. But the prayer itself — in either form — shows how worried Pope Leo was about Satan’s plots.
While the St. Michael prayer fell out of use for a few decades, many people still prayed it. And, in 1994, St. John Paul II asked “everyone not to forget (the Prayer to St. Michael) and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world” (April 24, Regina Caeli).
This year, Pope Francis also asked that the St. Michael prayer be said at the end of the rosary during October (the month of the rosary).
Also, with the ongoing trauma of the clergy abuse scandal and revelations in various states, such as the grand jury report in Pennsylvania, many pastors and bishops have requested that people turn to this prayer.
As noted by Catholic News Service (Oct. 4), these bishops include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore.; Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan.; Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tenn.; Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, Calif.; and Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison. On Oct. 8, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse made a similar request for the people of his diocese to use the St. Michael prayer.
In the Catholic New York, Cardinal Dolan explained his decision to direct parishes to a September novena utilizing the St. Michael prayer in response to people who have contacted him: “Enough of you have suggested this to me that I’ve concluded it’s from the Lord that we seek the help of St. Michael the Archangel in fighting Lucifer’s invasion of the church. Let’s fight fire with fire, they recommend, the good angel (St. Michael) attacking the bad angel (Lucifer).”
Cardinal Dolan added that “I hear from so many of you, God’s people, that we need again the weapons of prayer, reparation, and penance, ammunition the devil dreads.
“The only protection from Beelzebub is Jesus,” he continued. “Satan is the second most powerful force in creation. We know the first.”
St. Michael is called upon for protection from Satan largely because of the section from the Book of Revelation (12:7-9) telling how this archangel drove Satan from heaven and cast him into hell.
Along with being a protector against the machinations of the devil in the world, though, the famous archangel also serves another purpose.
The month of November is the traditional month of the Holy Souls (in purgatory) in the church.
St. Michael, besides being a warrior angel, is the protector of the souls of the faithful. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, besides fighting Satan and being the champion of God’s people, Michael also “rescues the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death” and to “bring souls to judgment.”
This is why St. Michael is sometimes depicted holding scales, as in the scales of final judgment. We can see this role defined in the multi-phrased Litany of St. Michael, which includes these petitions:
- St. Michael, light and confidence of souls at their death, (pray for us);
- St. Michael, herald of the everlasting judgment;
- St. Michael, consoler of souls detained in purgatory; and
- St. Michael, who receives the souls of the elect after death.
While we may no longer say all of the Leonine Prayers — which really have only a weak connection to lions — we can rely on God sending angels to protect against all predators in this life and as we prepare to enter the next.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; cny.org; catholicnews.com; ourcatholicprayers.com; catholictradition.org; catholicstraightanswers.com; aleteia.org; osv.com; ewtn.com; CatholicCulture.org; vaticannews.va; and w2.vatican.va