On the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany in 2021, after churches had reopened but while many pandemic restrictions remained in place, three priests in my parish celebrated a traditional rite called the Blessing of Water on the Vigil of Epiphany. The rite is similar to rituals in the churches of the East—the Byzantine Catholic Church calls it the Great Blessing of Waters on the Eve of Theophany—and it entered the Roman Ritual in 1890, the same year Pope Leo XIII composed his “Exorcism Against Satan and the Apostate Angels,” a longer version of his familiar 1886 St. Michael prayer.
Many parishioners attended the blessing in the church that night, bringing with them water in receptacles of every kind, from antique glass perfume bottles to plastic gallon jugs, all of which were spread out on the rosewood floor around the altar. The priests wore white. There were lit candles and incense, and in the loft to the rear a cantor chanted the Litany of Saints and psalmody celebrating water for its life-giving (“There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God”) as well as its awe-inspiring and even death-dealing powers (“Therefore we fear not, though the earth be shaken / and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea, / Though its waters rage and foam / and the mountains quake at its surging”). After the psalms and the Magnificat, one of the priests recited quietly, in Latin, the central oration from Pope Leo’s longer prayer to St. Michael, a deck-clearing exorcism that aims to deliver, not a possessed person, but the Church herself from the destructive designs of Satan (“Begone and stay far from the Church of God. . . . Desist from harming the Church and fettering her freedom,” and so on). Salt, on the altar, was exorcised (“O salt, creature of God, I exorcise you”) and blessed, and then the waters—all of the lids of the containers having been carefully removed—were exorcised in their turn (“O water, creature of God, I exorcise you”) and blessed.
Time passed. Silence increased. It took a long time, giving the requisite attention to every container of water in the sanctuary. As the priests carefully made their way among the congregated jugs and jars, repeatedly bending and straightening up, sprinkling salt in every receptacle and making triplicate signs of the cross, the owners of the containers watched silently from the pews—standing vigil, as it were, over the work of the priests—until finally, the “manifold purifications” having been accomplished, every bottle and jug was resealed and signed, the Te Deum was sung, and everyone collected his own water and carried it off to the sanctuary of his home.
As 2021 neared its end, I looked forward to attending the blessing again, in part because my supply of water had run low and the holy-water fonts in the church remained empty, but also because—having done my homework in the meantime—I looked forward to participating more consciously in a ceremony whose significance I had only vaguely grasped the year before. I looked forward to hearing again the gorgeous psalms about water, and meditating on water’s foundational role in salvation history (“O God, who for the salvation of mankind has built thy greatest mysteries on this substance . . .”). I anticipated experiencing liturgically the larger meaning of Epiphany, which in the Western tradition showcases the Magi, but in the liturgies of the East prioritizes Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, together with the miracle at Cana, another revelatory sign written in water. I looked forward, in brief, to celebrating the unity of East and West, English and Latin, not to mention the unity of creation assumed in the rite’s use of the word “creature.”
That unfamiliar usage—“creature of salt,” “creature of water”—had sent me to the dictionary the year before, to confirm that inanimate elements as well as animate beings can indeed be called creatures of God. St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures came to mind (Brother Fire, Sister Water), together with the truth that Nature, like ourselves, was created good but afterward fell, dragged down in the wake of our depredations. So it made sense to me, as I followed this line of reasoning to its end, that when the Church presses into her service one of God’s creatures in a preeminent way, not only blessings but also prayers of exorcism may be in order, which, in the case of Epiphany water and according to the testimony of experienced exorcists, yield a sacramental more effective than ordinary holy water for keeping the ancient enemy at bay.
Meanwhile, in the year that was ending, troubling changes had taken place. In July 2021, Rome had moved to limit celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass, and similar restrictions were placed on Old Rite sacraments in late November. These restrictions from Rome didn’t affect my parish directly, which had never been home to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Of greater concern to the parish was the fate of our Dominican priests, who, after 135 years of service, had been removed by our archbishop in December and replaced by diocesan priests. This was the matter uppermost in everyone’s mind in those days, mine included, as I filled jugs with water and drove to the scheduled blessing.
The church was empty. One of the newly appointed priests, alone in the nave, expressed sympathy from behind his mask but confirmed the last-minute cancellation.
Back on the street, in a cold, pouring-down rain, I tried to explain to others who were arriving the reasons for the cancellation, eliciting bewilderment, disbelief, and a flash of anger. (They won’t bless the water?) At home, I called a friend who read me the announcement on the parish website:
At this time the mind and intention of our Holy Father regarding liturgies using the traditional form is abundantly clear, and in seeking to be a parish in full visible communion with him and his intentions it is important to joyfully and faithfully follow the guidance of Peter.
In the evangelical and charismatic circles I frequented before becoming Catholic, spiritual warfare was ongoing. Faith healers and deliverance ministers, self-appointed prophets and preachers routinely called out Satan in public, tearing down strongholds and binding every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God. Extemporaneous prayer was a skill set all its own in that world, as experienced prayer warriors plunged without warning into extravagant set pieces of intercessory prayer, passionate outpourings intimidating to the uninitiated. If the mood in those circles was often embattled and pugilistic, it was frequently competitive, too (Who had the gifts?), and sometimes dangerously dualistic, as when Satan was detected behind even the smallest obstacle or trial. When something went wrong, it was generally assumed to be his fault, and when everything went wrong, it was definitely a vindication of the work, and reason to embark, again, on prayer that demanded change and restoration.
Very different, when I came to the Catholic Church, was the mood in the pews: pacific, quiescent, even acquiescent. In the dispositions of ordinary Catholics, I discovered a remarkable confidence in God’s providence, and a literally cruciform faith, which accepted sufferings as crosses from God’s hand. To the extent that spiritual warfare was being waged in this Church, the weapon of choice seemed to be holiness, or at least a nominal commitment to growing in virtue. Mary, with her foot on the snake, was the quiet exemplar of this strategy, but the saints, too, in their different ways, all testified to it. This was a world in which individual charismatic gifts were more suspected than celebrated, miracle workers fled to the desert, and Carthusians were buried in unmarked graves; a world in which temptations to pride were considered the most dangerous temptations of all, and the greater a saint’s gifts the more likely he would be humbled by the Church—removed from leadership, say, in an order he himself had founded, and left to live out his days as a forgotten servant in the monastery kitchen.
These were the impressions, at any rate, that I formed in my first decade as a Catholic, and so far as they went, I believe they were sound. For ten, fifteen years—in mostly ordinary time, with apparently ordinary people—I participated in the life of this Church in which the most extraordinary graces are effected by the most apparently ordinary means: the daily routines of the altar, or a formula of words in an anonymous encounter in a confessional.
Then, one afternoon when I was leaving a weekday Mass, I happened on a group in the vestibule preparing for a Traditional Rite baptism. Acquainted with the child’s parents, I accepted a print-out of the rite in Latin and English, and prepared to follow along on the periphery. The celebration began, like all Catholic liturgies, with prescribed, impersonal prayers, rattled off by the priest in that almost mechanical way disconcerting to outsiders. There was nothing portentous, grandiose, or even nominally emotional about the priest’s delivery. But under the veil of the Latin language, in the traditional formulae of the sacrament, something explosive was happening. The priest was exorcising the child, I realized as I stared at the translation, and in no vague, uncertain terms. He was breathing on her face and commanding the unclean spirit to leave, exorcising salt and placing it in her mouth, rebuking the “accursed fiend” and ordering it to stay far away. After signing the child with the sign of the cross, he said quietly, “And this sign of the holy cross which we here trace on her brow, do thou, accursed demon, never dare to violate.” A third time, before entering the church, he turned to the child and ordered the enemy to depart: “I expel thee, every unclean spirit, in the name of God, the Father Almighty . . .”
To this point in my life in the Church, though I was aware of the traditional Mass, I had assumed it was the same Mass I attended every day, only in Latin. Was that not true? As the baptismal party entered the church and the rite moved swiftly to its end—all of the longer, precautionary prayers having been prayed in the vestibule—I remembered my own Catholic baptism and the year of preparation leading up to it. I remembered, among other things, certain optional “minor exorcisms” that I had had to insist be administered, which had turned out not to be what I expected. Certainly those vague, indirect, entirely circumspect prayers bore no resemblance to the commands I had just heard.
So I understood, going forward, that the Church had done things differently in the past. The conclusions I had come to were not the whole truth about her life, at least not as she had lived it for most of her history. She had had weapons at her disposal of which I had been entirely unaware, and the adjective “militant” meant something more literal than I had supposed.
Still, another decade would pass—a decade culminating in the apparently small matter of the cancellation of the Epiphany Water Blessing—before I really did my homework, and learned not only how much actual content had been sacrificed when the Church’s rites were revised after Vatican II, but what prayers in particular had been removed from her liturgies, from every celebration in which they appeared, almost without exception.
Traditionally, every person who was baptized in the Catholic Church was solemnly and repeatedly exorcised before being baptized. Infants, children, adults, and converts from other religions were all exorcised, and even Protestants whose baptisms the Church recognized as valid were administered “supplemental rites” that included the same exorcisms prayed over everyone else. In fact, in the early years of Christianity, individuals preparing for baptism were exorcised every day for the forty days of Lent, “sending the demons fleeing.”
In the Church’s traditional exorcistic prayers, there was no beating around the bush; there were no euphemisms or indirections. Baptism, as celebrated by the Church, was not simply an ecclesial blessing or rite of passage, but a preemptive strike in a cosmic battle, a decisive opening move in a contest in which the stakes could not have been higher. Indeed, in the eyes of the Church, an unbaptized person scarcely differed from a possessed person, in the sense that both, if in different ways, needed to be pried loose and taken back from Satan’s control. The fundamental tenet of Christianity—that Christ, by his Paschal sacrifice, has bought us back from the devil—was explicitly dramatized in the Church’s Traditional Rite, in which Christ, the one “strong man” capable of paying our ransom, through the ministry of the Church and the authority of his surrogate, the priest, drove out Satan in the exorcisms and then filled the candidate with his own Spirit in the baptism proper that followed.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Mindful of Jesus’s warning in Matthew 12 about the danger that the “empty house” of a dispossessed person may subsequently succumb to a worse infestation, the Church, whenever she performed an exorcism, followed it immediately by a blessing, or infilling of the Holy Spirit, so as to leave no opening or opportunity for the devil (“to lay his snares, creeping in by stealth”). The Church observed this sequence in baptism, in her treatment of the person being baptized. But the water, too, in the font, had been first exorcised and then blessed at the Easter Vigil; and the oils of chrism and catechumens that were subsequently poured into the water had themselves, traditionally, been exorcised and blessed at the Chrism Mass a few days prior to Easter.
The importance of exorcised and blessed sacramentals in the life of a Catholic did not end with baptism. Extending the special role played by water in salvation history to the drama of an individual’s spiritual life, the Church, in a separate rite called the Order for Blessing Water, not only exorcised water but made it an instrument of exorcism, “fit to brace us against the envious foe . . . empowered to drive him forth and exile him together with his fallen angels.” In the blessing that followed, the apotropaic exhortations continued:
Let this creature serve thee in expelling demons and curing diseases. Whatever it sprinkles in the homes of the faithful, be it cleansed and delivered from harm. Let such homes enjoy a spirit of goodness and an air of tranquility, freed from baneful and hidden snares . . .
This is the water, fortified by similarly exorcised and exorcising salt, that was the basis of every other official blessing conferred by the Church. The laity, too, carried it home for their family members and friends, barns, fields, and crops. Priests sprinkled it on the dying, and on the coffins of the dead. And every Sunday, before every high Mass, the celebrant sprinkled it on the congregation, the altar, and the other priests, in a ritual called the Asperges. Most visibly and routinely, this exorcised and exorcising water filled the holy water fonts of every Catholic church in Christendom—near the entrances, guarding the doors—so that every person who, on entering the church, signed himself with the water, recapitulated, in a small but real way, the same exorcisms prayed over him in baptism. This was no merely symbolic gesture or simple reminder of the sacrament. Rather, it was a refreshment of some of the same protections and blessings that baptism itself definitively confers.
So the Church did not, as I had supposed, eschew explicit spiritual combat. On the contrary, for most of her history she was vigorously engaged in such warfare. The appearance of quietude in the pews was misleading, or rather, when everything was going according to plan, it was a fruit of an ongoing vigilance exercised by the Church herself, in the persons of her ministers. Furthermore, by exorcising every person who entered her through baptism or confirmation, and especially by exorcising everyone outside her doors, the Church made it clear that this was a communal as well as an individual issue. She made clear the danger of contagion, and her concern for the health and integrity of her whole flock.
Bearing all this in mind, we might call the Catholic Church the original “safe space,” or “good pasture” promised in Psalm 23, where the sheep, protected by their shepherds from the ravages of predators, were able to “lie down in safety.” With membership in the Church came automatic, built-in, closely woven protections, like the walls of a sheepfold, inside which the ordinary routines of the spiritual life—occasional cleansing (the sacrament of confession) and regular feeding (the Eucharist)—could go forward without interference.
To put this another way, the Church specialized in preventative care. When one hears the word “exorcism,” one thinks of an exorcist delivering a possessed person. But an actual exorcist was always a specialist of last resort. Far more important to the ongoing health of the Church were these routine exorcistic prayers, written into the book-ending sacraments of baptism and extreme unction, and prayed over the primary sacramentals—water, salt, and oil—used by the Church in both quotidian (the blessing of a home) and exceptional (the ordination of a priest) celebrations.
But if the Church, for most of her history, was firmly committed to a responsible warfare, the ways of her warfare clearly differed from the ways of evangelical Protestantism. Just as, in the Church’s sacramental economy, extraordinary graces are effected by apparently ordinary means (compare, in an Old Testament foreshadowing of this economy, what Naaman expected Elisha to do for him with the seemingly ordinary action the prophet actually prescribed), so the Church’s vigilance in spiritual warfare never depended on the unstable ground of an individual’s charismatic gifts, personal discernment, or private inspirations. Instead, the Church’s exorcistic powers were absorbed into her liturgies and expressed in her rites, resulting in an objective rather than a subjective provision, a provision more impersonal than personal, a provision about which “no human being might boast.” In the Church’s bold, authoritative prayers there was no individual presumption but only the quiet authority of Christ himself, entrusted to his Church and exercised by her ordained, all-but-anonymous ministers. We might even say that in this Church in which a priest’s personal qualities were ideally subsumed by his office, and the most important prayers that he prayed were prayed silently and in Latin, the Messianic Secret continued in force (“Tell no one”), together with Jesus’s warning to his disciples when they returned elated by their new-found powers (“Don’t brag”).
Some may object to the practice of reserving the right to exorcise to bishops and priests, but the advantages to the Church’s traditional way of proceeding are clear enough. For one thing, by institutionalizing and routinizing spiritual warfare in the way she did, the Church, assuming the efficacy of her prayers, guaranteed an impressive level of spiritual protection to all of her members, not only to spiritual seekers or especially vocal parishioners. She safeguarded humility, too, in lay people and clerics alike, by lifting from everyone the burden of thinking that they had to—or even could—fight Satan alone, in their own strength. And she freed Catholics from an unhealthy preoccupation with Satan, because everyone understood, without having to ask, that the hierarchy was paying attention and the necessary prayers were being prayed. Far from infantilizing lay people, the Church, like a good parent, provided them with the protection they needed to mature unmolested, like Jesus himself as a child, or John the Baptist (“And the child grew, and became strong in spirit”). By responsibly exercising the apotropaic authority granted her by Christ, the Church, in times past, freed the laity for contemplation, for a deeper, richer communion with God himself in prayer.
But however many the advantages to the Church’s traditional way of discharging her responsibilities, reserving the right to exorcise to the hierarchy worked only so long as the hierarchy exercised it. And in the 1960s and 1970s, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, all of the routine exorcistic prayers that had been part of the Church’s liturgical patrimony for centuries disappeared.
First to go were the exorcisms in the so-called Supplemental Rites. Even before the Council ended, in a 1964 instruction called Inter Oecumenici, all of the exorcisms prayed over converts whose baptisms had been accepted by the Church were struck. In the same instruction, the Leonine prayers were suppressed, including Leo XIII’s shorter St. Michael prayer, which had been prayed after every low Mass for seventy-eight years.
The full implementation of the reform, after the close of the Council in 1965, took a long time. The new Book of Blessings did not appear until 1984, and the solemn Rite of Exorcism—a sacramental outside the scope of this article—was not revised until 1999. In the years between, there were endless subcommissions and study groups, redactions and revisions, plenary sessions and liturgical experiments in the field. There were deep divisions and protracted rivalries, dismissals and resignations, and in some cases very public anger over the direction the reform was taking. But in the end, when the smoke cleared—when the new rites had been promulgated and permission to pray the old ones almost entirely withdrawn—all of the ordinary exorcisms were gone. In some cases, as in children’s baptisms, the revised rite retained the word “exorcism” to designate certain prayers prayed over the candidates, but the prayers themselves were no longer recognizable as exorcisms. In other cases, the suppression was more straightforward. The sacramental oils, for example, continue to be blessed by a bishop at the Chrism Mass, but they are no longer exorcised. Most notoriously, in the new Order for Blessing Water Outside the Celebration of Mass, which is the direct descendent of the traditional Order for Blessing Water discussed above, not only is the water not exorcised (nor fortified with exorcised salt), it is not even blessed. God is blessed, for giving us the gift of water, and the people, in their responses, ask him to bless the Church. But the water itself is not blessed.
The clear hostility of the reform to language in any way confrontational or martial extended to the revision of the Divine Office. Verses from certain psalms, and in some cases whole psalms, were removed from the psalter, on the grounds that they were too militaristic or violent. Bishop Spülbeck of East Germany, one of the few reformers from a communist country, protested: “Afflicted as we are by a very difficult external situation, we need expressions suitable for use contra diabolum.” Ten years later, in a book called La Confusion des Langues, the historian Alain Besançon observed wryly:
The idea of struggle, of war, occupies such a position in the Christian scriptures that one wonders how it can be obscured. I’m told that in the French editions of the breviary, the psalter has been expurgated of its most warlike and imprecatory scriptural verses on the grounds that they are incompatible with “modern sensibilities.”
Incompatible with modern sensibilities. The phrase brings us to the secondary causes for the reform’s rejection of the exorcisms, many of which fall under the scriptural category “fear of man.” Fear of offending Protestants, for example, by suggesting that their baptismal rituals were in any way deficient, may have been the real reason for removing the exorcisms in the Supplemental Rites. The official explanation was that, since the exorcisms amounted to a “prebaptismal ritual,” they were unnecessary if a baptism had been accepted as valid. Yet the exorcisms had always been part of the Rite of Baptism as written, and Catholic baptisms, too, would have been deemed “deficient” (as opposed to invalid) without them. A Catholic, for example, who had been hurriedly baptized in an emergency, would afterward, as soon as possible, have been exorcised by the Church. But the architects of the new rite of reception, deferring to the ecumenical movement, demonstrated their “new respect” for other religions by anathematizing the Church’s centuries-old practice of emptying her storehouses for converts, of giving them everything that might have contributed to their thriving.
In the case of the St. Michael prayer, political anxieties were in play. After 1930, the prayer had been offered for the intention of restoring religious freedom to Russia, an intention that comported awkwardly with the Vatican’s new, more conciliatory posture toward the communist regimes of the East.
Meanwhile, “fear of man” covers more than a fear of offending others. It also suggests a fear of being judged by them: judged credulous, for example, superstitious, or out-of-date. Interestingly, it was when the routine exorcistic prayers began to be translated into the vernacular that many of the reformers began to back away from them. The strongly worded imprecations, the full force of which had always been veiled by the Latin, made many uncomfortable once they were translated into ordinary language (What will people think?). One can imagine, in another time and place—perhaps in less politicized, fraught circumstances—the discomfort with the translations occasioning a reconsideration of the decision for the vernacular. The reformers might have asked themselves, for example, in the case of the exorcisms—and perhaps also those parts of the Mass that the Council had envisioned continuing in Latin—whether some things might be better left veiled.
This did not happen. The commitment to the vernacular, by this point, may have been simply too strong. But it has to be said, too, that some of the more influential reformers were not so much afraid of the judgments of modernity as persuaded by them. How else to explain the cheerful, vacuous assumptions underlying the new Order for Blessing Water Outside the Celebration of Mass, a blessing that proceeds as if, between the time when “God looked at everything he had made and pronounced it very good” and the present, nothing happened? If the Council was guided by the Holy Spirit, the post-conciliar reform was influenced by the spirit of the age, a fever-dream of spiritual naivete and revolutionary fervor from which even Pope Paul VI awoke too late to correct the direction events had taken. Not for nothing did Jesus include “foolishness” in his long list of the things that can come out of a man, and defile him.
But if the secondary causes for the Church relaxing her vigilance and, in effect, laying down her arms are many and complex, the primary cause is perfectly simple and clear. To identify it, one has only to ask who benefited from all of the revisions, evasions, and suppressions. The question brings us back, finally, to Pope Leo XIII and the occasion of his composing his St. Michael prayers. In a book called Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael, a work more footnotes than text, Kevin Symonds sifts the evidence for the storied occasion, and concludes that, in essentials, the story is true: In 1886, Pope Leo had a vision of demons gathering in Rome, a vision so persuasive and terrifying he immediately wrote a short prayer to St. Michael and ordered it sent to all the bishops in the world. Four years later, in 1890, he composed a longer prayer called “Exorcism Against Satan and the Apostate Angels,” an exorcism that, as pointed out earlier, aims to protect the Church herself, and souls generally, from Satan’s power. While the shorter prayer was intended for the use of the whole Church, the longer prayer was for bishops, and for priests with the proper permission to pray it. Leo himself reportedly prayed his longer prayer many times a day, often while walking in the Vatican gardens.
Not coincidentally, also in 1890, a new version of the Epiphany Water Blessing was approved by the Sacred Congregation of Rites—the same blessing I attended in 2021—which incorporated the central exorcism from Leo’s longer prayer. In the aftermath of his vision, in other words, Leo not only forged new prayer weapons but also repurposed old ones, for the express intention of strengthening the Church’s defenses. When one considers the urgency of the prayers he composed, as well as the faithfulness he demanded from both himself and the whole Church in praying them, one has an idea, perhaps, of the gravity of the vision that compelled him.
There was also more to the vision, according to several of Symonds’s sources. Besides seeing demons gathering in Rome, Leo purportedly overheard a conversation between the Lord and Satan, in which Satan boasted of the success of his ongoing campaign against the Church, and added that, if he only had more freedom, he could destroy it completely. How long would that take? the Lord asked him. Fifty or sixty years. You have the freedom, the Lord responded, and the time.
As stories like this one are handed down to posterity, they accrue embellishments and unsubstantiated assumptions. In the most popular version of Leo’s story, one hundred years, or the whole twentieth century, were said to have been given over to Satan by the Lord to test the Church. Yet there was no basis for these inferences in the sources Symonds quotes. Instead, a shorter time period was specified, with no indication as to when it would begin. Moreover, it was always unclear, given the wording of the reports, whether the Lord sovereignly gave Satan time, or simply affirmed that, in point of fact, he would have it.
Whatever one makes of this account of an overheard conversation, one thing is beyond dispute. In the years following the Council, in a decisive break with her past, the Church stopped confronting, rebuking, or dismissing Satan. As her new rites took hold, she essentially gave him a pass, rarely identifying him and never addressing him directly. If the devil’s best trick is said to be convincing people he doesn’t exist, the postconciliar Church collaborated in the deception.
So did the Church herself embolden Satan, by abandoning a tradition that constrained him? If she did, and her negligence contributed to her own corruption, she has the authority, even now, to change course. In a small way, that is what Pope Benedict XVI attempted to do in 2007, with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Benedict’s apostolic letter wasn’t only about the traditional Mass. It gave qualified exorcists, for example, permission to pray the 1614 Rite of Exorcism, which had been dangerously weakened by the revisions of the 1990s. Parents, if they could find a willing and competent priest, could choose to have their child baptized in the Old Rite. Priests, without fear of censure, could exorcise and bless water according to the traditional formula. And so on. These and similar permissions Pope Francis mostly rescinded in 2021, in his own motu proprio and the dubia that followed.
And yet Francis, more than other popes of recent memory, speaks openly about Satan, and the critical importance of prayer in combatting him. Francis’s hostility to traditionalists obscures an important area of agreement, one that could be exploited for the benefit of the whole Church. For all the beauty in which they are arrayed—a beauty so overwhelming it has exposed traditionalists to charges of aestheticism—the traditional rites of the Catholic Church are fundamentally martial: “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn / fair as the moon, bright as the sun / terrible as an army with banners?”
As early as 2014, Pope Francis encouraged the laity to take up again Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael, at least in their private devotions. In the years since, many parishes have embraced the suggestion enthusiastically and publicly, praying the prayer together after every Mass. One of the first prayers to be removed, then, in the general dismantling that followed the Council, has been restored, at least unofficially, in many dioceses.
It is a beginning. But the shorter prayer to St. Michael is primarily a prayer for lay people, and we need more than a prayerful and vigilant laity. More than ever, we need priests—dedicated, purified priests—exercising again, on behalf of the whole Church, the kinds of responsibilities proper to their consecration. If the Church is a sheepfold and Jesus Christ is its gate, priests are still his gatekeepers (John 10:3), uniquely commissioned by him to bind and to loose, to open but also to shut out the thief and the robber. In her enthusiasm for openness, the postconciliar Church has neglected its corollary. She has forgotten that she is still at war, to the end of the age.
Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.