The once familiar prayer to St. Michael the Archangel recited after Low Mass in the old rite is gently and increasingly making its way back into Catholic piety. Quite reminiscent of the old days, some parishioners will spontaneously offer this supplication again after Mass in response to the civil and ecclesiastical turmoil being experienced by the present generation. The entreaties of the prayer are perennially valid: “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 the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.” The prayer dates back to at least 1888 when Pope Leo XIII directed the Catholic world to offer this prayer along with three Hail Marys and three invocations to the Sacred Heart “for the conversion of sinners and for the freedom and exaltation of our Holy Mother the Church,” as an equally noble prayer said at the same time entreated.
These earnest prayers were originally added after the formal liturgy to plead for the restoration of the Papal States lost to the Pope during the Italian wars of unification in the 1860s and 70s. For the next hundred years, the Pope was “the prisoner of the Vatican,” bereft of territory and deprived of subjects. After Pope Pius XI settled the Vatican question with Mussolini in 1929, that Pontiff directed that these prayers, so much a part of Catholic devotional life by that time, be offered for the conversion of Russia. Indeed, these prayers after low Mass continued right up until the revision of the liturgy proposed by the Vatican Council took effect in the 1960s.
Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI were keen to discern the power of the Catholic faithful adding their vocal prayers to the formal prayers just completed by the priest at Mass. As James 5:16 rightly observes: “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” It was with this same insight that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and those composing the new Roman Missal included the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful as an integral part of every Roman Catholic Liturgy. Vocally participating in these prayers, the faithful at Mass are “exercising the office of their baptismal Priesthood” and are offering their “prayers to God for the salvation of all.” By instituting or reviving the use of bidding prayers, the Council Fathers were following the lead of St. Paul who wrote in 1 Timothy 2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” The old Tridentine rite preserved the general intercessions only on Good Friday, although “The Lord be with you” and “Let Us Pray” starting the offertory (with no prayer following) are a relic of a former Prayer of the Faithful. Mistakes like this were why the Council Fathers decreed, “Other parts which suffered loss through accidents of history are to be restored to the vigor they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.”
Today, many parishes thoughtfully generate supplications each week according to the outline suggested by the Council Fathers: a) for the needs of the Church; b) for public authorities and the salvation of the whole world; c) for those burdened by any kind of difficulty; d) for the local community. Most often the intention for which a stipend has been offered is mentioned. And, of course, great variations are introduced at weddings, funerals, and other sacramental celebrations.
Alas, the general intercessions have sometimes degenerated into a series of petitions read from a pamphlet printed in Portland, Oregon, or Phoenix, Arizona, with no personal or parochial contribution. Such a routine recitation of generic petitions is certainly not what the Council or Scripture had in mind. Consider St. Paul’s words to the Romans to be heard at Mass this coming Sunday: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” St. Paul envisions a tightly knit Christian community with one another’s interests at heart, intent on personal spiritual support and concerned about public material needs. The bidding prayers are not accidentally called the “Prayers of the Faithful.” They should genuinely echo the prayers found in the hearts of the assembled faithful for their own needs and for the good of the universal Church.
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