The Intercession of Saint Michael in Christian History
There is a large limestone cave in Gargano, Italy, that was a site of pagan worship in Greek and Roman times. The story of how the cave was transformed into a church dedicated to St. Michael is partially told in a collection of stories called the Liber de apparitione Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, which first appeared in the ninth century. It is also recorded in the Acta Sanctorum by the Bollandists, a Jesuit organization that has studied the lives of the saints since the mid-1600s. Additionally, in the Middle Ages, a very popular collection of stories about many saints, called The Golden Legend, was written. It included the stories about Michael from Gargano as well as his appearances in other places.
Likely around 490, a wealthy noble named Elvio Emanuele was searching for a bull that had wandered from his herd on the slopes of the mountain. He found it stuck in the entrance to a cave. Angry at the bull for being unmanageable, he tried to have it shot with an arrow by a servant, but somehow the arrow came back and struck the archer himself. (In another version of the story, Elvio shot the arrow himself.) The noble went to Bishop Maiorano of Sipontum — who was later canonized and is now known as St. Lorenzo Maiorano — and recounted the strange events. The bishop, sensing something supernatural was afoot, ordered three days of prayer and penance.
At the end of the third day, St. Michael appeared to the bishop, saying:
Know ye that this man is so hurt by my will. I am Michael the archangel, which will that this place be worshipped in earth, and will have it surely kept. And therefore I have proved that I am keeper of this place by the demonstrance and showing of this thing.
After this apparition, the people and the bishop made a procession to pray at entrance of the cave. Two years later, likely in 492, the region was attacked by Odoacer and the Christian forces were all but defeated. Bishop Maiorano negotiated a three-day truce with the barbarians, during which the people prayed and did penance. But then St. Michael appeared to the bishop and promised help if they would attack the enemy. During the ensuing battle, a storm of sand and hail broke out that terrified the barbarians, who fled.
Once more the bishop led a procession to the cave to thank St. Michael, but he did not enter, still unwilling to claim the cave for Michael since the place had been considered sacred by local pagans. Bishop Maiorano asked Pope Gelasius I for advice, and the Holy Father told him to occupy the cave and to consecrate it a church.
When they arrived to consecrate the cave, Michael appeared to the bishop again. This time, he explained that it was not necessary to consecrate the cave as it had already been consecrated by Michael’s presence. The bishop entered and found an altar covered with a red cloth with a crystal cross on top. He had a church built at the front of the cave and dedicated it to St. Michael on September 29, 493.
And so, at the archangel’s direction, the cave was turned into a church, and it became known throughout the world in a short time. The region took the name of St. Michael, and the sanctuary became one of the four major pilgrimage sites in all of Europe for centuries. St. Francis of Assisi did not feel worthy to enter but prayed for thirty days and nights outside the cave. Later, St. Padre Pio would send people needing deliverance from evil spirits to the cave, and they were healed. The cave has been visited by pilgrims, kings, queens, popes, and saints ever since.
St. Michael Against the Plague
The cave and the sanctuary built out of it returned to prominence in the seventeenth century, when, in 1656, a plague was ravaging Naples and the surrounding countryside. The bishop, Alfonso Puccinelli, pleaded to St. Michael the Archangel for help. At dawn on September 22, after three days of fervent prayer and fasting, St. Michael appeared and promised that those who reverently kept small stones from the cave in their homes and prayed earnestly would be saved from the epidemic. And indeed the words were fulfilled. In memory of this miracle, the bishop erected a statue of St. Michael in front of his palace and added the inscription: “Prince of angels, conqueror of the plague.”
Stones from St. Michael’s cave are still distributed today, both as general sacramentals and as relics, especially to help against the demonic. (There is a common misunderstanding that Michael promised that the stones would liberate people from demons, but this actually referred to the plague.) Michael’s role in defeating Satan (Rev. 12:7–10) and his consecration of the cave makes the idea of the stones’ efficacy reasonable, though, and many exorcists around the world have used stones from the cave in their rites, with effects similar to those of relics of other saints.
St. Michael also intervened in other plagues through the ages and is for this reason considered a patron against sickness (in addition to his many other titles and works). The first known worldwide epidemic of bubonic plague took place in the sixth century AD, killing tens of millions, and it hit Rome especially hard in 590. Plagues were interpreted as a chastisement from God, and so Christians arranged processions of icons of Mary in the streets. A young deacon who would later become Pope St. Gregory the Great organized many of the processions, and at the end of one of them, he saw an apparition of St. Michael atop Hadrian’s Mausoleum in Rome, and the archangel sheathed his flaming sword. This was taken to signify that the wrath of God had been appeased, and the plague stopped. The mausoleum was renamed the Castel Sant’Angelo, and today a statue of the archangel can be seen where he appeared.