Dear Bothers and Sisters!
I am delighted to find myself in your midst, in the shadow of this Sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel which for fifteen centuries has been the goal of pilgrimages and reference point for those who seek God and wish to follow Christ, through whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities” (Col 1:16).
I cordially greet all of you pilgrims who have come from the towns surrounding this magnificent promontory of Monte Gargano. It offers to the visitor’s gaze beautiful views with its sweet, flowered landscape and the characteristic clusters of gnarled olive trees on the rocky slopes. I particularly greet the civil and religious authorities who have helped to make this pastoral meeting possible; I greet the Archbishop of Manfredonia, Mons. Valentino Vailati, whom I thank for the words with which he initiated this manifestation of faith. Also and above all, I greet the Benedictine Fathers of the Abbey of Montevergine, to whom the spiritual care of this sanctuary is entrusted. I express my gratitude to them, and in a special way to their Abbot, Dom Tommaso Agostino Gubitosa, for the Christian animation and the spiritual climate that they guarantee to those who come here to strengthen their spirits at the wellsprings of the faith.
I have come here, as did so many of my predecessors on the chair of Peter, to enjoy for a moment the atmosphere proper to this sanctuary, an atmosphere of silence, prayer and penance; I have come to venerate and invoke St Michael the Archangel, that he may protect and defend the Holy Church at a time when it is difficult to give authentic Christian witness without compromise and accommodation.
From the time that Pope Gelasius I assented, in 493, to the dedication of the grotto of the apparitions of St. Michael as a place of worship and paid his first visit here, granting the indulgence of the “Angelic Pardons”, a series of Roman Pontiffs have followed in his footsteps to honor this sacred place. Among them were Agapitus I, Leo IX, Urban II, Innocent II, Celestine III, Urban VI, Gregory IX, St Peter Celestine and Benedict IX. Numerous saints also came here to draw strength and consolation. I recall St Bernard, St William of Vercelli, the founder of the Abbey of Montevergine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Catherine of Siena; one of these visits which has rightly remained famous and still vivid was that made by St Francis of Assisi, who came here to prepare for Lent in 1221. Tradition holds that, considering himself unworthy to enter the sacred grotto, he stopped at the entrance and carved a sign of the cross on a stone.
This lively and uninterrupted flow of illustrious and humble pilgrims—which from the early Middle Ages to our day has made this sanctuary a place of prayer and reaffirmation of the Christian faith—shows how much the figure of the Archangel Michael, the protagonist in many pages of the Old and New Testaments, is felt and invoked by the people and how much need the Church has of his heavenly protection: of him, who is presented in the Bible as the great warrior against the Dragon, the leader of the demons. We read in the Book of Revelation: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:7-9). With this dramatic description, the sacred author presents us with the fall of the first angel, who was seduced by the ambition to become “like God”. Whence the reaction of the Archangel Michael, whose Hebrew name “Who is like God?”, affirms the uniqueness of God and his inviolability.
As fragmentary as it is, the evidence of Revelation concerning the personality and the role of St Michael is very eloquent. He is the Archangel (cf. Jude 1:9) who affirms the inalienable rights of God. He is one of the princes of heaven (cf. Dan 12:1)—charged with guarding the Chosen People—from whom the Savior will come. Now the new People of God is the Church. That is the reason she considers him her protector and support in all her struggles for the defense and expansion of the kingdom of God on earth. It is true that “the powers of death shall not prevail”, as the Lord assured (Mt 16:18), but this does not mean that we are exempt from trials and battles against the snares of the evil one.
In this struggle the Archangel Michael stands alongside the Church to defend her against all the iniquities of the age, to help believers to resist the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Petr 5:8).
This battle against the devil which characterizes the Archangel Michael is still going on, because the devil is still alive and at work in world. In fact, the evil that is in it, the disorder we see in society, the infidelity of man, the interior fragmentation of which he is a victim, are not merely the consequences of original sin, but also the effect of the dark and infesting activity of Satan, of this saboteur of man’s moral equilibrium. St Paul does not hesitate to call him “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), inasmuch as he shows himself to be an astute enchanter, capable of insinuating himself into our actions so as to introduce deviations that are as destructive as they are apparently conformed to our instinctive aspirations. It is for this reason that the Apostle of the Gentiles warns Christians of the snares of the devil and his innumerable followers, when he exhorts the inhabitants of Ephesus to put on “the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12).
We are reminded of this struggle by the figure of St Michael the Archangel, to which the Church in both the East and the West, has unceasingly directed a special devotion. As is well known, the first sanctuary dedicated to him arose in Constantinople through the work of Constantine: it is the celebrated Michaelion, which was followed in that new capital: of the Empire by numerous other churches dedicated to the Archangel. In the West, from the fifth century the cult of St Michael spread to many cities such as Rome, Milan, Piacenza, Genoa, Venice; among the many sites, the most famous is certainly this one on Monte Gargano.
On the bronze door molded in Constantinople in 1076, the Archangel is depicted in the act of vanquishing the infernal dragon. This is the symbol with which art represents him to us and the liturgy leads us to invoke him. Everyone recalls the prayer that used to be recited years ago at the end of the Holy Mass, “Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio” (Saint Michael Archangel defend us in the hour of conflict); in a few moments I shall repeat it in the name of the whole Church.
Before making that prayer, I impart to all of you present and to your families and loved ones my blessing, which I also, extend to those who suffer in body and spirit.