In the southeast of Italy—the “spur” of the Italian “boot” one might say—is a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel high atop a mountainous promontory called Monte Gargano. It is the oldest shrine dedicated to St. Michael in western Europe and is not far from where Padre Pio lived, died, and is now buried at his now famous friary in San Giovanni Rotondo. Padre Pio was deeply devoted to the Sanctuary of St. Michael atop Mount Gargano and would often direct penitents to climb the mountain to petition the Archangel’s intercession in their battle against sin.
Padre Pio’s devotion to this hallowed place was not unique among prominent figures in history. The chronicles of the sanctuary document the visits of many emperors, kings, popes, and saints. Among them is St. Francis of Assisi, who upon arriving there was so impacted by the holiness of the place that he felt unworthy to even enter and so only knelt in prayer and kissed the stone floor of the entrance.
On May 8th the Church celebrates the origins of this sanctuary in the liturgical feast titled “The Apparition of St. Michael, Archangel”, which commemorates an event that took place during the reign of Pope Gelasius (492-6).
In the year 492, as the story goes, a bull strayed from the herd of a rich land owner from the nearby town of Siponto, which lay at the foot of Mount Gargano. The bull found its way into a cave near the summit of the mountain. The herdsman, hoping to frighten the bull out of the cave, fired an arrow into its dark recesses. Quite shockingly, the arrow miraculously returned, wounding the man who fired it. In the face of such a strange and miraculous occurrence, the man and his companions who witnessed the event sought the council of their local bishop. He recommended three days of prayer and fasting to discern the meaning behind the phenomenon. On the third day, these pious practices were answered when St. Michael appeared to the bishop and said:
You have done well to ask God what was hidden from men. A miracle that struck the man with his own arrow, so that it was clear that all this happens by my will.
I am the Archangel Michael and I am always in the presence of God. The cave is sacred to me. And since I have decided to protect this place and its inhabitants on Earth, I wanted to attest in this way that I am of this place and of everything that takes place as patron and custodian.
Where the rock is thrown open, the sins of men can be forgiven. What will be asked here in prayer will be granted. Go therefore to the mountain and dedicate the the cave to Christian worship.
From the words of the Archangel we can see how those who honor him at the hallowed grotto will be protected from the wiles of the Devil, just as the bull was protected from the arrow.
Not unlike many in our own day who have risen to positions of power in the Church, the bishop thought more of his own opinion on the matter than the obvious and simple will of God. The bishop hesitated to consecrate the grotto as a sanctuary of Christian worship as it was difficult to reach, being so high in the mountains and located in an area associated with pagan cults from the time of the Roman Empire.
While the bishop delayed, Siponto was besieged by an invading pagan army from Naples and was on the verge of surrender. The bishop managed to obtain a three day cease-fire and, as before, used those three days for prayer and fasting. Again, St. Michael appeared to the bishop and promised complete victory over the invaders. The message provided much need encouragement to the soldiers of Siponto who took up the fight again with even greater vigor. It is said that during the ensuing battle there were earthquakes and thunderbolts, which helped defeat Siponto’s enemies while demonstrating the power of the Archangel’s intercession.
After this second apparition and miracle in battle, the bishop felt total remorse for doubting the prudence of St. Michael’s request. It was now the year 493 and he arranged for a grand procession to be made up the mountain so he could at last consecrate the grotto as a church. Joined by others bishops along with the priest and people of the town, it was reported that eagles appeared over the bishops in the procession to shelter them from the rays of the sun with their outstretched wings. When they finally arrived at the mouth of the grotto the Archangel appeared again, stating, “It is not your task to consecrate the Basilica I built. I who founded it, I myself consecrated it. But you go in and go to this place, placed under my protection.”
St. Michael didn’t wait for the bishop after all, and instead went and consecrated the grotto himself. When everyone processed inside they were amazed to see an altar was already erected with a cross upon it. They also found a footprint of St. Michael embedded on the rock floor. The first Mass in the Grotto of St. Michael was then offered.
Since that time, the grotto has affectionately been called the “Celestial Basilica” as it is the only proper Christian church never to have been consecrated by the humans hands of a bishop. It has the honor of being personally consecrated by St. Michael the Archangel to whom it is dedicated.
We will now acknowledge the opinion of scholars who believe the story of St. Michael’s intercession in battle actually has its origins in fighting that took place almost two centuries after the sanctuary on Mount Gargano was established. It is believed that during the fighting between the Lombards and Greeks of the Byzantine Empire to the east, the bishop of Siponto named Lawrence (who was later declare a saint), petitioned St. Michael’s intercession on behalf of the Lombards. In the battle that took place on May 8, 663, the Lombards were led to victory by the Duke of Benevento, Grimoald I. In commemoration of this event, May 8th was established as a local feast day in honor of St. Michael, which eventually spread throughout the Church and became associated less with the victory in battle and more with the Archangel’s apparitions when the sanctuary atop Mount Gargano was first established.
The fourth and final apparition of St. Michael at Gargano took place centuries later in 1656. A terrible pestilence was sweeping across southern Italy and the town on the slope of Mount Gargano, which now fittingly goes by Monte Sant’ Angelo, was in dire straits. The bishop of the town was named Alfonso Puccinelli, and he wisely followed the example of his predecessors of centuries before, and turned to St. Michael for help through prayer and fasting. So desperate was the situation that the bishop even considered placing a paper within the hands of St. Michael’s statue within the Grotto of the Apparitions with the name of each and every person of the town inscribed upon it. Before it came to that, while the bishop was praying in one of the rooms of his episcopal residence, he felt the earth quake before St. Michael suddenly appeared. The Archangel gave him the directive to bless the stones of his cave at Gargano and then to engrave upon them the letters “MA” for Michael the Archangel. The apparent vision concluded with the promise: “Anyone who devotedly keeps these stones with him will be immune to the plague.”
The Archangel’s promise was fulfilled and since that time the Sanctuary of St. Michael at Mount Gargano has distributed stones from the Grotto of the Apparitions far and wide. These are popular relics/sacramentals that are used by the faithful to invoke the intercession of this powerful intercessor to protect them from the spiritual snares of the Devil, as well as from physical harm.
In the town of Monte Sant’ Angelo a monument still stands today, which the bishop had erected to commemorate St. Michael’s protection during the plague. It reads:
To the Prince of the Angels
Conqueror of the Plague
Patron and Guardian
we place this monument
in eternal gratitude
Let us pray on this feast day that Michael the Archangel, the general of the angelic host who in the past defeated the Devil and his cohort of rebellious demons and reversed the tides of plague, may come to our aid in this time of bitter trial. May his intercession delivers us from the plague of the Coronavirus so the faithful might return to their parish churches to honor God in worship in the manner of the choirs of angels in Heaven.
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