For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. — 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
INTRODUCTION: STORIES ABOUT POPE LEO’S VISION OF THE DEVIL
While he was attending Mass in 1884 Pope Leo XIII reportedly had a vision and overheard a conversation between God and the devil, Satan. The conversation purported to be a request by Satan for the 75 to 100 years he needed in order to destroy the Catholic Church. God reportedly granted Satan’s request. The apparition gives us an insight into what purports to be a troubling negotiation between God and the devil—between good and evil—much like the conversation between God and Satan in the Old Testament story of Job.
A number of stories about the vision have appeared over the years. Leo himself never spoke publicly or in writing about the incident. Joe Tremblay, in his 2013 article The 100 Years Test, writes the pope “turned pale and collapsed as though dead.” Father William Saunders ,in his 2003 article The Prayer to St. Michael , expands on the description by relating that several attending Cardinals found the Pope had
no pulse…and the Holy Father was feared dead [and then] suddenly, Pope Leo awoke and said, “What a horrible picture I was permitted to see!”
Yet another version offered in Tradition in Action claims that Leo added
in the midst of the horror [of the vision] the Archangel St. Michael appeared and cast Satan and his legions into the abyss of hell.
In Leo’s vision,
God gave Satan the choice of one century in which to do his worst work against the Church…the devil chose the Twentieth Century.
—Fr. William Saunders, The Prayer to St. Michael
So troubling was the vision, that the Pope composed The Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel in which he pleaded “defend us in battle!” and to “be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.” The pope ordered the prayer be recited at the end of each Lower Mass. Pope Paul VI suppressed the rite and prayer in 1968.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY—THE DEVIL’S WORK?
The Twentieth Century was, indeed, a bad one. World Wars I and II engulfed the globe. The rise of communism with its anti-Christ philosophy shook Christianity. The Armenian genocide and the Holocaust are breath-taking examples of the Century’s murderous excess. The atom bomb was made real by scientists, many of whom didn’t believe in prayer or a spiritual God. Were they agents of the devil? Secularism swept through nation after nation as Christ’s influence was slowly eroded. Church attendance declined, and along with it religious vocations dropped dramatically. And as a capstone of horrors, Pope John Paul II was shot in an assassination attempt. The sin of abortion was legalized as part of a worldwide sexual revolution. So the question arises: Did the devil alter the Church?
One train of thought can be found on the website of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Wayne, Michigan. A web page article entitled The Vision of Pope Leo XIII argues that Pope John XXIII started the church’s decline by summoning the Second Vatican Council, which did much to upend the Church’s doctrines and teachings. In 1964 Pope Paul VI ended the mandatory Prayer of St. Michael’s recital at the end of every low Mass. The website article asserts Pope Paul VI
…let the devil develop a church that is called Catholic, but is not. The devil has twisted and distorted church teachings so much that there truly is a brand new church, a new order (Novus Ordo) and the true church has been reduced in population to a mere shell of what it once was…[even so] it will survive
The article continues, assuring the faithful by quoting
Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.
—Matt 16:18 (Douay-Rheims)
HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS OF POPE LEO’S VISION AND HIS PRAYER
Historical investigations give the first public story in a 1933 German newspaper about the prayer to the Archangel St. Michael. A year later Fr. Bers, a German writer, claimed that after an extensive search he could find no mention of the vision. A 1955 edition of the Roman Journal Ephemerides Liturgicae. cites Father Domenico Pechenino, who worked at the Vatican during Leo XIII’s papacy and who claimed in 1947 that he witnessed the event. The same article quotes Cardinal Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano (1872-1952) as relating that Leo’s
...private secretary, Monsignor Rinaldo Angeli… [claimed] Leo had seen a vision of demonic spirits who were congregating on the Eternal City (Rome) [inspiring him to write] the Saint Michael prayer.
Emmett O’Regan in his blog Prophecy of Pope Leo XIII: Update opines that before 1933 the story must have “originally circulated in oral form amongst the Vatican staff and employees.” Neither Father Pechenino nor Monsignor Angeli mention the fainting and deathlike trance of the Pope. O’Regan writes that Pechenino said
…we saw him raise his head and stare at something above the [Mass] Celebrant’s head. He was staring noiselessly, without batting an eye. His expression was one of horror and awe; the color and look of his face changing rapidly. Something unusual and grave was happening to him…[and then] coming to his senses …he headed for his private office.
—Emmet O’Regan, op.cit.
A half hour later he handed the Secretary of the Congregation of Rights the Prayer to St. Michael and told him to send it out to all the ordinaries of the world. Pechenino also said he didn’t remember in what year the incident occurred.
ABOUT POPE LEO XIII
So much uncertainty. So what do we know about Leo himself? We know he was one of the most learned of all our popes. He spoke six languages fluently. Elected pope in 1878 at 68 years old, he died twenty five years later in 1903 at 93. He was the oldest pope in history. When elected to the papacy, the Cincinnati [OH] Daily Star declared he was a “commanding figure [with a face] full of intelligence…[and] he has a nasal twang.” The Star went on to relate “he carries himself with almost haughty dignity …[but] has simple tastes.” The New York Tribune asserted “he is a man of blameless life, strong mind, gentle disposition, culture, a scholar, refined manners and sincere piety.”
In 1900 a London Mail reporter spent a day with the then-89 year old pontiff and reported: “despite his great age he is a marvel of physical and intellectual vigor.” The reporter added: “[he is] a most painstaking and fastidious scholar.” A year later an article in the Virginia [MN] Enterprise revealed that on a daily basis he read dozens of the world’s newspapers “without glasses.” He preferred nighttime reading “in the gentle glow of a candelabrum with three candles,” even though his Vatican apartment had been electrified and incandescent lights were available with the flick of a switch
Various newspaper accounts related that he rose every morning at 7 A. M. and said Mass followed by attending a second Mass celebrated by a Vatican prelate, along with other inhabitants of the Holy See. His Holiness had no teeth, which was representative of the primitive state of dentistry and dental hygiene in Europe at the time. The London Mail reported on his daily meals which consisted of a breakfast: “a cup of soup (or milk) and a “few chocolate pastilles [medicine lozenge].” Sometimes he had a couple of soft boiled eggs. His lunch consisted of an omelet, bread roll, cheese and a single glass of Bordeaux wine. His dinner consisted of “little balls of hashed meat or minced chicken, eggs, well cooked vegetables and very ripe fruits.” Newspapers reported that when the dishes were removed it revealed he “has scarcely touched anything …what he has eaten would hardly be enough for a child of 6.”
He exercised by taking daily walks around the halls of the Vatican after his meals. He enjoyed stalking and netting (and releasing) birds around the Vatican gardens and nearby Catholic gardens and vineyards well into his senior years. Like numerous contemporaries (including Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison and President McKinley), he routinely sipped an era energy patent medicine/tonic Vin Mariani. The popular tonic was infused with cocaine—a legal narcotic at the time. He enjoyed it so much that he allowed the manufacturer to use both his image and the Vatican seal in their advertisements. Another habit he enjoyed was snuff.
Was the conversation between God and the devil God’s way of telling the devil to take his best shot? Maybe it was His way of telling us that faith is a two-way street—while He asks us to have faith in Him—He’s telling us He has faith in us. Or was God telling us that evil can win if we don’t pay attention? Theologians tell us God is under no obligation to make sense to us. As in the story of Job, He could explain His actions to us, but need not do so. Do you wonder why?
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