In the hours Devotion to St Michael the Archangel we sing: ‘Among its famous instances is the Gargano Hill which is acknowledged worthy of honour for its signs from heaven’ . How is this devotion in honour of St Michael at the wonderful grotto of apparition made manifest?
Beginning with the very first apparitions of St Michael the Archangel in the 5th century, this place has played an important role in helping shape the history of Europe. It was the largest shrine in southern Italy, the oldest in Europe.
In the Middle Ages there was a custom of going on pilgrimage to three main sites – Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem, the graves of the apostles in Rome and St Michael’s grotto. Pilgrims have journeyed to these Holy places for an unbroken period over fifteen centuries. It is incredible to consider the millions of people, often penitents, who travelled for months on foot to attain reconciliation with God on this holy mountain.
They had a need to have their sins forgiven in this particular place, so that ‘Who is like God’ would resound in their hearts. This particular aspect of reconciliation and the placing of God at the centre of our lives is what touches hearts and makes this devotion a reality. The very existence and purpose of this grotto is made manifest because of the presence of St Michael and that Satan should be vanquished by means of conversion within the human heart.
So you can’t complain of a lack of pilgrims...
Both the great and the lowly in the eyes of this world make the pilgrimage here. Each year about two million people come to this place. The chronicles of this shrine document the visits of emperors, kings, popes and many saints. It is sufficient to mention St Bernard, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus Liguori, St Brigit of Sweden, Padre Pio, the Blessed Pope John XXIII and the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, who visited this place first as a cardinal and later as Pope. Many Italians maintain a link to the shrine over many years. People come here from all over Italy. In the past they often came on foot, sometimes taking two weeks to arrive. Not far from here, at a distance of 25 km, lies San Giovanni Rotondo and the grave of Padre Pio. He was noted for his great devotion to St Michael the Archangel. He considered St Michael to be the one who leads the battle with the spiritual enemy, Satan. He directed people coming to him to go first to St Michael’s grotto and request his intervention and help in the battle against sin. That is why many groups first visit our shrine before visiting the grave of Padre Pio.
How about pilgrims from beyond Italy?
This is a shrine of European and even worldwide significance. There is no lack of visitors from America, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Germany or Spain. For seven years there has been a large group of Polish pilgrims for the feast on the 29th September. This pilgrimage is organised by our congregation and has included up to 150 pilgrims. Many of these have a particular devotion to St Michael or are members of the Knights of St Michael the Archangel. There is a special Mass in Polish at the grotto of apparition, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Polish pilgrims take part in the afternoon procession with the statue through the town. They carry Polish banners and it is now difficult for the thousands of the town’s inhabitants to imagine the celebrations without the presence of the Polish pilgrims.
What is the phenomenon that surrounds this holy grotto? Is it possible to say that it is a special place, characterised by a particular activity of Divine Grace?
Every church is an extraordinary place because Christ lives in it. Nevertheless, there are places in which God grants particular favours. This is according to His plan. On entering a shrine even non-believers, experience a particular presence. Sometimes they do not even plan to visit the shrine. Some power exists which inspires this. There, people are mysteriously touched inwardly and inspired to search in their hearts for answers to many questions. A person coming here is led as if taken by the hand of St Michael himself and something breaks open in his/her heart. St Michael helps that person to decide to open their heart to God – sometimes following many wasted years.
How should we understand this opening of the soul to God?
Being here as priests, we daily witness to the experience of victories over sin in confession and in conversions. One of the most important aspects of this shrine is St Michael’s victory over Satan. This victory is not material or physical. Artists depict the Archangel Michael with a sword, a shield and a lance. This is a human representation of this battle. However, St Michael’s battle for humanity consists in leading man to triumph over sin, particularly over the sin of pride, which becomes sinful when it relates to our relationship with God. Not acknowledging God as Creator means that we then put ourselves in the place of God. The victory over Satan occurs through conversion. In other words, by placing the Lord Jesus at the centre of our lives God has triumphed over evil.
I am sure that many people assist pilgrims in this spiritual experience. Who looks after the shrine?
The community working at the shrine consists of the nine priests, brothers and seminarians of the Congregation of St Michael the Archangel. We arrived here 10 years ago on 13 June 1996 when we became the official custodians taking over from the Benedictine fathers. This is a great privilege for us as Poles. I am sure that our founder the Blessed Fr. Bronislaw Markiewicz is rejoicing at this in heaven. Our work focuses on three elements – proclaiming the Word of God, celebrating the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We run various groups which operate within the shrine, organising days of recollection for members of the St Michael prayer support groups and for all who wish to deepen angelic spirituality. We benefit from the facilities of our modern Pilgrims House, in which apart from overnight accommodation and meals, it is possible to deepen one’s spirituality through talks, the opportunity to speak personally to a priest or to take advantage of our extensive library. At busy times we benefit from the assistance of Italian and English speaking brotherpriests from our congregation in Poland who help us in hearing confessions. There are also 15 lay people working permanently at the shrine, helped by 60 volunteers.
I understand that the volunteers come from the nearby town of Monte San Angelo?
Certainly. They’re mainly young people. They assist with a great deal of commitment and energy. They feel proud to live in this particular town and to serve St Michael. It is worthwhile adding that the shrine formed the foundation of the town. The town grew up around the shrine thanks to the visiting pilgrims. In the seventeenth century it was miraculously delivered from disease thanks to the intervention of St Michael. He appeared to the local bishop, recommending that all its inhabitants go to the shrine and each take a piece of the rock on which they should then carve a cross and the name Michael, meaning ‘Who is like God’! These were symbolic elements on which you build the house of your life. The foundation is God and this World. Saint Michael wanted to tell the inhabitants - return to God, He is your salvation.
Thank you for this interview. I would like to recommend all the readers of ‘The Angels-Messengers from a loving God’ to your prayers and those of the whole community at the grotto.
Thank you also. I would like to invite you to visit Monte San Angelo.
Fr. Piotr Prusakiewicz CSMA
The story of the shrine at Mount Gargano extends over the last 1,500 years of Christianity. It is now hard to believe that the congregation bearing the name of the Archangel has only served in this place for the last 20 years of that history. After the example of the custodian of this church, consecrated other than by human hand, we should also believe that this turn of events is part of the unfathomable plan of God.
How did all this start?
We began our work in Italy to a greater extent in 1982 in Castel Sant’Elia, from which we often organised pilgrimages to Mount Gargano. It was during those pilgrimages that the desire to minister in this place slowly grew in my heart.
In 1995, the Benedictine abbot took the decision to withdraw his monks from the shrine of St Michael. There were only two of them, one of whom was 90 years of age, the other almost 70. The local bishop initially looked for priests to serve at Monte Sant’Angelo in other Benedictine monasteries and he did manage to find two other Benedictines to come here. However, news of the search for spiritual guardians for the shrine of the archangel reached our congregation. I therefore drafted a letter on our behalf informing the bishop of our readiness to serve at the shrine, pointing out that the Archangel was our main patron.
For a year after the arrival of other Benedictines at the shrine, nothing further was heard about the matter. Then, one afternoon, I received a telephone call from the bishop. It turned out that the Benedictine abbot was finally withdrawing his monks from Gargano and he was looking for other priests ready to take over the spiritual care of the shrine. I then presented this proposition to our then Vicar General, Fr Kazimierz Tomaszewski CSMA. In December 1994, I, together with the Vicar General and Fr Edward Data CSMA, went to speak to the bishop and made an initial agreement for priests of the Order of St Michael the Archangel to serve in Monte Sant’Angelo. There were other plans, for instance, for a community of retired diocesan priests to serve at the shrine, but the bishop finally agreed that he would prefer a congregation which would undertake to care for the shrine on a permanent basis in a more systematic and organised way.
So this was what Divine Providence ordained…
Just so. None of us had previously foreseen such an eventuality. Dating from the fifth century, the shrine at Gargano is one of the oldest in Italy. Only the basilicas in Rome originate from that era. It is also one of the most significant shrines in southern Italy. This was why some Italians were not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of the shrine being in the hands of a Polish congregation. With St Michael as our leader, however, we survived all opposition. Thanks to our service and improvements in how the shrine was being run, we eventually managed to get the people of the town on our side. It gave us great joy to serve the pilgrims and to work for the glory of God! We were later able to extend the pilgrims house and museum and we have recently renovated the upper level of the church.
What work remains to be done?
We would very much like to be able to bring the devotion to St Michael to the parishes. Many have invited us, but we are unable to undertake such visits in a more systematic manner, as there are simply too few of us. We are concentrating our efforts on ensuring that we have sufficient priests available to hear confessions at the shrine. We would very much like to be able to make at least two priests available solely to speak to pilgrims, and not just in the confessional. People frequently come to us who have been wounded by life, who need someone to listen, people for whom psychotherapy has not provided all the answers. There are times when, after being touched by God, they feel able to unload all their burdens and we sometimes need to devote even a whole day to such a person. We advise pilgrimage organisers to allow sufficient time for pilgrims to have at least half a day available for confession and personal quiet prayer.
How did you yourself react on hearing that you were to be the custodian of the shrine?
It is certainly a great privilege for our congregation to be chosen to serve at the shrine, one which, above all, we treat in a spirit of service. I feel a burden of responsibility to prepare this ‘pearl’ of our congregation to be fit to fulfil its mission. Being in the shrine is certainly a wonderful spiritual experience – you feel the extent of the graces which are granted there and which I hear about at every turn.
What have you personally gained from your 20 years’ service in this place?
I have learnt that we should do all that is in our power to do, but that it is God, through the action of the Holy Spirit, who acts in people’s hearts.
How is this action observable?
Sometimes, people with a lot of doubts come to us, people who don’t actually themselves know how it is that they have come here. The experience whereby their hearts have been touched and which often ends in their receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is unplanned and unexpected. This same experience however, has been repeated over centuries. From the earliest centuries of the shrine’s existence, it has attracted penitents wishing to experience reconciliation with God.
Can you give us any particularly spectacular examples?
The grace of conversion is granted in the confessional and, as such, remains a secret unless the person wishes to write down their testimony. The powerful intercession of St Michael is also active however, in bringing about physical healings. I recently received the testimony of a young boy from Calabria, suffering from cancer, who felt the touch of Divine Mercy during a pilgrimage to our shrine, and, as later tests proved, all signs of illness had miraculously disappeared.
This region of Italy seems to abound in graces. You are very close to the shrine of St Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo. Padre Pio himself had a great devotion to St Michael.
We can clearly observe God’s intentions in all this… Padre Pio was very aware of the extent of the outpouring of mercy at the shrine of St Michael the Archangel at Mount Gargano, which is why he recommended that his spiritual sons and daughters visit this place. He drew attention to the role of the Archangel in overcoming all forms of bondage and harmful attachments. Padre Pio himself came here as a pilgrim. Their successors today continue to pray at the shrine of Monte Sant’ Angelo before visiting San Giovanni Rotondo, according to Padre Pio’s instructions.
What requests do pilgrims make most frequently of St Michael?
For the graces of conversion and deliverance from spiritual bondage and addiction. Parents most frequently ask for conversion for their children. Many people ask for the healing of marital relationships. There are certainly many more requests for spiritual than for physical healing nowadays, although in a period of pestilence after the fifth apparition, St Michael protected people from lethal disease. To this day, stones from Gargano are seen as symbols of entrustment to God.
And these have now regained their popularity in Poland and other places visited by the pilgrim statue of St Michael.
St Michael leads us to God by means of this symbol. Mi-ka-el, after all, means ‘Who is like God?’ Who, other than God is capable of healing or delivering us from disease? Putting our trust in Him, even if we do not obtain victory over physical illness, we will certainly obtain the greatest victory, which is our salvation.
How then should we encourage those of our readers who may feel they have insufficient time or determination to visit Gargano, to go there?
The rock of which our shrine is built is saturated with the prayers of many millions of pilgrims, from hardened sinners to saints. This is a singular place of prayer, with an extraordinary charism. You feel the spiritual presence of St Michael the Archangel. We also have all the necessary infrastructure so, whether you come on your own or as part of a group, there is nothing to prevent you from spending two to three days in quiet reflection, penitence and personal prayer.
Fr Peter Prusakiewicz CSMA and Karol Wojteczek were speaking to Fr Wladysław Suchy CSMA, custodian of the Shrine of St Michael the Archangel, Monte Sant’Angelo, Italy
Among the devotional items available for sale during missions on St Michael the Archangel are white stones in special reliquaries. What is their significance and why are they necessary?
Stone is a common and naturally occurring material, utilised by mankind since the earliest times. Its characteristic properties are hardness, roughness and durability, which is why it was considered suitable for the writing of texts considered worthy to be preserved in perpetuity. Th e particular shapes and mysterious colours present within stone seem to indicate the existence of superhuman power, which fi lled primitive man with an almost religious awe and fear. Th e word ‘stone’ appears 337 times in the Bible as a noun and 30 times as an adjective.
Jacob set up a stone slab as a monument (Genesis 31:45). Moses hewed the words of the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone (Exodus 34:4). Aft er crossing the Jordan, Jacob set up twelve stones in the middle of the river, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel (Joshua 4:1-24), the foundations of the Temple were laid, using specially quarried and dressed stones (1 Kings 5:17). Elijah arranged twelve stones as an altar in honour of the Lord (1 Kings 18:31-32). A stone was used as a monument on the grave of Rachel (Genesis 35:20) and rolled against the entrance of Jesus’ tomb (Mark 15:46).
Stone was particularly prized in the Ancient World. It was considered propitious. It indicated prosperity and a change in fortune for the better. In court proceedings, it meant that the accused was being set at liberty. It was also awarded as a prize to the victor of wrestling contests and was given to the candidate chosen to hold high offi ce. White stones were used to mark happy and festive occasions. In the Bible, we read of a white stone on only one occasion, and that in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus Himself will give a white stone: “to those who prove victorious I will give some hidden manna and a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the person who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Th e victors will share a happy fate – they will inherit the Kingdom of God, in which each person will take up the place which has been reserved for them and will be called by their own name. God’s creative love will express the true identity and essence of the beloved person by means of their name.
Stone plays an integral part in the story of the revelation of St Michael at Gargano. When, in 1656, the plague was decimating the population of Italy, a worried Bishop Alfonso Puccinelli entreated the help of St Michael the Archangel. In order to prevail on the Archangel for his swift intervention with the Lord, he placed into the hands of his statue the words of a prayer composed on behalf of all the town’s inhabitants. The reply received on 22nd September at the bishop’s palace in Monte Sant’Angelo was swift in coming. During his morning prayer, Bishop Alfonso first heard what sounded like an earthquake, after which, in a flash of dazzling light, he saw St Michael the Archangel. He was also commanded to bless stones from the grotto, on which he was to inscribe the sign of the cross and the letters M.A. (Michael the Archangel). At the same time, St Michael assured him that whoever shall possess such a stone and keep it with devotion will be preserved from sickness. This promise proved true and all who possessed the stones were soon freed from the fatal disease. In the centuries since this took place, the monument erected on the square opposite the bishop’s palace with its Latin inscription with the words: “This monument is erected in eternal gratitude to the Prince of Angels, Vanquisher of disease, our Patron and Protector, by Alfonso Puccinelli, 1656.”
History shows that God makes use of simple signs even when performing great miracles. The Israelites who journeyed through the desert with Moses grumbled against God and experienced great sickness when Yahweh sent down fiery serpents whose bite brought death to many in Israel. Conscious of their sin and helplessness, the people then begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf to save them from the serpents. Moses began praying for the people and was told to “make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive” (Numbers 21: 8).
St Michael behaved in a similar way to the people who asked the bishop to intercede for them in order to overcome the plague. He used a simple object, a stone, which the person needed to have in his or her possession. It is obvious that a stone cannot of itself have the power to heal. It is an inanimate object, moreover, one which is symbolic of a hard, unfeeling, cold and lifeless heart. But when a person has faith, then God has the power to refresh and change that person’s heart and life. A belief in God and faith in the intercessory power of St Michael the Archangel can banish plague.
In the porch of the church of Our Lady of the Martyrs of Poland in Przysiek, Poland, hangs a great plaque, placed there to commemorate the visit of the statue of St Michael the Archangel to this Michaelite parish. People passing it can read the words: “Who is like to God! St Michael the Archangel protect us from the snares and deceits of Satan, so that at the end of our earthly lives we may be welcomed into the Kingdom of Light.” Below the text there is a cross, together with the letters M.A. Below the cross has been placed a reliquary with stone from the grotto and below that a further inscription: “Stone from the grotto – the heavenly basilica in Gargano, Italy. In memory of the visit of the pilgrim statue of St Michael the Archangel from the shrine in Gargano, 3-6 May 2013 A.D.”
One family has placed one of these stones in the door of their house. They frequently look at it, touch it and point it out to visitors to their home. Most importantly – in accordance with the promise given by St Michael the Archangel – they ask for and experience his protection. A door is very important in every home.Through it, we go out into the world and through it we come back home, where the Father is present (Matthew 6:6). Before the door Jesus stands and knocks, entreating us to open (Revelation 3:20), but we must not forget that Satan, and with him, all that is evil, is also trying his hardest to enter (Matthew 12:43-45).
Many priests and faithful feel and understand this danger and therefore invite the statue from Gargano into their parishes and communities. And so, St Michael the Archangel comes, and leaves us small stones from the heavenly grotto. This white stone is today our weapon and a stone as a weapon against evil signifies Christ.
César of Arles said:“When Christ – the true David – throws a stone, he does so accurately.The stone thrown by Him is symbolic of Himself and it strikes the spiritual Goliath, the enemy of our souls, right in the forehead, a forehead not marked by the sign of the cross.”
The Apostle Peter goes deeper and teaches us that Jesus is the living stone, chosen by God and precious to Him, so that, “as living stones making a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4-5), with the assistance of St Michael the Archangel.
Fr Karol Dąbrowski CSMA