St. Michael the Archangel vs. The 6th Century Plague

If St. Michael the Archangel can save Rome from the plague, how can he help us in modern times? Br. Scott Norgaard, O.P., helps us understand how angels are instrumental in executing God's mercy.

I am studying here in Rome for this upcoming academic year. Tomorrow is the feast day of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the three archangels listed in Sacred Scripture. I came across a fascinating story of St. Michael here in Rome which can help us understand the power of the archangels in responding to our prayers and executing God’s mercy.

Near the end of the 6th century, a plague ravaged Rome and claimed the lives of many of its inhabitants, including the life of the pope, Pope Pelagius II. His successor, Gregory I (later known as St. Gregory the Great) organized a procession around the city to pray for the end of the plague.

As recounted in a source called The Golden Legend, the people in procession held aloft an image of the Blessed Virgin which purified the air. That image was perhaps the Byzantine icon Salus Populi Romani (meaning Protector/Health of the Roman People), an image of Mary and the child Jesus which Gregory brought to Rome. During the procession, the faithful heard voices of angels around the image, and when the procession arrived at the Mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the pope saw a vision of St. Michael wiping and sheathing a bloody sword. Gregory rightly interpreted this action as a symbol of God’s mercy and an end to the plague.

In preparation for writing this blog post, I paid my own homage to the event by making a pilgrimage to where it took place. Today, a large statue of St. Michael sheathing his sword stands upon Hadrian’s Mausoleum, now called Castel Sant’Angelo, The Castle of the Holy Angel. The castle stands on one side of the Tiber river at the end of a pedestrian bridge (Ponte Sant’Angelo), which supports ten large statues of angels designed by Bernini. Each angel holds an instrument of Christ’s Passion (e.g., a whip, a lance, a crown of thorns) inviting the viewer to contemplate what Christ has done for him or her. As I crossed Bernini’s bridge, passing these angels and heading towards the statue of St. Michael crowning the castle, I reflected on the role of angels in the story of salvation.

Angels are powerful beings. They play an important role in carrying out God’s plan of salvation, executing his justice but also his mercy. Gregory the Great, delivering a homily on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (Sept. 29, 591), said that, “Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power.” (Hom. XXXIV). He would know. He received the vision of St. Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword, indicating God’s mercy in response to the prayers of the faithful during the plague.

In the last few years, our Pope Francis has led the church in supplicatory prayer for an end to the Coronavirus, a pandemic of our own time. News outlets have frequently recorded Pope Francis’ visits to the Salus Populi Romani icon, his homage to St. Gregory’s supplicatory prayer for God’s mercy. These stories of the distant and near past encourage us to trust in the powerful intercession of the angels, messengers of God’s justice and his mercy.

Br. Scott Norgaard, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE

By Rabax63 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,