The famous vision of Pope Leo XIII, during which he allegedly heard the devil ask for and receive a century to test the Church, seems clearly related in retrospect to the current sexual abuse crisis.
That the Pope had an experience has been well-documented by a seminarian from Wisconsin named Kevin Symonds, who did yeoman’s work researching it and initially assuming a skeptical approach.
But in fact it’s what he found occurred: in some way, between 1884 and 1886, the great Pontiff had some sort of mystical episode “during the celebration of Mass. Several different reports relate that Pope Leo had a visible change come over his face during the vision and one claims that his face was ‘pale and fearful,’” writes Symonds.
No one is quite sure exactly what the experience entailed; we know only that afterward, and although he did not invent it, Leo XIII revamped and tweaked the Prayer to the Archangel Michael, and asked that it be recited at the conclusion of Mass. The popular rendition of the event has Satan vowing he could destroy the Church if allowed extended power and being given seventy-five to a hundred years to try just that.
No one should try to put exact time frames on this, for a “hundred years” can be a manner of speech. It’s used as just such a metaphor, connoting a long period, in the Bible. Some believe the “century” began right in 1886. Some believe it was the twentieth century. Others peg it to Fatima and believe that the devil’s century began in 1917 (and ended in 2017 — something obviously that did not occur, for evil remains rampant, and more intense, in society, than ever).
But back to the main issue of the Church: ironic it is to note that the crisis of homosexual priests was not some kind of drastic upward blip but one that evolved from the 1950s to a crescendo in the Sixties and Seventies and then began to decline during the 1980s. Although the levels of reported abuse are now as low as they were at the beginning of the upswing in the 1950s, the crisis — an almost existential one — has marched into the present.
Try (to decimate the Church, as Leo warned) the devil has. For thousands of innocent youth have been permanently injured, including altar boys who would have become priests; and priests, bishops, and cardinals, as well as, to a degree, the Vatican, have lost credibility.
The Prayer of Saint Michael was incorporated into the rubrics of the Low Mass of the Church from 1886 until 1964. It was after 1964 that the crisis fully exploded.
At LaSalette — which occurred a few decades before Pope Leo’s visions, and which also envisioned the great loosing of demons to attack the Church — it was warned that “sinners will be introduced” into religious life. That certainly has taken place.
Horrid, beyond words. But for perspective, one should note that the peak was reached a while ago, and that while bishops need to don sackcloth (adopting the attitude of humility and repentance, for not better handling it — for covering up — during the past sixty or more years), we must be cautious of district attorneys seeking to make political hay with it (read this if you want to get a deeper and more measured perspective of what the Pennsylvania attorney general did) and media outlets that are in a mode of full-fledged disparagement.
Expose it we must; but it helps to place matters in perspective.
That perspective is that, yes, the Church is in the midst of a searing, ugly, diabolical, and historic — but not unprecedented — crisis; it will rise from this as it did similar scandals in the Middle Ages. It will be purer and simpler and more devout; hopefully, the scandals will break down diocesan and worldliness, inconsideration for laity, and clerical pretense. “Reports of sexual abuse by priests of children and teenagers have taken on the dimensions of a biblical plague,” read a story on page one of the New York Times’s Sunday Week in Review back in 2002, when the story broke in a big way. It mentioned estimates of victims over several decades ranging from 15,000 to 100,000.
As for that Pennsylvania grand jury report — the one that created such inflammatory headlines last summer — some of the numbers included priests that went back, indeed, a century: to Leo’s time.
One cited in the report, a Father Martin J. Fleming, was born in 1869 — the year Ulysses S. Grant became president.
When we hear of “hundreds” or “thousands” of abuse cases, it may delineate a very long period of time; let us keep this in perspective.
Let us also take note that Father Fleming was born just a dozen or so years before Pope Leo XIII’s legendary vision, and ordained a dozen years after.
[see also: The Problems with the Pennsylvania Report]
Saint Michael Archangel,
defend us in battle,
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil;
may God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God, cast into hell
Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
[resources: Saint Michael and the Angels]