I felt the hard, uneven cobblestones beneath my feet and took in the views all around me with fresh, wide eyes. It was one of the first days of my study abroad program in Rome and I was in awe of the beauty and history all around me. The streets of this historic city were like another world compared to the city I had just left in the Midwest.
It was surreal to be walking into whatever church we happened to stumble upon and then see the original artwork of a familiar childhood image. This took place a number of times, but one of the first was when we entered the seventeenth century church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins). It wasn’t particularly eye-catching from the outside, but when we went inside we were met with gorgeous paintings in the side chapels, including work by Pietro da Cortona, an Italian Baroque painter and architect.
Then the one I was so thrilled to see, an altarpiece of St. Michael the Archangel Defeating Satan by Guido Reni.
The Dragon Does Not Prevail
I love this piece because it shows the physique of both Saint Michael and the devil. While the devil is being crushed under the heel of the Archangel, he isn’t portrayed as weak. Rather, you can see Satan’s triceps, biceps, even the tendons in his hands flexed in resistance as tightly as he can muster. His muscles are literally rippling. In contrast, you see the serene countenance of Saint Michael, gracefully pulling back his sword to strike the source of all evil. He is fearless. As it reads in Revelation 12:7-8:
Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
This is why we ask Saint Michael the Archangel to “be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil” and why many parishes pray the Prayer to Saint Michael after Mass. A prayer written by Pope Leo XIII after he had a terrifying vision of demonic spirits. After witnessing this horrific sight he requested that the prayer be said at the end of Mass so that as we go back out into the world, Christ’s light will shine over the darkness.
We can pray this prayer daily, as we intercede for the salvation of all souls and reflect on our own death. In this month that we call to mind all those who have died, let us return to Santa Maria della Concezione again. Beneath which you will find a crypt where the remains of four thousand Capuchin friars adorn the walls.
The Chilling Capuchin Crypt in Rome
If you enter this crypt you might feel goosebumps raised on your skin and feel yourself chilled. Not just from the coldness which emanates from the cold ground, but also from a plaque which reads, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” This quotation is displayed among the bones of friars who have died between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
At the time the church was built, Pope Urban VII commissioned this church with the hopes that it would provide a space for the growing congregation of Capuchins. When the architecture was completed, the remains of Capuchin friars who had been buried nearby were moved to Santa Maria so that all of the Capuchin remains would be together. But instead of reburying the bones, the monks used them as ornamentation in the crypt to be a reminder of momento mori. To remind them that death is imminent.
Purification and Purgatory
So here we are, reminded that we are not promised tomorrow, but gratefully living in the presence of God on earth today. In this gift of life that we share in today we have the Christian responsibility to pray for the souls in Purgatory. We also share in the great hope that they will soon be greeted by Saint Peter as he brings them face to face with Jesus.
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. // Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030
While there are many unknowns about what Purgatory may be like, we can rest assured that we are on our way to Heaven’s gate. As Pope Saint John Paul II said, Purgatory is not a place but a kind of existence.
“Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ. Neither are they separated from the saints in heaven—who already enjoy the fullness of life—nor from us on earth—who continue on our pilgrim journey to the Father’s house. We remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ, and we can therefore offer up our prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Purgatory.”
Saint Michael, pray for us!
As we remember the souls who have passed from this life on their journey to Heaven let us call upon the intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel. We can turn back to the pages of Revelation to recall his great strength and pray the Saint Micael prayer, not only for the souls in Purgatory, but also for our own souls.
Saint Michael, be with us as we reflect on our own mortality. Pray for us to have your strength, strength to overcome our own spiritual battles.
What is your favorite way to pray for our deceased brothers and sisters?