This past week we had the first of the Ember Days. I have to admit that I have heard of Ember Days all my life but had never paid much attention to them. I have since learned that the word “Ember” comes from a corruption of the Latin phrase Quatuor Tempora, meaning “four times,” since they fall at four times during the year. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) formally instituted these days as a time of fasting and prayer for the Church, though their origin seems to go back further than that. They were to fall four times in the course of the year, falling on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. While we are using them as a time of reparation, they are also a time of thanksgiving for harvest, as they fall at the change of seasons. As we ask for God’s mercy, then, we see a loving God who never withholds His bountiful gifts. In addition, it was once a custom for priestly ordinations to take place on the Saturdays of the Ember Days, so that these days became a time to pray for priests. That connection makes Bishop Zubik’s use of them seem particularly appropriate. And while I haven’t seen an official explanation, I suspect that is why we skip over the Thursdays during the Ember Days, since Thursday was the day of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood.
In establishing this Year of Repentance, Bishop Zubik also asked us “to consider restoring in your parishes, after all Masses, the recitation of the Saint Michael the Archangel Prayer.” The wording of the bishop’s letter makes it clear that this is a suggestion. But since I had mentioned to one of the diocesan officials that the Prayer to St. Michael might be a good way to approach the current issues, I would feel really bad if we didn’t use it here.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the Prayer to St. Michael was recited at the end of every Low Mass. It began during the papacy of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). Under his predecessor, Blessed Pope Pius IX, the Vatican had lost control of the Papal States to the newly unified nation of Italy. There were those who believed that the Pope had to be an actual civil leader in order to have standing among the world’s leaders. Pope Leo took that occasion to ask the Church to pray to St. Michael that all evil may be driven out of the world. Certainly we can see the current situation as a reminder that evil does indeed exist in the world. It was evil that allowed priests to harm the innocent youth. And now the devil uses that evil to turn people away from the Church. Yet it is always an important distinction that the devil is not the opposite of God. He is not all-powerful, as God is. Thus, in the end, the devil cannot win. The Book of Revelation speaks of St. Michael the Archangel casting Satan out, thus showing the victory that Christ won by His Cross. By praying that prayer, we pray that we can be part of that great victory.
When I first received Bishop Zubik’s letter, I thought of attending his prayer at the seminary this Sunday. But Sunday has long been the day when my Prayer Group (including Fr. Michael) meets, and we decided that it would be good for us to meet together on this day. So while we are praying together for the good of the Church, I ask all of you to continue to pray for your priests. Please also continue to pray for more vocations to the priesthood. In the end, we know that the Church will stand strong.