In 1886 Pope Leo XIII instituted what would later be known as the “Leonine Prayers” after Mass (something familiar to those who have attended a Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form). These prayers include the well-known Prayer to St. Michael. Not much is known for certain about the origin of this prayer, but it is believed by many historians that Pope Leo had a profound vision that sparked its creation.
According to Kevin Symonds, author of Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael, the vision likely occurred between 1884 and 1886 and took place 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.”
A cardinal at the time who knew the pope’s private secretary explains that “Pope Leo XIII truly had a vision of demonic spirits, who were gathering on the Eternal City (Rome). From that experience … comes the prayer which he wanted the whole Church to recite.”
As time went on a few embellishments started to appear regarding the vision, claiming that Pope Leo witnessed a conversation between Jesus and Satan. The popular story even goes so far as to record the dialogue between the two and is usually recounted as follows:
Satan says to Jesus: “I can destroy your Church.”
Jesus replies: “You can? Then go ahead and do so.”
Satan: “To do so, I need more time and more power.”
Jesus: “How much time? How much power?
Satan: “75 to 100 years, and a greater power over those who will give themselves over to my service.”
Jesus: “You have the time, you will have the power. Do with them what you will.”
The conversation is reminiscent of the prologue to the biblical Book of Job, in which Satan asks God for, and receives, permission to tempt the faith of the righteous Job. However, while the dialogue has become a central part of “popular legend,” there is no strong foundation in historical fact.