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Pilgrimage to the shrine of St Michael the Archangel

20 years ago, my mother had an wonderful experience of St Michael the Archangel; little did either of us know, at that time, the impact it would have on us and on so many others. I am a devout Catholic and obedient to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  I always pray and seek God’s guidance before giving permission for my mother’s story to be reproduced.

Two things strike me when I look back over the years since then:

  • how those 20 years have flown! Where have they gone and, more importantly, what have I done with them/how have I used them?
  • how can such things happen to ordinary people like us? The answer can only be: by the Grace of God.

During the years since my mother’s experience there have been times when interest in the story has been very high, other times when it has gone fairly quiet. I had never expected to be involved in it the way that I have and had even begun to wonder, in this 20th year, if perhaps it had run its course; again, little did I know…

Not once, in all those years did I ever imagine that I would one day visit Monte Sant’ Angelo in Italy, the shrine to St Michael the Archangel (I didn’t even know that such a place existed!) nor that it would turn out to be so memorable for me – but, that is what happened September 2012. When, last year, some friends invited me to join the first English speaking pilgrimage to Italy, led by Fr Peter Prusakiewicz CSMA. I accepted because I had attended a retreat led by Fr Peter a couple of years earlier and he had very kindly printed my mum’s story in The Angels magazine. I love going to Rome and “it felt right”! I had not realised, even then, that the pilgrimage would include Monte Sant’ Angelo; how little did I know – and I am reminded of what God says in Jer 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you” – He certainly is a God of surprises! – but I cannot describe my own experience without first telling my mother’s story and something of what happened afterwards:

“My mothee, Norah Threader, was a practising and a devout Catholic all her life, but had, nevertheless, always been terrified of dying and going to hell. This fear really took hold of her when she became ill. A few days before Christmas 1991, my mother was told that she had a large tumour on her brain. She went into Manchester Royal Infirmary on 26th December. A scan showed the tumour was much bigger than had been thought; without major brain surgery she would not live – but there was grave concern whether she could survive such an operation. She was so, so frightened. Then, on December 27th, mum had her “experience of St Michael” and she was transformed. This is her testimony in her own words as she told it to me:

“It was late at night. I was completely alone and it was dark and very quiet. I was very much on edge and, to settle myself, I started to pray for all my old friends – people I had not seen for a while and, as I prayed, I pictured their faces before me. Suddenly, their faces changed and they became horrible, like gargoyles, or those terrible masks that people wear at Halloween. They were ugly, evil, sneering and leering at me and I was afraid. I knew it was the devil taunting me – and, almost without thinking, I said “Oh St Michael, protect me” – and, do you know, he came – he came right down to me. He didn’t make a lot of noise – you know how a big bird makes a noise when it flaps its wings? – well, he didn’t – I just heard the faintest sound like the softest of sighs – almost like a whisper – sss.., sss… – and there he was and I wasn’t in the least bit frightened. Oh, he was so beautiful – the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. He was about 8ft tall, with ash blond hair (not golden) to just above his shoulders. He was wearing a full length cream coloured gown. The gown was edged at the neck with gold and the colour of the gown blended into peach at the hem. His feet were bare. Although he was wearing a gown and had longish hair and was so beautiful, he was not at all feminine. He was so strong and so masculine – but with the most beautiful face I have ever seen in my life.

Oh, he was beautiful. There are no words that could do him justice.

In his hand he held a magnificent sword, of a metal I had never seen before. The sword was enormous and it looked very heavy (it had a round guard on the handle) and yet he raised it as if it weighed no more than a feather. He wielded the sword from side to side and the evil faces all disappeared. He never smiled at me but he was not stern either, just very firm and so very strong and, all the time, his eyes were watching, as if he scanning the horizon, on the alert to see where next he was needed and I felt he could see to the ends of the earth. He never spoke to me but, when the faces had gone, he gestured to me with his hand (to go) behind him and then he opened his beautiful wings slightly (the feathers of which were like the softest down imaginable, not at all prickly or hard and his wings were cream, edged with apricot) and closed his wings around me and I knew I was safe. And then he went – but since that night, I have never been frightened and I have felt full of peace. It was a wonderful experience and it was real. It really happened – I was not dreaming or anything like that. I know that, if I ever need him again, he will come and, if anyone is ever in trouble or afraid – pray to (God, to send) St Michael and remember how he helped me. He will not let you down. He drove the devil out of heaven and he stands in God’s presence, ready to do His bidding.”

Following this experience, my mum had no fear at all and she was able to place herself totally in God’s hands. Her only tears then were tears of joy because she really believed that, whatever happened, whether she lived or died – it would be wonderful and she was ready for it. The morning of her operation (New Year’s Eve), we went with her to the operating theatre. She needed no pre-medication, she was calm and full of peace – that peace that can only come from God – and she was happy; she smiled and waved to us as we left her. She survived the seven hour operation. I was with her when she came round. She woke up praising God and His Holy Mother! Despite the (technical) success of the operation, the brain tumour was found to be malignant and we were told there was nothing more to be done. Mum was dying of cancer. But, after her experience of St Michael, she never again in her life, knew fear. Almighty God, in His loving kindness and mercy had, in one moment, removed from my mum all fear, all terror, forever. Mum had her experience of St Michael on 27th December 1991. She died on 9th April 1992. I was with her every day during that time – she was not afraid. There was a peacefulness and a sweetness about her that had not been there before. Everyone who saw her came away enriched. Of course, there were times she was sad, sad at being parted from those that she loved so much and then she did weep – but not from fear. She reached a point where she was able to say to me “I have always loved life and I’ve always lived it to the full. Now, I am dying and I am happier than I have ever been in my life.” I was privileged to be with my mum when she died – she smiled.

My mum told her story to everyone she saw. She must have told it dozens of times. It never altered – it was the same on 9th April as it had been on 27th December. My mother’s stories were notorious for “growing in the telling” – but this story never grew – because it is the truth – and the truth does not need to grow. And, it is the truth that touches people and so many have been touched by this experience which was given to my mum and, please God, they will continue to be so.

Very soon so after my mum’s experience there was a letter in the Catholic Universe from a wife of an Anglican Vicar who is very traditional and mainstream with a strong sound Christian faith called Hope price, asking for stories of “angel experiences” for a book she was writing. My mum felt very strongly that the experience she had had was not just for herself but that she was meant to share it with others – to encourage them, especially if they were afraid – of anything, so we wrote to Hope and that’s how the story came to be in the book “Angels: True stories of how they touch our lives”.

After my mum died, Hope rang me and asked if I would go on national television with her and tell mum’s story! I was stunned! My immediate response was “No Way!” but then Hope asked me what my mother would say….I knew then I would have to do it. My love for my mum and for my God was stronger and bigger than my fear… So I went on the “This Morning” programme presented by Richard & Judy from the studios at the Albert Dock in Liverpool. A chauffeur-driven car was sent to my house in Macclesfield to take me there and then bring me back afterwards; it was quite an experience and turned out to be really enjoyable. Amazingly, I was not at all nervous – but then, we did pray together just before the programme started!

Later on, I was asked to go on Radio 4 to tell the story- it was broadcast the following Christmas Day, which was rather nice. I understand from other people that it is still repeated occasionally. After that, mum’s story was printed in the Catholic papers, in several of the daily papers, in magazines and then it began to travel further afield. I have had cuttings and letters from the USA & Australia and many European countries.

I mention all of this not to boast – about my mum or myself, but to show how amazing our God is and also to make clear that the spreading of this story is the work of God’s Holy Spirit. There is no way I could or would ever have done it. Even now, I sometimes stop and ask myself if it all really happened – how could something like that happen to ordinary people like us? The answer I know is because God is so good and nothing is impossible to Him and His ways are truly amazing.”

And His ways continue to amaze; six of us from Macclesfield in late September 2012 travelled with a group from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Goa, India, Mauritius and the USA, to Rome, Monte Sant’Angelo, San Giovanni Rotundo, Lanciano and Manopello. We were all “experienced” pilgrims but nothing had prepared us for all that we were to experience on this pilgrimage; for me in particular it turned out to be the most personal and emotional journey I have ever been on. Our pilgrimage was led by Fr Peter Prusakiewicz, a Michaelite Father from Poland, who took tremendous care of us all throughout the pilgrimage; we following him through the crowds as he carried aloft a Union Jack on a pole – we were delighted to see the flag changed several times to accommodate some fellow pilgrims from Scotland and Ireland! On our first day in Rome, after Mass in the Church of the Holy Spirit – designated by Pope John Paul II as the Shrine of the Divine Mercy – and in glorious sunshine, we were taken on an extremely interesting and informative guided tour of St Peter’s Square and then the Basilica and the crypts below, containing the tombs of many popes, including, of course, St Peter.

It was a wonderful start to our pilgrimage, a journey which lasted six hours with several stops on the way from the south of Rome to Monte Sant’ Angelo – the shrine of St Michael the Archangel, reached by a winding road of hairpin bends that seemed to be stretching up, almost to heaven! We were very privileged to be the first English-speaking group lead by the Congregation of St Michael The Archangel ever to visit the shrine and Fr Peter said he believed that we were there, not by chance – but that each one of us had had been invited for a reason – by God and St Michael.

I had been dreading the long drive but I have never known six hours pass so quickly; after a time of prayer and singing, Fr Peter invited each one of us in turn to introduce ourselves, share something about our background, our favourite food and colour and how we thought we came to be on the pilgrimage. It was a fantastic way to get to know one another. The variety of stories was amazing/funny/poignant and by taking a risk to share something of ourselves and entrust that to the whole group, a real sense of bonding, of community, and belonging to the group developed.

As well as introducing myself, I was invited by Noreen, the group organiser, to share my mother’s story about St Michael the Archangel. I hadn’t expected to be asked to speak about my mother so it was very moving for me and a great privilege and a blessing to do so – but that was nothing compared to the emotion I felt on entering the Shrine to St Michael – the only chapel, ever, not consecrated by human hands – but by St Michael himself and which has been given the title of “Celestial Basilica”. As we entered the cave, the beauty and sense of holiness took my breath away; I was completely taken by surprise and quite overwhelmed by the depth of emotion it stirred in me. St Michael has appeared in this place several times – with the message that “it is a sacred place…where the sins of men can be forgiven …and prayer will be answered”: the name of St Michael in Hebrew means “who is like God?” – the answer he points us to is: “no one” – and comes with a call to bow down before God, open our hearts to Him and believe in His personal love for each one of us. Recalling my mother’s experience of St Michael, the same great Michael whose presence was so evident in the Shrine, my heart was overflowing with love and thanks. It was a special blessing to have a friend with me, who had known my mother and witnessed the transformation in her, brought about by St Michael’s appearance.

Together we stood before the altar and the beautiful statue of St Michael and, with deep emotion, gave thanks to God. The following day, I was invited to read the prayers of intercession during Sunday Mass in the shrine and was asked to pray for my mother, by name and also to include my seriously ill twin brother, by name, in the prayers for the sick. It was a great blessing and very humbling but, as I need to use a walking stick, I was rather concerned about the approach to the altar – up six marble steps, three of which were quite steep; my main concern was the descent, as there were no handrails or support and, to put my mind at rest, I asked one of the readers to help me, if necessary. I needn’t have worried: I “floated” down the steps with ease; it felt like I was being carried; the person I had asked to help me said she had been deeply moved by “the lightness, grace and ease” with which I came down the steps – she felt that something special was happening; who knows; maybe “someone” was helping me…..

Some people ask why we have shrines; Fr Peter suggests that it is simply because God wants them, that shrines are not of man but of God – for us: to help and encourage us in our faith and journey through life.

Certainly the next shrine we visited did that – the Shrine of St Padre Pio! Nothing prepared me for the magnificent sight that would meet us; approaching the shrine which houses Padre Pio’s tomb, through a corridor of increasingly beautiful mosaics, our guide explained that they were a depiction of Padre Pio’s life and passage into paradise: entering the chapel I understood what she meant; the sight that met us was dazzling and took my breath away: the chapel seemed to be made of gold -walls, ceiling, mosaics, hanging lights; the effect was stunning and mind-blowingly beautiful beyond description – a foretaste, perhaps and yet, still only a pale shadow, of the wonders that await us with God for all eternity. As we filed past the tomb, we were able to pause, place a hand on it and pray. Recalling how Padre Pio had suffered – physically, spiritually and emotionally – and yet hearing about his obedience and humility, his life of service in the confessional and his passionate love for God was incredibly moving and put all our own sufferings into perspective.

Fr Peter told us that miracles happen around Padre Pio so this was the moment to pray for all our intentions. I felt particularly blessed to be visiting Padre Pio’s tomb on mine and my twin brother’s birthday. (Yet again, I had not appreciated that when booking the pilgrimage.) As we left San Giovanni Rotundo, I rang my sister-in-law to tell her that I had prayed for Peter (my brother) at St Michael’s shrine & Padre Pio’s tomb and of course, to give him my love. Peter had had a bone marrow transplant and then had caught pneumonia and was so desperately poorly that I had almost cancelled the pilgrimage so I was astonished when he came to the phone. He had been too ill to even speak before I left home; for the first time in months, he sounded like my brother again! How great is our God and thanks be to Him for the intercession of St Michael and St Pio!

In the following days we visited two further shrines: the Eucharistic Miracle in Lanciano where, in the 8th century, in response to a priest’s doubts about the Real Presence whilst saying Mass, the Host became live flesh and the wine live blood – and both are on display still today. In Manoppello we visited the Shrine of the Holy Face where a sheer, almost immaterial piece of cloth, (or veil) is said to bear the image of the face of Jesus. It is said that, in this image of Jesus, we can see the face of every person – male, female, known, unknown and, as the light changes, so does the face of Jesus. Both shrines require and deserve prolonged reflection.

All the shrines we visited were presented as opportunities to deepen our personal faith and relationship with God so that, strengthened in both, we can continue on our way. The importance of angels in our lives was very much emphasised; angels were described as the S.A.S – Spiritual Army of Soldiers created by God out of love because He loves us; they are God’s messengers of love, sent to help us; when we pray, they pray with us but God is always the focus. St Michael is a special angel, an extra help in time of danger and especially at the end of our lives. Pope Leo XIII’s prayer for protection to St Michael is recommended to be said daily. It was only during the pilgrimage that it dawned on me: before my mother died, we started saying the prayer to St Michael every day and I have continued to say it every day since she died 20 years ago; I also wondered if the last 20 years have been preparing me for the experience of this pilgrimage.

When I returned home, there was a birthday present in the post from a (non-Christian) friend who hadn’t known I was on a pilgrimage: it was a guardian angel! Co-incidentally, within 48 hours of returning from Italy and visiting the Shrine of St Michael, I had three phone calls: from Noreen Bavister asking me to write this article for The Angels magazine; from someone who knew my family when I was growing up in Manchester, saying that he had just read mum’s story and asking if he could share/spread it; and from Hope Price who wrote the Angels book – and who I had not heard from for 20 years – asking if I would tell mum’s story in a (Yorkshire) radio interview! I actually did a radio interview over the phone but, afterwards, the producer contacted me again to say that the story was so powerful, he wanted to come to my house and record the whole of it; it was broadcast on Christmas Eve. It does seem that without, any intervention on my part, the story has a life of its own and St Michael is on the move again! I’m also beginning to realise that St Michael and this story will always be a part of my life. Many people have been helped or encouraged by it. So many, myself included, have been helped, too, by going on pilgrimage.

In particular, I would certainly recommend this pilgrimage, to everyone: take the opportunity to visit these holy shrines in Rome, San Giovanni Rotundo, Lanciano and Manopello – and then, Rome again! Please don’t be concerned about the number of shrines or the amount of travelling; I suffer from fibromyalgia and arthritis but had no problems visiting any of the shrines or travelling on the coach. Before I went, I was exhausted physically, emotionally and even spiritually; I returned home revived, renewed and with my faith strengthened; friends told me I “glowed”! Little did I know of all that God had in store for me; as you visit these holy places, may you also delight in discovering what He has in store for you so that, with St Michael, we can all acclaim “Who is like God!”

For those who were there we sang two hymns daily ‘There’s a Shrine in Mont Sant Angelo, shining bright for all to see’, the other pilgrim song that we sang so many times – on the coach, in church, in the hotel, as we walked – brings to mind instantly, so many images, impressions, experiences and emotions, special to each of us, of our wonderfully blessed and joyful pilgrimage and of the “special guardian angel” who took such good care of us – Fr. Peter Prusakiewicz CSMA; I finish with the last line of the pilgrim song that he taught us and led us in so many times:

San Michele Arcangelo, prega per noi!
St Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

Catherine Mossey, Macclesfield, England