It is one of the most important sites of pilgrimage since the early Middle Ages, visited by emperors, kings, princes, and the holiest of saints throughout history. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the destination site for over 2 million pilgrims a year. Why does the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano find itself over and over throughout Catholic history? The answer stretches back over a millennia and a half ago across four celestial apparitions.
The Liber de apparitione Sancti Michaelis, Latin for “A book about the apparition of Saint Michael on Mount Gargano,” tells the story of the first three apparitions of the archangel in the grotto of Monte Gargano – today a Catholic sanctuary found in the city of Monte Sant’Angelo, Italy.
The first apparition takes place around the year 490 A.D. A rich man named Garganus had lost of his prized bulls when it separated from the herd. Searching everywhere for the animal, he found it resting at the mouth of a cave at the mountain’s summit. Angered it dare leave the rest of cattle, he shot a poisoned arrow at the beast, only to have it miraculously turn back towards him and strike himself. He consulted the Bishop of Siponto, who ordered three days fasting and prayer to seek answers from God. On the final day, the archangel spoke to the bishop in a vision:
“You have done well in seeking from God the mystery that was concealed from men;
that is to say, a man struck by his own weapon. For you should know that this was done by my own will. For I am Michael the Archangel, who always stands in contemplation of the Lord. And deciding to guard this place and its inhabitants in this country, I wished to demonstrate by this sign that I am watching over and guarding the place and everything that happens there.”
The people living nearby Siponto established the custom of praying to God and Saint Michael the Archangel near the entrance to the grotto.
The second apparition comes when the nearby pagan Neapolitans started a war against the Sipontans. The Bishop of Siponto asked them for a three-day truce, so as they may fast and pray for three days for the protection of Saint Michael. The night before the battle was to take place, the archangel again appeared to the bishop, ensuring them they would find victory in the ensuing fight.
“Therefore in the morning, happy and confident that the angel would bring victory, with the Neapolitans reduced by means of a demonic spirit, the Christians encountered the pagans, and as the battle was joined, Mount Gargano was struck by an immense earth tremor; lightning bolts flew, and a dark mist covered the summit of the mountain.”
A footprint was left in the marble of the grotto-chapels north day, a sign the Sipontans took as a mark left by Saint Michael.
The third apparition took place around a year later when the Sipontans had doubts as what action to take over the miraculous visions the bishop had: should they enter the cave, or dedicate the church there? The Bishop of Saponto implored the pope for direction, ordering again three days of fasting and penance. Again, the archangel spoke to the bishop in a vision on the final day:
“It is not your work to dedicate the church which I built. For I, who built it, also dedicated it myself. But enter this place, where I am present, as protector, and fill it with prayers. And celebrate mass there tomorrow and let the people take communion
in the usual way; it is my prerogative, however, to show in what manner, by myself, I
have consecrated that place.”
Inside, they found sweet water running from the stone of the sanctuary near the altar of the chapel. Sipontans called it “the drip,” and would partake after the celebration of the Eucharist because it was known to heal all injuries and infirmities:
“And thereafter many were restored health, after suffering for a long time
the flames of fever were immediately refreshed through the drinking of this drop. Also
many people are healed there of innumerable and various ailments, and many miracles
are attested there, which could only have been performed through the angel’s power.”
The final apparition of the archangel occurred over a thousand years later, on September 25th of 1656. The region of Gargano had been suffering from the plague, and with many falling victim, Archbishop Alfonso Puccinelli had recourse to Saint Michael with three days of fasting and prayer. On the final day, the archangel Michael appeared to the bishop and said:
“I am the Archangel Saint Michael, whoever uses the stones of this cave will be freed from the plague, bless these stones, give them the sign of the cross and my name.”
Soon, those in Gargano were freed from the plague, and elsewhere too for anyone that held the stones, known today as Saint Michael relic stones.
Throughout history, many have paid visit to the Sanctuary of Saint Michael, including Saints Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Sienna, Bernard, and William of Vercelli. When Saint Francis of Assisi visited in 1221 to prepare for Lent, tradition holds he considered himself unworthy and would not enter, instead carving a cross in the marble. In 1987, Pope Saint John Paul II visited the Sanctuary to Saint Michael, and gave an address you can read in full here:
“I have come here, as did so many of my predecessors on the chair of Peter, to enjoy for a moment the atmosphere proper to this sanctuary, an atmosphere of silence, prayer and penance.”
Today, the Sanctuary of Saint Michael remains an exceedingly popular Christian pilgrimage site. Pilgrims are able to receive Saint Michael relic stones, considered a powerful sacramental to invoke the intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel.