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Vol. XV, August 2009

Year of the Priesthood II: The Priest and the Angels


Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In our first meditation on the angels in our priestly life we observed the similarity between the fundamental priestly tasks of mediating between God and man, and the ascent and descent of the holy angels.

This is more than just an isolated similarity between angels and priests; rather priests and angels really live and work together in one great hierarchy in the service of Christ the High Priest. We ought to convince ourselves of this fact. To this end we shall adduce examples, beginning with the Old Testament and continuing through the New Testament and down through the history of the Church up to the life of priests today. We won’t exhaust the theme in this short space, but merely document the fact of this union and collaboration between priests and angels.

1. Models of union of priests and angels in the Old Testament
The history of religions shows a frequent interaction between man and the world of spirits in almost all people or tribes. In the case of the Chosen People of Israel we find explicit and concrete reference to the presence of angels in human life, particularly in the life of leaders.

a) The angels in the life of every one. When God called the Chosen People of Israel out of Egypt, He sent the angels to their help: first the “destroyer(Ex 12:23); then the companion through the “Red Sea”, “the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them” (Ex 14:19); finally, when “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the people of Israel… Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you…. Give heed to him…then I will be an enemy to your enemies” (Ex 20:22 and 23:20-22). The Church in her liturgy applies this well known text to each individual, referring to the Guardian Angel. Such attention to individual persons is still more clearly articulated in texts like the Psalm 34:7 (“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them”), Psalm 91:11 (“For He will give His angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways”) and again in the Book of Tobit.

b) In the life of priestly figures of the Old Testament. It is not difficult further to convince ourselves regarding the presence of the angels in the life of those whom God has given a particular mission as a mediator. There is first of all the father of the Chosen People, Abraham. God called him to offer his son, which turned out to be a pre-figuration of the sacrifice of Jesus. At this sacrifice the angel intervened as we read: “The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, …do not lay your hand on the lad’” (Gen 22:11-12). More frequent was the angelic assistance offered to Moses in his task as leader of the Chosen People.

We also see the angels present in the life of the prophets like Isaiah and Elijah. The first was prepared and introduced into his vocation by a Seraphim (cf. Is 6:2-8). The second, Elijah, was strengthened in the loneliness which the call and mission of a prophet brings with it: “The angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched [Elijah], and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.’ And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God’” (1 Kings 19:7-8). We may also add here: the confession of Elisha (“With us are more than with them”, 2 Kings 6:16); the incredible visions granted to the prophet Ezekiel (cf. e.g. chapter 1 and 10); the angelic help for Daniel; and the testimony of Zechariah who frequently mentions “the angel who spoke with me” (1:9).

2. The presence of the angels in the priestly life of the New Testament
The presence of the angels is still more pronounced in the New Testament and the life of the Church. This surprises many, in as much as they are erroneously inclined to think that the role of the angels as mediators ended with the Incarnation of the Son of God Himself as the main Mediator. But the contrary is the case. God not only wants the angels to continue in their mission, but called man also to be a mediator to his brothers, mediator of not only the divine word, but even of the grace of divine life.

a) The angels in the life of the Son of God on earth. The Son of God came to fulfill a priestly mission, to make His Father known to all mankind and to reconcile all those who live in the darkness of sin, so that through Him they all can receive the fullness of life. In service of this mission, He sent the angels not only ahead to prepare the way, as St. Gabriel, to announce His coming, but much more, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes, “From the Incarnation to the Ascension, the life of the Word Incarnate is surrounded by the adoration and service of angels” (CCC 333).

b) The angels in the life of the first priests. Especially at the beginning of the Church, in the first days and months, Sacred Scripture recounts many interventions of the angels. They are like teachers, always present “giving a hand” to those who are now in charge of such a great mission, to guide humanity to its eternal destiny in heaven.

It starts on the very hill of the Ascension, “while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? …Then they returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 1:10-12; cf. also 12:7-18). When they were in prison, “at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and taught (Acts 5:19-21). When people were seeking for the right light, the angels guided the apostle to them (cf. Acts 8:26; 10:3,10 and 16:9). We reflected the last year about the help, protection and guidance which St. Paul received through the angels. And did not St. John confess concerning the Book of Revelation that “Jesus Christ…made it known by sending His angel” (Rev 1:1).

3. The Collaboration of Angels and Priests in History
Should it be otherwise throughout the history of the Church, when “the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels” (CCC 334)? Even at the end of time, “They will be present at Christ’s return, which they will announce, to serve at His Judgment” (CCC 333).

a) Angels in their ministry of the priests. We cite first of all St. Martin of Tours, who destroyed a pagan temple. Initially, his effort met with the violent protest of the people, however, after prayer and fasting, two angels told him to continue with their help and no one showed any resistance. On another occasion, he wanted an audience with the emperor. The latter did not grant it twice. Then Martin started again to pray and fast. After seven days, an angel told him to go…. In fact, the emperor granted him all he asked for (cf. Sulpicius Severus, Vita S. Martini).

Saint Francis de Sales is another great pastor and preacher. His sermons were very effective and brought 70,000 people back from Calvinism to the Catholic Church. His secret was certainly his great love for Christ. It also had a great devotion to the Guardian Angel, not just of his diocese, but of all the souls entrusted to him. He highly recommends this devotion in his Introduction to the Devout Life (II,16) and justifies it by making reference to saints like Ignatius of Loyola and Vicent Ferrer. Closer to our times and better known is the worldwide missionary, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, who never left his monastery in Italy. In order to contact him, he regularly encouraged the faithful: “Send me your angel.” Expressed in more modern terms, he invited everyone to contact his “secretary”, which he sometimes called his Guardian Angel (cf. Fr. Alessio Parente, “Send Me Your Guardian Angel”).

b) The fallen angels opposing the priestly ministry. We referred to St. Martin of Tours. We all know from the biography read on his feast day in the Liturgy of the Hours that he was still attacked by the devil on his deathbed. Saint John Vianney is known more for his fights with the devils than for the help of the angels. Asked by Abbé Tailhades how he brought souls back to the right path, the Saint replied: “My dear friend, the devil cares little about the scourge and other instruments of penance. But what makes him furious are abstinence in drinking, eating and sleeping. The devils fear nothing more than this—and nothing is more pleasing God. How often did I experience this.” Saint Pio had similar experiences; he fought the devil since the age of five, and practically daily thereafter. While he prayed but two exorcisms in the course of his life, one may say that his life was a constant battle with the enemy, against whom he fought personally and directly. Still, he constantly admonished souls not to fear the devil, but to have greater hope and trust in God’s love and assistance.

c) Occasional or constant? These examples prove that angels and priests do work together. But still, one may ask, “Are these not just few and exceptional cases?” Later we shall have an opportunity to respond this question in depth. For now, let’s accept that the angels are sent not only to all “who are to obtain salvation” (Heb 1:14), but more so to all those who are responsible for others on the path of salvation, namely, the priests. That we, nevertheless, hear so little about it may have three reasons. First, because the angels do not wish to draw attention to themselves and be perceived when they act; they want to serve God and God alone, even when they serve men out of love for God. Second, they already help so regularly in small matters in order that we might gratefully acknowledge their help. But, as it turns out, we fail to register this help properly and so forget about it. Thirdly, because all their help leads us toward Christ and God, so they disappear as soon as they fulfill their mission, and we easily forget about them. So, even if we just referred to few examples, we can trust that all priests, deacons and even more so bishops, can reckon with considerable angelic assistance. (I would appreciate hearing from you, dear Fathers and Deacons, about concrete examples of such assistance which you may have experienced directly or indirectly.)

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
This quick glance through history compliments the principle seen in our first meditation: the testimony of actual presence and cooperation of angels and priests in all our tasks. We will, consequently, seek with confidence more connections between their ministry and our own in the service of God and His people. May this year, dedicated to the priesthood, help us also to grow in a deeper confidence in the help of the holy angels and collaboration with them in our priestly mission.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC
ASSOCIATION OF PRIESTS
IN THE WORK OF THE HOLY ANGELS