Priest Circulars: February 2020
Cornelius “saw plainly … an angel of God”
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
In our last reflection on the angels in Sacred Scripture we pondered the Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch through the deacon Philip. It was a veritable liturgy: there was a reading with an exegesis of the Scriptures explaining the mystery of Jesus, and then the Eunuch’s baptism and transformation in Christ, a mystery that took place almost silently. But we read shortly afterwards essentially the same with Peter, the first Pope, baptizing a pagan. This time it was noticed by “the apostles” and caused objections in Jerusalem by “circumcised believers” (Acts 11:1-2), who, however, gave in after Peters justifying explanation. And it happened a third time in Antioch, narrowed by Luke right afterwards: “Some … began to speak to the Greeks” (Acts 11:20). Here is said: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem and – they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22). He “saw the grace of God.” To cooperate better with the grace he called Saul back from Tarsus (Acts 11:25), the chosen “instrument before the pagans” (Acts 9:15), and herewith, the door went open definitively to the mission to “all the world”. This context explains the real significance of the small observation at the end: “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), and not “circumcised” or members of the Chosen People, the Jews.
It is of special interest to us, on account of the powerful presence of the holy angels in this so decisive, historical moment in the history of the Church and mankind (cf. CCC 334):
First, an angel took a member of the Church hierarchy, the deacon Philip, to a pious pagan and again back from him. The second event was initiated directly by an angel who, however, appeared to a praying pagan and, while the same (?) or another angel appeared to the head of the Church, the first Pope. These incidents, having come to a good end, we may say that on the third time there was no further need to refer explicitly to the angel, even though we may believe that the holy angels were not absent, for “Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation …” (CCC 332) until “Christ’s return” (CCC 333), and thus, “the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels.” (CCC 334). Let us look closer at this “spiritual earthquake” and ask: What happened, why did it happen and how could it happen?
i. What happened – The big “break through”
We can distinguish four steps of this historical “break through” of the salvation from the Chosen people Israel to the World. “Philip … came to Cesarea” (Acts 8:40). There was a Roman, therefore pagan, “named Cornelius, … devout and God-fearing along with his whole household, who used to give alms generously to the Jewish people and pray to God constantly. One afternoon about three o’clock, he saw plainly in a vision an angel of God come in to him and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He looked intently at him and, seized with fear, said, ‘What is it, sir?’ He said to him, ‘Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter.'” This he did immediately. (Acts 10:1-8; cf. Tob 12:8f)
“The next day, Peter in Joppa … fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened, … a large sheet coming down, … In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and … A voice said to him, ‘Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.’ The voice spoke to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.’ This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky. As Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said (to him), ‘There are three men here looking for you. So get up, go downstairs, and accompany them without hesitation, because I have sent them’.” Peter met the men, they told him about Cornelius and the order by an holy Angel to call for him. So Peter went with them, and found Cornelius. (Acts 10:9-24; cf. Mk 7:19b; Rom 13:14).
Peter told Cornelius frankly: “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean. And that is why I came without objection when sent for.” He then explained to Cornelius and his house: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” So he proceeded and spoke to them about Jesus … (who) commissioned the apostles to preach to the people. And “while Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word” so that Peter recognized and said: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?’ He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:28-48)
Now the apostles and the brothers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem the circumcised believers confronted him, saying, “You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them”. Peter began and explained it to them step by step, … and ended saying: “who was I to be able to hinder God?” When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God, saying, “God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too.” (Acts 11:1-4.17f.)
ii. Why did it happen? – The universal plan of God
To understand the significance of what happened we have to see two great stream of thoughts in the history of Israel.
The first is evident from the very beginning: The God whom Israel believed and adored is the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that exists and without Him nothing would exist. He created the world, in view of mankind, and man according to his image. He wanted man to join Him one day for ever in his glory and beatitude, which is called “Church” (cf. CCC 1, 760). However, some of the first created, the angels, disagreed to His plan (cf. CCC 392, 414). They separated from God and tried to hinder and destroy it. They seduced Adam and Eve, but God forgave them. Later, God observed that all mankind was corrupted. He destroyed it through the great flood and started all over just with Noah and his family. On another occasion, he saw the pride of men, then he spread them all over the world, and started anew with Abraham.
With his descendant, however, he wanted them be separated from all the rest of humanity, so that he can personally educate them for his original plan, and demand their strict obedience. “God … cleared nations and their gods out of the way of (his) people” (2 Sam 7:23). He kept his original plan in mind: “All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” Gen 12:3).
When the Son of God came, his universal plan was from the very beginning clear: He wanted to be enrolled as one of “the whole world” (Lk 2:1), Kings were led to adore him as their God from pagan countries (cf. Mt 2). He made a point to meet the Samaritan, that is a foreign woman (cf. Jo 4). He wanted to be condemned to death by a pagan politician because he came to redeem all mankind. Yet, Jesus addressed his people first – “Let the children be fed first” (Mk 7:26f).
Then, however, when they refused him, when “the whole town … begged him to leave their district” (Mt 8:34), or when, in the parable, the invited guests excused themselves – “I cannot come.” – then he told his servants: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Lk 14:20f) Jesus, left them “respectfully” with their perverse choice and turned to all mankind, according God’s first plan. He told his disciples, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature;” (Mk 16:15) “Be my witnesses … to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Once we hear how Paul entered in this tension: “The Jews … were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles’.” (Acts 13:46-47).
iii. How could it happen? – By the angelic mediators
We can still ask: How could it happen? St. Luke speaks of “an angel of God” and of “a voice”, of “the Spirit,” of “God” and “the holy Spirit”. We commented in the last letter on the holy angels as servants of the Holy Spirit: God delights to act through his creatures, and saintly creatures want to do God’s will with their whole being. The Lord really sends his angels to all corners of the world (cf. Mt 24:31) with their burning zeal for God and sharing in the thirst of Jesus. They enlighten everyone of good will, explain to all God’s will, baptized or not-yet baptized, God’s call to the Church and to the sacraments. They inspire the Church-ministers in their universal responsibility (cf. Vat. II, Presb. Ord., 10) and admonish them to obedience, to the collaboration with grace, so that God’s plan of the union of all with him will be achieved (cf. CCC 737, 2001). “In no way can the Church restrict her pastoral work to the ‘ordinary maintenance’ of those who already know the Gospel of Christ.” (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, # 95).
The holy angels are the best missionaries. They “protect every human being” (CCC 352), are always and everywhere with the persons. They are the best psychologists because they know the weak points of the souls and easiest access to them. They inspire thoughts and can communicate through dreams. They help remember past counsels, but also forget past offenses. They direct persons to us in the right moment and let us comprehend coincidences. In short: they find ways which are closed to us humans.
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
We are very grateful for this “break through” the mental borders of Israel. But it also burdens our heart, that today there are still so many souls without Christ. Here, the mission of the holy angels brings us real hope. As the angel was the answer to the constant prayer of Cornelius, so do we need to ask them as the next text in the Acts will convince us (cf. Acts 12:5ff). Let us already join the urgent impulse of the holy angels and invite them at the very beginning of the day, then to come with us to the Holy Mass and the Liturgy of the Hour, and then let us follow all of their requests.
Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC
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