The Association of Priests in the Opus Angelorum is for those who feel called by God to pastorally assist the faithful of the OA in their region and/or for those who want to find some spiritual support in their priestly ministry through clerical reunions of prayer and retreats. The monthly Circular Letter with meditations on the angels in Scripture is intended as an (unofficial) instrument of common formation and as a help towards deeper communion with the holy angels and among ourselves. It is directed to all bishops, priests and deacons who are particularly interested in collaborating with the holy angels and to the members of the Association itself.
Following the references on the angels in St. Luke’s Gospel we may add a word with St. Hildegard of Bingen, on the elder son of the Parable of the Merciful Father and prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). This Doctor of the Church has in her “Expositions to the Gospels”, two comments on this parable, one describing the virtues discussed in it; the other with a view to “a certain man, that is God, who had two sons, understood as angels and man” (Exp. XII in Sab. ante Dominicam tertiam Quadr. II). St. Thomas Aquinas, just about 70 years after her death in 1179, seems to have already heard about this “pious meaning”, as he called it, and said: “However, I don’t know if it is true!” (In Catena Aurea, in Lk 15, lectio 3). The limited space here does not allow us to develop this point, but I did not want to skip over this indication, coming as it does from the new Doctor of the Church.
To appreciate this reference, we may first recall the teaching of the Church.
The Church tells us: “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their [the angels’] watchful care and intercession” (CCC 336). We can verify this in the very life of JESUS Himself: Before his coming angels announced him, and still afterwards his resurrection and ascension (cf. Lk 24:4-7 and Acts 1:10f.). Similarly, we read in the Gospels about the “little ones,” and “their angels” (Mt 18:10) and various times about the presence of the angels at the end, at death like here or at the judgment, be it the individual (“With your own words I shall condemn you…”, Lk 19:12-27; cf. CCC 1021 and 2831 with the explicit reference to the parable of the poor Lazarus) or the universal end (there “the harvesters are angels”, Mt 13:37-42). The angels are God’s servants. They accompany him “always and everywhere” in this history of salvation (cf. Hb 1:14).
This goal in mind, “In her liturgy, the Church … invokes their [the angels’] assistance (in the funeral liturgy’s In Paradisum deducant te angeli... [‘May the angels lead you into Paradise...’])” (CCC 335). It is worth recalling that God gave the angels a twofold task: “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex 23:20). The protective task is repeated on different places and also necessary at the hour of death (cf. e.g. Ps 91:11-13), as the biographer of St. Martin of Tours reported the presence of the devil in the last hour (cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, 2nd Reading on Nov. 11). When God calls us in the hour of death to our last destiny, to eternity, then also the good angels are there with special interest, namely being sent to “those who are to inherit salvation” (Hb 1:14): This evidently points to their solicitude that man be in the state of grace when he arrives before the Judgement Seat of God.
The angelic note in the parable of the poor Lazarus recalls so many biblical references to the angels in man’s life that the trust in the angelic assistance on our last journey is quite common even in Scripture (Such passages are e.g. the “stairway” in Jacob’s dream on which God's messengers were going up and down on it, Gen 28:12 and Hb 12:22, the experience of St. Stephen, Acts 7:56 or the dispute between the devil and St. Michael “about the body of Moses”, Jude 9).
Jean Danielou offers various testimonies from the Fathers of the Church: “Gregory of Nyssa sees in the young David, who was welcomed after his victory by the daughters of Jerusalem, a figure of the soul being received by the angels after having triumphed over the adversary by death; and he relates the episode to that of Lazarus: ‘The choir of the daughters of Jerusalem is the journey made with the angels’.” (Hom. in Ps. 6; in: The Angels and their Mission, ch. 9, p. 96). And Saint Chrysostom: “If we need a guide in passing from one city to another, how much more will the soul need someone to point out the way when she breaks the bonds of flesh and passes on to the future life” (Hom. in Laz., 2,2; ibid.). Therefore, St. Gregory of Nyssa prays: “Send to my side the angel of light to guide me to the place of rest, where the water of repose is found in the bosom of the Patriarchs” (which “recalls the story of Lazarus,” comments Danielou, 97).
Danielou states: “Actually, both the bad and the good angels have their parts to play. The first group keeps count of the demerits and holds the soul back until it has been acquitted of them. The second group … [is shown] examining the merits and demerits of the souls who present themselves before the gates of heaven. They are somewhat like customs officials at the gates of cities” (p. 100). “As soon as the souls have left the world, the angels come to meet” them, like “the virgins and … accompany them into heavenly fields where they have long desired to enter” (Methodius; ibid. 101); and “the angels were coming down along it [the spiritual ladder] and the martyrs were going up … The angels gazed upon this blood [of martyrs] with delight. The demons were struck with fear, and the devil himself was trembling … The martyrs go up to heaven, preceded by the angels and surrounded by the archangels as by an escort” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom in Judic., 7,2; ibid. 104).
Of course, nobody knows his hour of departure nor how it will be, painlessly quick or lasting a long time with considerable pains. For this reason, the parable of Jesus as a lesson to the Pharisees, gives to those of good will courage and hope and to us priests in our great responsibility and “angelic ministry” (St. Vincent Pallotti) great helpers at our side.
We know that all the holy angels are “mighty in strength and attentive, obedient to every command … ministers who do God’s will” (Ps 103:20-21). As far as themselves, who enjoy already the eternal bliss of God’s infinite richness, they wish man nothing less than the same eternal happiness in God. The angels certainly took care that the presence of the beggar at the door be brought to the attention of the rich man. Much more important is they surely inspired the poor and suffering Lazarus with hope and confidence in God’s justice and reward of every good thought and deed. Danielou sums up the different angelic ways of help in these words (p. 99):
“All the aspects of the angelology of death are gathered together here: the angels help the soul escape the sufferings of death; the guardian angel accompanies it and assures it a peaceful journey; he defends it against the demons who want to stop it; the angels set in charge of the gate of heaven welcome it” (p. 100). Even the Christian doctrine of Purgatory comes in: “The guardian Angels of the heavenly Paradise retain the soul until it has been purified of its sins in the river of fire” (ibid., p. 99).
We priests need to listen always attentively when Jesus speaks about the Pharisees and scribes. We have received a great responsibility: We stand somehow, like the angels and with them, at the gate to eternity, and have the keys in the hands (cf. Lk 11:52). It is, of course, true that more and more frequently we are not informed that some member of our flock is about to depart to eternity or even has already been called to the other side. In other cases, our presence was not even desired. And yet, every human being departs just once and then his eternal destiny is decided (cf. Hb 9:27). The pastoral need is screamingly great! If priests cannot always be there, the angels are always alert and on assignment. But “many souls go to hell, because there is no one to offer sacrifices for them” (Blessed Mother to the three Children at Fátima, Aug.19). And this means that the angelic mission, even at the hour of death, is contingent upon the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful on earth. With our blessings and prayers we priests can help greatly; but by spreading a fitting devotion of prayers and sacrifices for the dying, many more souls could be saved!
What a grace it is to know about the special presence of the good angels in this hour of life. Even if we are not called, even if our presence is not even wished, through our communication with the holy Angels, our fellow servants (cf. Ap 22:9), with spontaneous conversation we can still be close: The holy angels reach where we have no access. There are conversions “at the last hour”. One friend visited an old school mate from Primary School at his death-bed. He showed his old friend the crucifix and told him that he is close to meet Jesus; at that word, the dying reached out for the Crucifix and drew it strongly to his breast! Through the holy angels we can even enlarge our sphere of influence and think in universal terms as the Fathers of the Council wanted: Each one of us should participate in the responsibility for the entire Church (cf. PO 10). This parable reminds us of the holy angels as great helpers.
Poor Lazarus points out to the ultimate purpose of our calling, to build bridges between this temporary and the next eternal life. So much heavier is our responsibility as eternity is longer than temporality. However, we are just servants of the Christ, the servant of servants. Let us embrace with confidence this message of the Gospel and reach out every morning and evening to our invisible co-workers and ask them to do what we could not and cannot do, but which is nevertheless of greatest importance, namely to care, to find the necessary help for those whom the Lord is about to call in the next twelve hours, or that they themselves assist the dying with the necessary graces of repentance of all their sins and of hope and confidence in God’s mercy
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