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The Angelic Messenger to the Gentiles

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

At the dawn of Christianity, an angel of the Lord was sent to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. Since the Jews were the Chosen People of God, it was consistent with Divine Providence to have the Messiah born among the Jews. It was also consistent that Mary, the mother of the Messiah, was a Jewish maiden betrothed to the Jewish man named Joseph. It was further consistent that the angel told Mary that her Son would occupy the throne of David, the king of the Jews, and that His kingdom over the house of Jacob would be forever.

But once the Messiah came into the world, proclaimed His gospel, was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, another angel was sent from God to announce that Christianity was not only for the Jews. It is not only that most of His own people did not accept Him, in fact crucified Him because, as the people cried out, “We have no king but Caesar.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ was intended for the whole of mankind. The Savior told the apostles, just before His ascension, to preach the gospel to all nations. He told them they would be His martyr witnesses to the very ends of the earth.

Consistent with the proclaimed universality of Christ’s message of salvation, an angel was sent to a devout Gentile. To whom was this Gentile to report? Logically, we should say, to Christ’s vicar on earth, the apostle Peter.

Our three stages in this meditation will be the customary narrative from St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, followed by an exposition of the meaning of the angelic communication, and concluding with a prayerful reflection, all of this means to us.

Before we go any further, there is wisdom in reminding ourselves that the role of the angels as messengers of the Most High is not only consistent but constant from the first pages of Matthew’s gospel to the closing verses of the Apocalypse. The Holy Spirit would not be more emphatic in telling us: Believe in the angel! Honor the angels! Pray to the angels! Expect the angels to be my messengers to you now as they were my messengers through the opening century of Christianity.

St. Luke devotes a whole chapter in the Acts of the Apostles to the angelic visitation of the Gentile Cornelius in the baptism of his whole family. This chapter marks the turning point in Christian history. For twenty centuries, the Chosen People of Israel were prepared for the coming of the Messiah. In God’s providence, they were to have accepted the Redeemer. They were in turn to be the agents, shall we call them missionaries, sent by Yahweh to bring the good news to the whole world.

But we know what happened. Instead of receiving the Messiah when He came, and believing in His message which He taught, most of His own people rejected Him. Indeed, they crucified Him because He had disappointed their expectations. Instead of a military leader who would liberate the Jews from oppression by the hated Roman Gentiles, Jesus was telling His followers to pay their tribute to Caesar. He even allowed Himself to be condemned to death by Caesar’s cowardly representative, the governor Pontius Pilate.

Saul, the persecutor of the Christians, had just been miraculously converted. His mission would eventually become a mission to the non-Jewish pagan world. But Christ, at first who opened the door by having Peter himself baptize the prominent Gentile named Cornelius.

An angel must open the door to begin to bring the gospel to the non-Jewish world. St. Luke describes what happened.

There was in Cesarea, a man named Cornelius, a Centurion of the cohort called Italian. He was devout and God-fearing, as was all his household, giving much alms to the people and praying to God continually. About the ninth hour of the day, he saw distinctively in a vision an angel of God come into him and say to him: “Cornelius,” and he, gazing at him in terror, said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have gone up and been remembered in the site of God. Now send men to Joppa, and fetch one Simon, surnamed Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner who has a house by the seaside.” When the angel, who was speaking to him, had departed, he called two of his servants, and a God-fearing soldier from his own personal attendance. After telling them the whole story, he sent then to Joppa.

With this introduction, St. Luke goes on to relate what else took place. The next day, after Cornelius’ meeting with the angel, Peter had a corresponding experience. He had a vision first of a large sheet of cloth filled with all kinds of animals. Among these animals were some whose flesh the Jews were forbidden to eat. Peter was told by a voice to eat. To put it mildly, he hesitated. Then the voice continued, “What God has cleansed do you not call unclean.”

No sooner had this vision disappeared, when the delegates of the Centurion Cornelius came to visit Peter. They related to Peter what their commanding officer, Cornelius, had instructed them to do. They were to find Peter and bring him to the Gentile Cornelius. The conversation between Peter and Cornelius is the rubicon that separates the Old and New Testaments. Not a few of the first converts to Christianity were Jewish believers who saw the religion of the Messiah as the special prerogative of the Chosen People of Israel. Not only that, they understood Christianity to contain much of the legalized prescriptions and practices of Judaism. Yet here was an obvious non-Jewish Gentile.

Cornelius carefully explained to Peter what the angel of the Lord had instructed him to do. Here he was talking to the Peter whom the angel told him to meet. The next move was on Peter’s part. He told Peter, “We are all present in your sight to whatever has been commanded you by the Lord.”

Peter’s discourse is historic. He began by saying, “Now I really understand is not a mere specter of persons, but in every nation, he who fears him and does what is right, is acceptable to Him. Peter summarizes his message by declaring that, “Jesus Christ is Lord of all.”

No sooner had Peter finished speaking when the Holy Spirit came down upon all listening to the first vicar of Christ. Peter baptized all his Gentile visitors, “in the name of Jesus Christ.”

To do justice to what we have just quoted from the Acts of the Apostles would fill a library of commentary. The one truth that stands out, however, is that God became man to redeem him, the whole human race and not only the Jews.

We may say that the Acts of the Apostles are a profession of faith in the Catholicity, which means the universality, of the Church founded by Christ. We believe that God wants everyone to be saved. We further believe that He gives everyone sufficient grace to reach heaven. We also believe that the Church which Christ founded is, in the language of the Second Vatican Council, the universal sacrament of salvation.

What does this mean? It means that whoever is saved, reaches heaven through the grace which comes indeed from Christ but comes through the Church which Christ founded. As St. Paul tells us, before God there is no real distinction between Jew and Gentile. All of our destiny for heavenly glory. But this means that all must have access to the means of reaching heavenly glory. Grace must be available to everyone, and this grace comes from Jesus Christ.

When St. Luke tells us that Peter ordered Cornelius at his household, “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,” we must understand what that meant. Did it mean that Peter had the clan of Cornelius literally baptized in the name of Jesus Christ? This is no trivial question. Over the centuries not a few people thought that there were two forms of valid baptism. A person could be baptized, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” or “In the name of Jesus Christ.” The Church’s magisterium had to make a formal decision which is now part of Catholic teaching. There is only one form of valid conferral of baptism. That is, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There are still not a few denominations, outside the Roman Catholic Church, that sincerely believe the sacrament of baptism can be validly ministered in “the name of Jesus Christ.” According to Catholic teaching, this form of baptism is not valid. Implied in this declaration is that valid baptism requires faith not only in Jesus Christ, but in the Holy Trinity.

The most important implication for our spiritual life is deep gratitude for our baptism and our Catholic faith. Peter stresses the fact that the Holy Spirit personally approved the baptism of the Gentile Cornelius. As baptized Christians we have received the indwelling spirit of God into our souls. This Spirit gives us the superhuman powers of believing everything which God has revealed, of trusting in God’s goodness no matter how much we may try our confidence in His power, and of loving the Triune God with all our hearts.

How is that all, having received the true Faith and the indwelling spirit of God in our souls, we are to be followers of the angel who brought Cornelius to Peter. We are to be zealous angels of the truth, as messengers to others who do not yet believe - because they have never heard, in Jesus Christ.

One more lesson. How casually some people, including many Catholics take the papal primacy for granted. In fact, not a few are challenging, even questioning, the supreme authority of the Successor of Peter to teach Christ’s truth to the world. Here we have an angel sent from heaven, and the first such angelic communication in history, telling Cornelius to meet with Peter, the first bishop of Rome and follow his directives. Obedience, therefore, to the successor of Peter is an angelic injunction that has never had more meaning than today.

Mary, mother of the Church, obtain for us from your divine Son, a strong zeal to extend His words of salvation to everyone whose life we touch. Obtain for us the grace to pray, even at the price of our lives, as witnesses to His holy name.

We also ask for a deep loyalty to the vicar of Christ, the bishop of Rome. Help us to see that the Holy Father, the representative of your divine Son. Help us to be humble in our faith and generous in our love for the Church which your Son founded on the rock, which is Peter, against which the gates of hell will not prevail. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #17, Thursday 2/29/96, 4:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica






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