Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
April 10, 2015
A Catholic plan of life is a series of proven spiritual practices that help us to remain conscious that God is with us at our side at every moment and to aid us to respond to his presence by uniting ourselves to him.
One of the most important practices of piety for maintaining this awareness of God’s presence in the nitty-gritty of daily existence is the prayer of the Angelus, an 800-year-old devotion that focuses our attention on Jesus’ Incarnation and on how we’re called to respond like Mary to God’s intervention in our world and life.
Once upon a time, almost every Catholic both knew how to say the Angelus and prayed it three times a day. Sadly, neither is the case any longer.
At one of the parishes I served, when I announced that we were going to pray the Angelus together before Mass, several of the daily Mass goers asked me to make prayer sheets since some had never heard of it and others hadn’t prayed it for decades.
When I taught children in various religious education programs the prayers they should know, I only met one family in which the children knew and were praying it.
The Popes have been trying to change the situation by both word and example.
St. John XXIII started the practice in the 1960s that each Sunday the Popes would pray this prayer with the tens of thousands who had assembled in St. Peter’s Square. That’s continued ever since.
When Pope Francis greeted the three million young Catholics in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, he prayed the Angelus with them, told them the reason why it’s so important, and urged them to make this prayer their own. His words are relevant to all of us, no matter how young we are.
“The Angelus prayer is a beautiful popular expression of the faith,” Pope Francis said. “It is a simple prayer, recited at three specific times during the day. It thus punctuates the rhythm of our daily activities: in the morning, at midday, and at sunset. It is an important prayer. I encourage each of you to recite it, along with the Hail Mary. It reminds us of the luminous event that transformed history: the Incarnation, the moment when the Son of God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Every time we pray the Angelus, we recall the event that changed the history of mankind forever.”
He then added that not only do we recall history’s most important fact, but we enter into Mary’s response to it with faith and charity.
“When the Angel Gabriel proclaimed to Mary that she would become the Mother of Jesus the Savior,” Pope Francis continued, “even without understanding the full significance of that call, she trusted God and replied: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ But what did she do immediately afterwards? On receiving the grace of being the Mother of the Incarnate Word, she did not keep that gift to herself. With a sense of responsibility, she set off from her home and went in haste to help her kinswoman Elizabeth, who was in need of assistance. She carried out an act of love, of charity, and of practical service, bringing Jesus who was in her womb. And she did all this in haste!”
The Angelus, in other words, helps us to learn from Mary how to grasp the startling news that God-with-us is with us here and now, to let our lives develop according to his word and will will, and to act on that word and will with urgency as we spend our day seeking to love others as God summons us to do.
The history of the Angelus began with three Hail Marys that monks would pray first at night, then in the morning, and finally in the midst of their work. They started to add to those Hail Marys short, introductory Biblical phrases associated with what we recite in the Hail Mary, the Archangel Gabriel’s and St. Elizabeth’s words to the Mother of God.
The first versicle is St. Luke’s description, “The Angel [in Latin, Angelus, from which the prayer derives its name] of the Lord declared to Mary … and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
The second is Mary’s reply: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. … Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The third is what St. John describes happened immediately in her womb after that reply: “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” That Word is the “blessed fruit of [Mary’s] womb” on whom we focus every Hail Mary.
After asking Mary to intercede for us that we may become worthy of God’s promises, we finish the prayer asking that, like her, we might become full of grace and respond to Jesus’ presence and promises: “Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that, we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection.”
The tradition of the Church has been to pray this prayer at dawn, midday and night. You’ll often hear Church bells ringing at 6 am, noon and 6 pm with three series of three rings followed by a continuous peal. Each series of three rings is timed for the versicle, the “Hail Mary,” and the “Holy Mary” respectively. The peal is timed to help us pray the closing prayer with joy.
In the Plan of Life, it’s great to start, finish, and live the heart of each day pondering God’s tangible accompaniment and Mary’s fully Christian response. The Angelus reminds us that God has entered our time, wants each day to save and sanctify us, and desires to use us as his servants to help him save others.
With the help of Mary’s intercession, the well-done prayer of the Angelus, perhaps better than any other spiritual practice, helps us not to forget these realities.
But as important as this prayer is, we don’t pray it during the Easter Season. We substitute another prayer that helps us to go from the joy of the Incarnation to the even greater joy of the Resurrection. We’ll examine that prayer, the Regina Caeli, next week.