Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XIII. The Angelus

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

We cannot but admire the wisdom of the Church in summarizing so many of her principal doctrines in popular devotions. It both makes the devotions more attractive and intelligible and it impresses the doctrines more indelibly on the memory. When to this is added the performance of these devotions at stated times, the children of God are made to live and act more perfectly in harmony with the spirit of the ecclesiastical year. In the devotion of the holy Rosary, for example, is presented a succinct history of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the central mystery of the Incarnation, with the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of our divine Redeemer; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the glorious assumption of the Mother of God, with her coronation as Queen of heaven. In the Way of the Cross are represented the particulars of the dread drama of man’s redemption. When performed on the Fridays of Lent, in the afternoon, it not only brings the Christian into harmony with the spirit of the Church, but it moves his heart to conceive those sentiments of sorrow for his sins and that purpose of amendment which, though fitting at all times, are especially so at the season when the Church invites her children to repentance. The sign of the cross, too, is a lesson in our holy faith, recalling to our minds some of the principal mysteries of religion. But still more happy, in many respects, was the Church in instituting the devotion of the Angelus.

When God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees He said to him: “Walk before Me, and be perfect.”1 When Christ came upon earth He bade His followers pray always; and when the Apostle of the Gentiles would instruct his faithful disciple he admonished him to meditate continually on the great truths which he had taught him, and which lie in turn was required to communicate to others. The exercise of frequently calling to mind the presence of God is one of the most conducive to perfection, and this is admirably effected by means of the Angelus, which raises our thoughts to God at morning, noon, and night, revives our remembrance of the principal mysteries of religion, enlivens our faith in them, increases our hope, enkindles our love, and awakens our gratitude.

The history of the Angelus is, to some extent, involved in mystery; for while certain points are known, others are disputed, and still others are unknown. Nothing in either Jewish or pagan antiquity resembled it. The former had indeed certain hours of prayer and fixed times for offering sacrifice, as may be learned from numerous passages of the Old Testament, and the latter also observed a degree of regularity in the performance of some religious rites; but the Angelus is purely Christian in its origin, its character, and its scope. It originated in the custom of ringing church bells at sunset. As early as the beginning of the thirteenth century the custom arose of ringing church bells at that hour.2 It is most probable that the ringing of the church bells was introduced into different countries at different times; and if this be true, the discrepancies of different authorities on the subject may perhaps be reconciled. Among the Latin nations this bell was called the ignitegium or the pyrotegium, among the French the couvrefeu; and among the English the curfew, which have all the same signification—a signal for the covering or extinguishing of all fires or lights, and retiring of the inmates of the house to rest. This custom existed throughout all Europe during the Middle Ages, especially in cities taken in war. It was also a precautionary measure against fire, rendered to some extent necessary, owing to the peculiar construction of the houses in those times.3

It is not probable that the Holy See ordered the recitation of certain prayers simultaneously with the introduction of the custom of ringing the church bells; for while, on the one hand, the greater number of devotions are introduced by some pious person or community, and extend until they have gained a fair hold on the people of at least one diocese or country, or on the members of one religious Order, when application is made to the Holy See, and they are formally approved, and not in frequently enriched with indulgences; on the other hand, nothing would be more natural than that persons who were accustomed, as all good Christians are, to the regular performance of their daily devotions, would ere long fix upon the ringing of the bell as the signal for doing so.

Devotion to the great mystery of the Incarnation, and to her through whom it pleased Almighty God to effect it, must ever be leading characteristics of the spiritual life of every Christian. But there were special reasons why this should be so about the time that the recitation of the Angelus was first introduced. The attention of the Christian world was then turned to the Holy Land, where the mystery of the Incarnation had been accomplished, and where the supereminent virtues of Mary had shown in all the richness of living splendor. Add to these circumstances the fact that so eminent a servant of Mary as St. Bernard was one of the most active in arousing the enthusiasm of the people to take up arms for the expulsion of the Mussulman from the holy places and their re-occupation by the Christians—a man whose love for Mary was only equalled by his eloquence in proclaiming her praises. Not only were his stirring appeals heard from the pulpit and the platform, but also in the assemblies of his religious brethren his fervid discourses and inspiring example infused his own spirit into them, and made them also so many advocates of the Mother of God. The same may be said of St. Bonaventure, who a little later proclaimed the praises of Mary in his own masterly way from the pulpit, the professor’s chair, and as head of his devoted and simpleminded Franciscans. All things considered, it may be said that the date, as nearly as it can be fixed, of the introduction of the Angelus was a time when the Christian world was ripe for such a devotion.

The lapse of time and the imperfection of records render it difficult to collect all the facts regarding the institution of the Angelus, but such as are to be met with will be given. Says the Rev. John Evangelist Zollner: “According to the testimony of many historians, Pope Urban II. (1088) ordained that the bell should be rung in the morning and evening and the Angelus Domini recited, in order to obtain of God the possession of the Holy Land. Gregory IX. renewed this ordinance in the year 1239; Calixtus III. (1456) required it to be observed also at noon.”4 The statements of this author do not harmonize with those of other reliable writers but they are supported by some authorities, and may tend to throw light on a disputed question. St. Bonaventure, in the general chapter of his Order held in Paris in 1226, and in the next held at Assisium, ordered the triple salutation of the Blessed Virgin, called the Angelus, to be recited every evening at six o’clock in honor of the incomprehensible mystery of the Incarnation.5 From this it is safe to infer that the Angelus had already been introduced, to some extent at least, among Christians. Pope John XXII. issued a bull dated May 7, 1327, commanding that at the sound of the bell the “Hail Mary” should be said three times. A council held in 1346 by William, Archbishop of Sens, decreed that, in accordance with the command of Pope John XXII., of blessed memory, the three “Hail Marys” should be recited; and it granted an indulgence of thirty days to those who did so. This is the first indulgence of which there is authentic record in connection with the Angelus. The statutes of Simon, Bishop of Nantes, of about the same date, direct pastors of souls to have the evening bell rung, and to instruct their people to recite three “Hail Marys” on bended knees, by doing which they can gain an indulgence of ten days.

Up to that time the custom had existed of reciting the Angelus only in the evening; but in the year 1368 the Council of Lavaur issued a decree requiring all pastors and curates, under penalty of excommunication, to have the bell rung at sunset, and to recite five “Our Fathers” in honor of the Five Wounds of our divine Redeemer, and seven “Hail Marys” in honor of the Seven Joys of the holy Mother of God. In the following year the Synod of Bessiers decreed that at the break of day the great bell of the church be rung three times, and that whoever heard it should recite three times the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” to which recitation an indulgence of twenty days was granted. According to some writers, it was Calixtus III. who, in 1456, introduced the custom of reciting the “Hail Marys,” or Angelus, at noon. But Fleury and Du Cange ascribe it to King Louis XI. of France, in the year 1472; and Mabillon declares that the custom spread from France throughout Europe, and in the beginning of the sixteenth century received the approval of the Holy See.6

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine when and by whom the versicles and responses, together with the concluding prayer, were introduced, or, in other words, who reduced the Angelus to its present form. We have seen, however, the various changes through which the devotion passed in the Middle Ages, and that its perfection was not the work of one, but of several hands.

If, turning from the history of its origin, we examine the parts of which it is composed, its surpassing excellence will be readily seen. The purpose of the devotion, as has been remarked, is the commemorating of the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the ever blessed Trinity and the virginal maternity of the Blessed Mary. The Gospel narrative, which so admirably summarizes it, is found in the 1st chapter of St. Luke, from the 26th to the 42d verse, from which the first half of the “Hail Mary” and the first and second versicles and responses are taken, while the third versicle and response are from the 14th verse of the 1st chapter of the Gospel of St. John. From this it will be seen that the Angelus holds a place in the front rank of Catholic devotions. What could be more salutary than the recitation at morning, noon, and night of this beautiful prayer, which reminds us of Him whose name is the only one under heaven given to men whereby they may be saved, and the dignity of her whom the Church bids us salute as “our life, our sweetness, and our hope”?

Inasmuch as the Regina Cœti has been made to take the place of the Angelus during Easter time, it will be proper for us to pause and inquire into the origin of that devotion. I shall premise by saying that at the end of Lauds and Compline in the Divine Office, and at the end of Vespers, as they are commonly sung in churches, an antiphon of the Blessed Virgin is added. These antiphons are four in number, are named from the Latin words with which they begin, and vary according to the season. The only one, however, with which we are now concerned is that which takes the place of the Angelus in the Office during Paschal time.

The origin of the Regina Cœli is thus accounted for by a writer of note: “In 596, during Paschal time, a horrible pestilence was ravaging Rome, and the Pope, St. Gregory, called the people to penance and appointed a procession. The day having come, he himself repaired at dawn to the church of Ara Cœli, and, taking in his hands a picture of the Blessed Virgin, said to have been painted by St. Luke, he proceeded to St. Peter’s, followed by the clergy and a numerous crowd. But all of a sudden, while passing the Castle of Adrian, voices were heard in the air singing the Regina Cœli. The Pontiff, astonished and enraptured, replied with the people: ‘Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.’ At the same moment an angel, brilliant with light, was seen replacing his sword in the scabbard, and the plague ceased from that day.”7 “After the disappearance of the plague the anthem Regina Cœli was introduced into the Church service, to thank the Blessed Virgin, whose intercession was believed to have stayed the disease.”8 But it must be said of the Regina Cœli, as of the Angelus, that it did not at once assume its present form.

Not content with approving and recommending so appropriate a devotion as the Angelus, the Church, anxious to encourage its recitation still further, has enriched it with indulgences. Into this point we must now inquire. It has already been seen that a number of bishops and local councils granted indulgences to certain devotions corresponding more or less closely to the Angelus. These indulgences have long since been abrogated even in the narrow territories for which they were originally granted, and it is to the Holy See alone that we must now look for indulgences of the Angelus. The following are those granted at various times by the Vicar of Christ: “The Sovereign Pontiff Benedict XIII., by a brief of September 24, 1724, granted a plenary indulgence once a month to all the faithful who every day at the sound of the bell, in the morning, or at noon, or in the evening at sunset, shall say devoutly on their knees the Angelus Domini, with the ‘Hail Mary’ three times, on any day when, being truly penitent, they shall pray for peace and union among Christian princes, for the extirpation of heresy, and for the triumph of holy mother Church.” Also “an indulgence of one hundred days, on all the other days of the year, every time that, with at least contrite heart and devotion, they shall say these prayers.”9

Certain points are here to be noted, as they have since been somewhat modified. The first is that the devotion was to be performed at the sound of the bell; in the second place, that it was not necessary to recite the Angelus three times in the day in order to gain the indulgence, as some persons imagine, but only once; thirdly, that it had to be said kneeling; and, finally, that the prayer, “Pour forth,” etc., did not constitute an essential part of the devotion. Benedict XIV. Confirmed the above indulgences April 20, 1742 ; but he at the same time introduced certain new features, which were, that the Angelus should be said standing on Saturday evening and all Sunday; and that the Regina Cœli, with the versicle, response, and prayer, should be said instead of it during Paschal time—that is, from Holy Saturday evening to the eve of Trinity Sunday, both included. To the latter he granted the same indulgences as to the Angelus; and he, moreover, permitted those who did not know it by heart to continue the recitation of the Angelus in its place. “The Sovereign Pontiff Pius VI., by a rescript dated March 18, 1781, granted that, in those places where no bell is rung at the times stated above, the faithful may gain the indulgences if, at or about the hours specified, they say, with at least contrite heart and devotion, the Angelus, or the Regina Cœli in the Paschal season.”10 When it was asked of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences whether persons unable to kneel, or those on a journey at the time the bell rang, could gain the indulgences of the devotion without complying with those conditions, a reply was given under date of February 18, 1835. that the devotion must be performed according to the decree of Benedict XIII. To the inquiry, put by Canon Falisé of the cathedral of Tournay, whether or not the bell for ringing the Angelus must be blessed, the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences replied, August 24, 1865, that it was not necessary.11 Thus matters rested till April 3, 1884, when a decree was issued still further lessening the conditions for gaining the indulgences. In the words of that decree: “Recently many pious men implored the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences to mitigate to some extent those two conditions” (of reciting the devotion at the sound of the bell, and on bended knees), “for the Angelus bell is not rung in all places, nor three times a day, nor at the same hours; and if rung, it is not always heard; and if heard, the faithful may be prevented by reasonable cause from kneeling down just at that moment to say the prayers. Besides, there are any number of the faithful who know neither the Angelus nor the Regina Cœli by heart, and cannot even read them in print. Wherefore His Holiness Pope Leo XIII., in order not to have so many of the faithful deprived of these spiritual favors, and in order to stir up an abiding and grateful remembrance of the mysteries of Our Lord’s Incarnation and Resurrection, . . . graciously granted that all the faithful who say the Angelus, with the three ‘Hail Marys,’ the ‘Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,’ and the prayer ‘Pour forth,’ etc., though for reasonable cause they do not say them on bended knees nor at the sound of the bell; or who recite during Paschal time the Regina Cœli, with the versicle and prayer; or who in the morning, or about midday, or in the evening,12 say five ‘Hail Marys’ in a becoming manner, with attention and devotion—in case they do not know the Angelus or the Regina Cœli, and cannot read them—may gain the indulgences.”13

It is here to be noted that, although in some points the Holy Father mitigated the conditions for gaining the indulgences, he at the same time added an obligation which had not previously existed—that of reciting the versicles and prayer after the three “Hail Marys.”

To sum up: in order to gain the indulgences of the Angelus given above, it is necessary at the present time, first, to recite the three “Hail Marys,” with the versicle and response that precede each one, and the versicle and response with the prayer after them—that is, the Angelus as it is found in prayer-books; or, secondly, to recite in place of it the Regina Cœli, with its versicle, response, and prayer, in its proper season; or, thirdly, for those who do not know these by heart and cannot read, to recite five “Hail Marys”—one of which devotions must be performed in the morning, about midday, or in the evening. The obligations of reciting at the sound of the bell and of kneeling are not essential when the fulfilment of them is prevented by any reasonable cause.

Instances might be given of the devotion of the saints to the Angelus, such as that of St. Charles Borromeo, who, though a cardinal, was accustomed to alight from his carriage at the sound of the bell, and kneel on the street, or wherever he chanced to be, to recite it. St. Francis of Sales had the same devotion. But examples are not necessary. What has been said with regard to the devotion will, it is believed, be sufficient to stimulate the zeal and piety of the reader to a higher appreciation and a more careful practice of this excellent devotion.

1 Genesis, xvii. 1.
2 “Kirchen-Lexicon,” article Angelus Domini.
3 “Encyclopædia Britannica,” article Curfew.
4 “The Pulpit Orator.” vol. vi. p. 147.
5 Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” July 14th.
6 “Kirchen-Lexicon,” as above.
7 “The Divine Office,” Bacques, p. 564; Feraris, “Verbum Antiphona.”
8 Darras’ “General History of the Catholic Church,” vol. ii. p. 176, note.
9 Raccolta, p. 179.
10 Raccolta, pp. 179, 180.
11 Schneider, pp. 78 and 200, note.
12 Sive mane, sive circiter meridiem, sive sub vespere.
13 The Pastor, vol. iii. pp. 13, 14.