19. Angels in Attendance – Ministering Angels
The distinction between these two classes of angels is not arbitrary or fanciful. On the contrary, it is scriptural, at least as far as the language itself is concerned. For it is written, “Thousands of thousands ministered to him, and then thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him.” (Daniel 7:10)
The numbers employed by the Prophet are no doubt indefinite in both cases, and intended to convey the notion of a multitude quite beyond the power of human words to express. The second number, however, is the larger of the two; from which we seem to be justified in inferring that they who stand in ceaseless attendance upon the Most High, are a vastly greater throng than they whose duty it is to busy themselves with such functions in the outer world, as have to do with the salvation of mankind.
But the question at once arises, are the two classes of blessed spirits mutually exclusive? Do they who stand before the throne never go forth to minister? Do they who minister never swell the ranks of those who form the inner court of the great King?
And here Catholic theologians are divided. Some deny that there is any such fundamental distinction and hold that all from the highest to the lowest are sent to minister, while all likewise appear before the throne. Saint Thomas, on the contrary, upholds a set and rigid distinction between the two orders of angels, and will not allow that the higher classes of blessed spirits may, even by exception, be sent to minister. And in this he seems to follow the teaching of the great classic, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” with which Saint Gregory is substantially in accord.
Suarez, on the other hand, while maintaining a strict distinction between the two classes of angels, is not as unyielding in the matter of exceptions. He would allow that, at times, even the most exalted of the angels may be sent forth as ambassadors from the heavenly court, when there is question of doing honour to some great mystery, such as the Incarnation, the Nativity, or the Resurrection of Our Lord, or of showing special favour to some distinguished friend of God.
There are, however, certain texts of Scripture which are not easily made ot harmonize with the idea of a real distinction between the two classes. Thus Saint Paul, contrasting the angels with Christ, and proclaiming their inferiority as compared with the Son of God, asks, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14)
Now it hardly seems to be doubtful that the Apostle is here speaking of the angels quite universally, as would appear to be evident both from the language itself and from the purpose in view, which is to exalt Christ above all others. And hence it remains to be explained how those angels who, in the opinion to which we are now referring, are never engaged in any exterior activity, may be said to minister “for those who receive the inheritance of salvation.”
The explanation which is given by Saint Thomas and by Suarez is that the higher angels enlighten the lower, and intimate to them the will of God in matters affecting the salvation of souls, and that this activity, although wholly interior, is a true and properly so-called ministry. And if you object that Saint Paul does not merely say that all are ministering spirits, but adds “sent to minister,” thus implying that they go forth from the presence of God, and directly busy themselves with what appertains to the welfare of man, Suarez replies that the second clause has not the same universality as the first. Saint Paul does not say that all are sent, nor is it necessary for his argument. For is all are servants, whereas Christ is the Son, then it is plain that He is above all.
When, then, we distinguish between angels who are ever in attendance upon the King of kings, and those who minister to Him, we do not imply that the former in no sense minister (for in a broader sense they do) but only that they are not employed in exterior works for the welfare of mankind, whether as directing the operations of the lower angels, or as immediately engaged in executing what has been enjoined upon them.
Neither is it to be understood, when we speak of ministering angels, that these are in no sense in attendance upon the Most High. For all alike, enjoy the Beatific Vision according to the words of Our Lord himself, “I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heave” (Matthew 18:10), words which apply directly to the guardian angels of the little ones, but are a fortiori to be applied to all the higher orders. Nevertheless, the term ministering well serves to distinguish those who in a strict sense minister, being engaged in exterior offices, from those who do so only in the broad sense explained above. On the other hand, the expression in attendance is in a special manner applicable to those whose prerogative it is ever to abide in the Divine Presence, exempt from any outward function, and at all times to receive directly from the Supreme Source of light, the rays which they shed upon the blessed spirits who are of inferior rank.
One remark remains to be made concerning the choir of dominations. These glorious spirits, as the most exalted of ministering angels, are not regularly sent to discharge this or that office in the outer world, whatever they may exceptionally be commissioned to do, but theirs is a condition of superiority or pre-eminence, in virtue of which they intimate to those beneath them what each must do, declaring to them the Divine Will, or in a general way, assigning to them their various functions. And thus the dominations hold a sort of middle place between the angels of the third hierarchy, whose sole occupation is with God himeself and His sovereign Majesty, and the rest, on whom it devolves to execute the Will of God in the promotion of the interests of our human race.