Many students attending Catholic schools in the 1970s were airily informed by religion teachers that angels do not exist. They are “symbolic,” or “metaphors,” or whatever. Fortunately, we are long past that particular superstition. Indeed, the weight of Scripture and Tradition tell us a great deal about these invisible presences in each of our lives.
An entirely different order of creation to our own (the idea that the virtuous dead — especially children — become angels, despite its being shown in such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, is a pagan idea), their presence and work has affected the lives of all of us since before the birth of our first parents. Indeed, the revolt of Lucifer and his angels set the stage for the Fall of Man, and so shaped the entirety of our history, to say nothing of our personal lives. Every religion has some notion of them, which is to be expected if they do indeed exist. But just as the Catholic religion has the entirety of Revelation, so too is her teaching on Angels the most complete and correct. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Roman Catechism, their existence and the role of the fallen ones is very explicit. “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.” (CCC § 328.) Jesus himself told us this: “The angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). As explained in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The angels are purely spiritual creatures, incorporeal, invisible, immortal, and personal beings endowed with intelligence and will. They ceaselessly contemplate God face-to-face and they glorify him. They serve him and are his messengers in the accomplishment of his saving mission to all.” (Id. at para. 60.)
Leaving the devil’s minions aside, the unfallen ones continue to serve God — and us — in innumerable ways: the name Angele, after all, comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews affirms that angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.” (Heb. 1:14.). Lacking human emotions or passions, unflinching in their duty, and loving us with an intensity second only to God and the Blessed Virgin, they play an important role in the economy of Salvation. This is mentioned in all of the liturgies of the Church, East and West; in the traditional Requiem of the Latin Rite, the angels are called upon to lead the newly dead soul to paradise.
Angels in the New Testament appear first in the gospel narratives of the Nativity: they announce the birth of St. John the Baptist to his father, St. Zecharia (Luke 1:11, 18-20), and the birth of Jesus Christ to the Mary, the Virgin Mother (id. vv. 26-38); and they assure St. Joseph of the Virgin Mother’s fidelity, announce the birth of his Son, and instruct him to accept Mary as his lawfully wedded wife. (Matt. 1:20-21.). Praising God, angels proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. (Luke 2:9-15.). When, during his ministry, Jesus is tempted by Satan, angels minister to him. (Matt. 4:11.) When Jesus suffers in the Garden of Gethsemene, pleading with his Father before his imminent arrest, angels strengthen him in anticipation of his Passion (Luke 22.43), while countless angels were at his disposal to defend him if need be. (Matt. 26:53.) At Jesus’ resurrection, angels roll back the stone of the Holy Sepulchre. (Matt. 28:2-6; John 20:12.) At Christ Parousia, His Second Coming, angels will accompany Him. (Matt. 16:27.) In the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul states that “[t]he Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ, shall rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:15 [Douay-Rheims Bible].)
In the Book of Tobit, St. Raphael reveals that there are seven angels who stand before God: these are called “Archangels.” Three are named in Scripture — the two others besides Raphael being Michael and Gabriel. A fourth is mentioned in the extra-canonical Books of Ezra Enoch, and several of the Church Fathers: Uriel. The remaining three are given a wide variety of names in various traditions. While there is at least one list that has a certain amount of Church recognition (as evidenced by canonical permission for the seven altars to the Archangels in Mettenheim, Bavaria), by and large the ecclesiastical authorities are not comfortable — at time to the point of forbidding — extra-scriptural angelic names. Nevertheless, devotion to those named in the Bible – St. Michael, St. Raphael and St. Gabriel in particular – is heavily encouraged.
On one level, theologians tell us that the angels are extremely individual beings; nevertheless, they are separated into Nine Choirs — in Heaven, as on Earth, there is hierarchy. As noted by Pope Leo XXI in his Encyclical on socialism, Quod Apostolici Muneris, “[t]hus as even in the kingdom of heaven [God] has willed that the choirs of angels be distinct and some subject to others, and also in the Church has instituted various orders and a diversity of offices, so that all are not apostles or doctors or pastors, (fn. omitted), so also has He appointed that there should be various orders in civil society . . . .” (Id. at para. 6.)
Above the Choirs of Angels, however, as above all other created beings and things, reigns Our Lady of the Angel, the Mother of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. In his Encyclical on the Rosay, Iudunda Semper Expectationer, Pope Leo XIII, in expounding on the Glorious Myteries of the Rosary, explains that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven was heralded by the Angelic Choir: “Therefore we behold her taken up from this valley of tears into the heavenly Jerusalem, amid choirs of Angels. And we honour her, glorified above all the Saints, crowned with stars by her Divine Son and seated at His side the sovereign Queen of the universe.” (Id. at para. 4.) Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution defining the Dogma of the Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus (Nov. 1, 1950), reiterates, at Paragraph 30, the ancient received truth that “that the most blessed Mother of God has been assumed above the choirs of angels,” quoting the great Dominican Doctor of the Church, St. Albert the Great, in his Marialis.
From St. Dionysius the Areopagite to St. Thomas Aquinas, the schema of the Nine Choirs of Angels, who escorted Our Lady of the Angels to heaven and now serve Her as she fulfills the will of the Holy Trinity, is seen thusly:
- First Sphere:
- Second Sphere:
- Third Sphere:
The first sphere is entirely employed in the praise and worship of God; the second in helping Him the governance of the universe; the third deals with Mankind. It is from their ranks that Guardian come. It is not only the constant teaching of the Church, but also one commemorated by a feast day (October 2), that each of us has a Guardian Angel all our lives. Many saints have benefitted from frequent and regular prayer to their Guardians — a few of whom appeared to them visibly, as with St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903). Devotion to the angel appointed by God to watch over us would seem mere common sense in the world of sin and shadows in which we find ourselves.
As creatures of a spiritual nature, the angels are endowed with intellect and free will, like human beings, but in a degree superior to them, even if this is always finite because of the limit which is inherent in every creature. The angels are therefore personal beings and, as such, are also “in the image and likeness” of God. Sacred Scripture also refers to the angels by using terms that are not only personal (like the proper names of Raphael, Gabriel, Michael) but also “collective” (like the titles seraphim, cherubim, thrones, powers, dominions, principalities), just as it distinguishes between angels and archangels. While bearing in mind the analogous and representative character of the language of the sacred text, we can deduce that these beings and persons are as it were grouped together in society. They are divided into orders and grades, corresponding to the measure of their perfection and to the tasks entrusted to them. The ancient authors and the liturgy itself speak also of the angelic choirs (nine, according to Dionysius the Areopagite). Especially in the patristic and medieval periods, theology has not rejected these representations. It has sought to explain them in doctrinal and mystical terms, but without attributing an absolute value to them. St. Thomas preferred to deepen his researches into the ontological condition, the epistemological activity and will and also the loftiness of these purely spiritual creatures. He did this both because of their dignity in the scale of beings and also because he could investigate more deeply in them the capacities and the activities that are proper to the spirit in the pure state. From this he deduced much light to illuminate the basic problems that have always agitated and stimulated human thought, knowledge, love, liberty, docility to God, and how to reach his kingdom.
Prior to the reform of the calendar by St. Pius X, a number of Catholic countries celebrated on a nation-wide basis the feast of the Guardian Angel of the country. Cities, provinces, and states, and countries all have their own..
Devotion to these experts in Divine adoration, these cooperators of God in the management of the Universe, these spirit helpers of men, would seem to be of ever more importance today, in the light of all we face in terms of personal and national weakness, fears, and danger. The solicitude of the angels for human beings and for their salvation is shown in Acts of the Apostles. Thus, as explained by Pope John Paul II in his General Audience of August 6, 1986, “the angel of God liberated the apostles from prison (cf. Acts 5:18-20) and first of all Peter, when he was threatened with death at the hands of Herod (cf. Acts 12:5-10). He guided the activity of Peter with regard to the centurion Cornelius, the first pagan to be converted (Acts 10:3-8; 11:1-12), and analogously the activity of the deacon Philip along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-29).” And, as our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, recently declared, when addressing a group of newlyweds, sick, and children on September 29, 2010, the feast in the 1969 calendar of Ss. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, “May today’s Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael and the upcoming Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, spur us to think of the provident concern with which God cares for every human person. May you feel the presence of the Angels beside you, dear young people, and let yourselves be guided by them so that your whole life may be illuminated by the word of God. Dear sick people, helped by your Guardian Angels, join your sufferings to those of Christ for the spiritual renewal of human society. And may you, dear newlyweds, have frequent recourse to the help of your Guardian Angels, so that you may grow in the constant witness to authentic love.”
Appendix: From The Catechism of the Catholic Church (328-336)
The feast of Saint Michael, one of the seven archangels of Scripture, originated in the sixth century. It was known, in English, as “Michaelmas”, and this name lives on in a wildflower, a white aster with many small star-like flowers, that blooms in late September, known as the Michaelmas daisy.
Recently two other of the archangels named in scripture, Gabriel and Raphael, are also honored on this day.
Michael the archangel, whose name in Hebrew means “Who is like God?”, is revered as the leader of the angelic army who will conquer Satan and his armies of demons, and is considered the defender of the Church. Michael is more often represented in art thank any other angelic being. He is often shown wearing armor, in the act of slaying the great Dragon of the Apocalypse [Satan] in Revelation 12:7-9.
The archangel Gabriel, whose name in Hebrew means “Strength of God”, announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zachariah, and soon after, announced to Mary that she was to become the mother of Our Lord. His address to her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (the “angelic salutation”) is familiar to all who say the Rosary.
The archangel Raphael, whose name means medic or ointment of God, is mentioned by name in the Old Testament book of Tobit (Tobias), whom the angel aided by healing him of blindness and guiding him on his travels.
The angels that appear in Scripture are never described as having wings. In fact, in several passages, the people who are visited by angels do not realize these messengers from On High are not ordinary men until it is revealed later.
In the Book of Revelation, winged beings who otherwise look like men are described as surrounding the throne of God. Thus, in early paintings angels are shown with wings — sometimes very colorfully feathered. In medieval paintings, angels are often shown wearing liturgical vestments of deacons.
The idea that angels wear white robes comes from the white albs worn by deacons that appear in these paintings.
In some paintings, especially of the Nativity of Christ, the angels who adore the infant are clad in elaborate liturgical vestments, including embroidered copes (large capes). But the worshipping angels are never dressed as priests — Christ alone is the High Priest. The infant Jesus in these paintings is shown with no clothing at all: he is “clothed in his own flesh”.
Prayers to the Archangels and a classic child’s prayer to a Guardian Angel appear below (The prayer to Saint Michael is given in English, Latin and Spanish).
Appendix: From The Directory on Popular Piety
213. With the clear and sober language of catechesis, the Church teaches that “the existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition”280.
Tradition regards the angels as messengers of God, “potent executives of his commands, and ready at the sound of his words” (Ps 103, 20. They serve his salvific plan, and are “sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Hb 1, 14).
214. The faithful are well aware of the numerous interventions of angels in the New and Old Covenants. They closed the gates of the earthly paradise (cf. Gen 3,24), they saved Hagar and her child Ishmael (cf. Gen 21, 17), they stayed the hand of Abraham as he was about to sacrifice Isaac (cf. gen 22, 7), they announce prodigious births (cf. Jud 13, 3-7), they protect the footsteps of the just (cf. Ps 91, 11), they praise God unceasingly (cf. Is 6, 1-4), and they present the prayer of the Saints to God (cf. Ap 8, 34). The faithful are also aware of the angel’s coming to help Elijah, an exhausted fugitive (cf. 1 Kings 19, 4-8), of Azariah and his companions in the fiery furnace (cf. Dan 3, 49-50), and are familiar with the story of Tobias in which Raphael, “one of the seven Angels who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of God” (cf. Tb 12, 15), who renders many services to Tobit, his son Tobias and his wife Sarah.
The faithful are also conscious of the roles played by the Angels in the life of Jesus: the Angel Gabriel declared to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of the Most High (cf. Lk 1, 26-38), and that an Angel revealed to Joseph the supernatural origin of Mary’s conception (cf. Mt 1, 18-25); the Angels appear to the shepherds in Bethlehem with the news of great joy of the Saviour’s birth (cf. Lk 2, 8-24); “the Angel of the Lord” protected the infant Jesus when he was threatened by Herod (cf. Mt 2, 13-20); the Angels ministered to Jesus in the desert (cf. Mt 4, 11) and comforted him in his agony (Lk 22, 43), and to the women gathered at the tomb, they announced that he had risen (cf. Mk 16, 1-8), they appear again at the Ascension, revealing its meaning to the disciples and announcing that “Jesus …will come back in the same way as you have seen him go” (Acts 1, 11).
The faithful will have well grasped the significance of Jesus’ admonition not to despise the least of those who believe in him for “their Angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven” (Mt 10, 10), and the consolation of his assurance that “there is rejoicing among the Angels of God over one repentant sinner” (Lk 15, 10). The faithful also realize that “the Son of man will come in his glory with all his Angels” (mt 25, 31) to judge the living and the dead, and bring history to a close.
215. The Church, which at its outset was saved and protected by the ministry of Angels, and which constantly experiences their “mysterious and powerful assistance”281, venerates these heavenly spirits and has recourse to their prompt intercession.
During the liturgical year, the Church celebrates the role played by the Holy Angels, in the events of salvation282 and commemorates them on specific days: 29 September (feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael), 2 October (the Guardian Angels). The Church has a votive Mass dedicated to the Holy Angels whose preface proclaims that “the glory of God is reflected in his Angels”283. In the celebration of the sacred mysteries, the Church associates herself with the angelic hymn and proclaims the thrice holy God (cf. Isaiah 6, 3)284 invoking their assistance so that the Eucharistic sacrifice “may be taken [to your] altar in heaven, in the presence of […] divine majesty”285. The office of lauds is celebrated in their presence (cf. Ps 137, 1)286. The Church entrusts to the ministry of the Holy Angels (cf. Aps 5, 8; 8, 3) the prayers of the faithful, the contrition of penitents287, and the protection of the innocent from the assaults of the Malign One288. The Church implores God to send his Angels at the end of the day to protect the faithful as they sleep289, prays that the celestial spirits come to the assistance of the faithful in their last agony290, and in the rite of obsequies, invokes God to send his Angels to accompany the souls of just into paradise291 and to watch over their graves.
216. Down through the centuries, the faithful have translated into various devotional exercises the teaching of the faith in relation to the ministry of Angels: the Holy Angels have been adopted as patrons of cities and corporations; great shrines in their honour have developed such as Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, San Michele della Chiusa in Piemonte and San Michele Gargano in Apulia, each appointed with specific feast days; hymns and devotions to the Holy Angels have also been composed.
Popular piety encompasses many forms of devotion to the Guardian Angels. St. Basil Great (+378) taught that “each and every member of the faithful has a Guardian Angel to protect, guard and guide them through life”292. This ancient teaching was consolidated by biblical and patristic sources and lies behind many forms of piety. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) was a great master and a notable promoter of devotion to the Guardian Angels. For him, they were a proof “that heaven denies us nothing that assists us”, and hence, “these celestial spirits have been placed at our sides to protect us, instruct us and to guide us”293.
Devotion to the Holy Angels gives rise to a certain form of the Christian life which is characterized by:
- devout gratitude to God for having placed these heavenly spirits of great sanctity and dignity at the service of man;
- an attitude of devotion deriving from the knowledge of living constantly in the presence of the Holy Angels of God;— serenity and confidence in facing difficult situations, since the Lord guides and protects the faithful in the way of justice through the ministry of His Holy Angels.Among the prayers to the Guardian Angels the Angele Dei294 is especially popular, and is often recited by families at morning and evening prayers, or at the recitation of the Angelus.
217. Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations:
- when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and daemons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer;
- when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.
Msgr. Adriano Paccanelli
Vatican Secretariat of State
“They are invisible ministers of God, they are our custodians. They are spiritual beings”.
The most famous Angels are the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, discussed in separate essays on this website. The Catholic Church celebrates the Archangels’ feast on September 29. As noted above, Catholic tradition divides the angels into three groups. The first: seraphim, cherubim and thrones: the second, dominations, virtues and powers; and third, principalities, archangels and angels.
Throughout history, the Benedictine, Franciscan and Jesuit Orders have devoted particular study and efforts in pursuit to Angelic Devotion.
In addition, our greatest saints typically have had a particularly close relationship with the angels, invoking them often for guidance and protection.
Msgr. Marcello Stanzione
“The Angels. An Essential Guide”
“Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was a devotee of the angels and when he entered in any church, he stood a moment. His associates knew the reason: he said he first let his angel pass and he would pass him.”
Our Popes have emphasized the importance of interacting with angels. A famous and powerful prayer to Archangel Michael was written by Leo XIII.
John Paul II said on several occasions that every day he asked for help to his guardian angel and spoke about the angels in various general audiences. His successor, our Holy Father Benedict XVI, has carried on this devotion to the angels.
- (280) CCC 328.
- (281) Ibid., 336.
- (282) The same is true, for example in the solemnity of Easter and in the solemnities of the Annunciation (25 march), Christmas (25 December), Ascension, the Immaculate Conception (8 December), St. Joseph (19 March), Sts. Peter and Paul (29 June), Assumption (15 August) and All Saints (1 November).
- (283) MISSALE ROMANUM, Praefatio de Angelis.
- (284) Cf. ibid., Prex eucharistica, Sanctus.
- (285) Ibid., Prex eucharistica I, Supplices te rogamus.
- (286) Cf. St. BENEDICT, Regula, 19, 5: CSEL 75, Vindobonae 1960, p. 75.
- (287) Cf. RITUALE ROMANUM, Ordo Paenitentiae, Editio Typica, Typis Polyglotis Vatacanis 1974, 54.
- (288) Cf. LITURGIA HORARUM, Die 2 Octobris, Ss Angelorum Custodum memoria, Ad Vesperas, Hymnus, “Custodes hominum psallimus angelos”.
- (289) Cf. ibid., Ad Completorium post II Vesperas Dominicae et Sollemnitatum, Oratio “Visita quaesumus”.
- (290) Cf. RITUALE ROMANUM, Ordo unctionis informorum eorumque patoralis curae, cit., 147.
- (291) Cf. RITUALE ROMANUM, Ordo exsequiarum , Editio Typica, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1969, 50.
- Fr. Hardon On Angelogy
- Society of the Guardien Angels of Lyons
- Archonfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altaer and the Holy Angels
- Opus Anglorum
- Seven Archangels Website