to angels have become very popular in the last few decades, but as with
so many subjects of popular devotion, the understanding of Catholic
doctrine is not so widespread. The following article is an attempt
to summarize some background on angels and some popular devotions.
For more information, I would recommend Peter Kreeft's book Angels
(and Demons.) For a vivid literary description of angels I would
recommend C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, i.e. Out of the Silent Planet,
Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
angel is a pure spirit created to glorify God forever in heaven.
The term angel (aggelos in Greek, angelus in Latin) means
messenger, for the description of angels in the Bible is mostly, although
not exclusively, as messengers and guardians from God. See, e.g.,
Gen.19, 22:11; Judges 6:11-24; 1 Kings 19:5; Zech. 1:7-17; Matt. 1:20,
2:19; Luke 1:10-20, 26-38; Heb. 2:2. Being pure spirit, they are
magnificent in splendor and glory, with greater majesty and power than
any human even imaginable on this earth. Thus, when people realize
that they have seen an angel, they often believe that they will die
from the glory of it. See, e.g., Judges 6:22, 13:22; Tob. 12:16;
Dan. 9:17-19. As a result, among the first words an angel addresses
to a human are frequently, "Be not afraid." See, e.g., Tob.
12:16; Luke 1:13, 2:10. Because angels are so close to God, when
people in the Bible see them, they describe the occasion as seeing the
Lord. See, e.g., Gen. 16:13, 32:31; Ex. 3:2-6. St. John
was even tempted to give an angel the worship due to God. See
Rev. 19:10, 22:9-10. And because angels show forth the majesty
and holiness of God with such great power, they are at the same time
the guardians of God's people, but also very dangerous if approached
without the proper respect. See, e.g., Gen. 19:11; Ex. 23:20-26;
Num. 22:22-35; 2 Pet. 2:10. The Book of Revelation thus describes
them as both: (1) guiding and guarding God's people, especially in
their worship, but also (2) announcing God's wrath upon the world.
See, e.g., Rev. 7:1-8, 8:3-10:11, 16:1-21.
angels were created, they had one choice, for or against God.
They angels at creation were so close to God that that one choice was
final, for never-ending glory or never-ending shame. The angels
who chose to serve God became what we call angels and praise Him forever
in heaven in magnificent splendor beyond the ability of human words
to describe. That choice for God required divine grace, for no
one can approach God without His special favor; but, as with Mary, that
grace was one of attaining perfection, not forgiveness of sins, for
the angels in heaven never sinned. God also sends some angels
to earth to serve us and carry out His will. See Catechism 329-35.
spirits who chose against God became what we call demons and, in their
hatred for God and us, they seek to turn as many people against God
as possible. They are weaker than the angels in heaven, but if
humans do not turn to God and His angels for help, they can trap people
in their darkness. There is a continuing battle between the angels
and demons, which will end only in the final consummation of all things
on this earth, when Christ appears with His angels to judge all people
and nations. See Matt. 25:14-46; Rev. 20-22.
II. TYPES OF ANGELS
One may also
ask what we mean by calling some angels simply "angels," and others
archangels, cherubim, seraphim and the like. These terms come
from the Bible and have been used by theologians to describe different
types of angels. St. Thomas Aquinas in particular described nine
"choirs" of angels according to their closeness to the glory of
God. It should be noted that all angels are glorious beyond our
imagining, and the idea of nine choirs of angels is not a matter of
Church doctrine. Still, this way of referring to different angels
is based upon Scripture and has been very helpful for centuries in distinguishing
Thomas's description of the angelic choirs builds upon the work of
Church fathers such as Dionysius and St. Gregory the Great, and Catholic
descriptions of angels have used this ordering ever since. According
to this vision, there are nine choirs of angels: seraphim, cherubim,
thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and
angels. Each of these terms is used in Scripture, and St. Thomas
argues that each choir described by them has a special place in divine
government. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica part
I, question 108, articles 5-6. St. Thomas fully recognized that
each angel is unique and that these organizing terms are insufficient
to capture their individual glory. Still, he said that, given
the limitations of the human intellect and vision here on earth, this
ordering helps us understand the angels better. See Summa Theologica
part I, question 50, article 4 and question 108, article 3.
ordering, there are three hierarchies, with Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones
in the highest hierarchy, dominions, virtues and powers in the middle
hierarchy, and principalities, archangels and angels in the third hierarchy.
The first hierarchy is focused most perfectly on the contemplation of
God. Thus, the seraphim, whom Isaiah describes in his vision of
the heavenly temple, see, praise and teach about God in Himself more
perfectly than any creature except the Blessed Mother. See Is.
6:2-4. The cherubim, whose images were on the ancient Ark of the
Covenant and whom Ezekiel describes as upholding the glory of God, contemplate
and show that glory with a brilliance that the prophet describes as
like moving wheels of fire. See Ex. 25:18-22; Ez. 10. St.
Thomas argues that thrones, described by St. Paul as the first of the
invisible realm, see Col 1:16, contemplate, praise and demonstrate God's
power and magnificence above all else.
In his letters
to the Colossians and Ephesians, St. Paul also describes the next hierarchy
of angels: the dominions, virtues and powers. See Col. 1:16; Eph.
2:20-21. These angels are more in charge of the governance of
all things in both the visible and (vastly greater) invisible realm.
The dominions are given overall governance over implementing the eternal
law in general, the virtues the more specific aspects of governance
regarding such definite things such as science, miracles and justice,
and the powers the means of carrying out this government. The
third choir of angels exercises this governance over specific things
and peoples. Thus, principalities, whom St. Paul also describes
in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians as leaders of the invisible
realm, protect and guide peoples and nations. Archangels announce
and carry out particularly glorious news of the realm of grace and angels
guide people according to reason. The Scriptures deal more with
archangels, probably because the seven higher choirs are too high for
human language to
III. ANGELS NAMED IN
Bible specifically names three archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
And the Church celebrates especially these angels on the Feast of the
Archangels. Although there are no doubt myriads of archangels,
there has historically been a special devotion to seven archangels.
This number is based upon Raphael's declaration in the Book of Tobit
that he is one of seven angels that "enter and serve before the glory
of the Lord" and St. John's vision in the Book of Revelation of
seven angels blowing seven trumpets of the judgment of God. See
Tob.12:15; Rev. 8:2. In addition, chapter 20 of the non-Biblical,
but still very interesting Book of Enoch, which was composed from about
300 B.C. to about 70 A.D., also supports the special veneration of seven
archangels. The names of the other four archangels of common devotion
in addition to Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael varies according to different
Christian traditions. All of the traditional devotions tend to
emphasize common elements, however, and the Church has seen no need
to endorse one of those traditions to the exclusion of others.
But one common devotion from the eastern traditions of the Catholic
Church, as well as some of the Orthodox churches, is to venerate the
seven archangels under the names Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selaphiel,
Jehudiel, and Barachiel.
Book of Daniel shows the archangel Michael as the special defender of
God's Chosen People and the Book of Revelation describes him as the
one who led the forces of God against Satan and the other fallen angels,
casting them out of heaven. See Dan. 10:10-21, 12:1; Rev. 12:7-9.
We especially associate him with guarding the Church as a whole, each
local church, each family, and every one of the faithful against the
wiles of the demons. And Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) specifically
asked people to pray the Prayer of St. Michael regularly, and particularly
after Mass, for the defense of the Church.
archangel Gabriel is especially associated with bringing people confidence
and good news of salvation. He explained to the prophet Daniel
visions about the redemption of God's people and the end of abominations.
See Dan. 8:15-26, 9:20-27. When the time of Christ dawned, he
first gave Zechariah the news that his son would restore prophesy and
prepare the way of the Lord. See Luke 1:5-25. Then, at the
height of his mission, he announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that
she would be the mother of Christ. See Luke 1:26-38. He
may well also have been the one who announced the news of Jesus Christ
to Joseph and to the shepherds.
archangel Raphael is the quintessential guardian angel. The Book
of Tobit describes him as guiding Tobit's son Tobias on his mission
to recover the family fortune. On the way, Raphael not only guides
Tobias, but teaches him how to achieve the even more glorious mission
of finding a cure for his father's blindness and driving away the
demon Azmodius, who has been persecuting a young woman named Sarah,
and whom Tobias marries before returning home in triumph. We can
pray to the archangel Raphael especially for healing and guidance in
carrying out our vocations and missions in life.
IV. OTHER ANGELS OF POPULAR
is no one official list of the archangels other than Michael, Gabriel
and Raphael, but there are often lists of seven archangels of popular
devotion; and one common tradition lists the other four archangels as
Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel, and Barachiel.
whose name means "fire of God" in Hebrew, is especially associated
with enlightening the faithful with both a deeper understanding of the
truth and a more powerful love of God and neighbor. He is often
portrayed with the sword of truth that cuts to the heart and releases
the power of love. See Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12. Salaphiel,
whose name means "prayer of God," is associated with helping people
in prayer, especially when one is experiencing difficulties in concentrating,
for we need the help of heaven to win this battle of prayer. See
Catechism 2725. He is often portrayed carrying incense symbolizing
our prayers rising to heaven, and is sometimes identified with the angel
offering the prayers of the faithful in Revelation 8:3. Jehudiel,
whose name means "the praise of God" is a defender of workers and
of those who are suffering from oppressions from illness and injustice.
For in dedicated labor and patient suffering, we offer God praise in
union with His Son who labored and suffered for us. See Catechism
1508, 2427.He is often portrayed carrying a crown to be given to those
who work and struggle well, representing heaven's reward for those
who are usually not rewarded on earth. See Wis. 5:15-16.
Barachiel, whose name means "the blessings of God," is especially
associated with helping people recognize the blessings God has given
them, and particularly those associated with married life. Often
portrayed carrying the Bible or other writings of the Church, he especially
helps people wisely sense the goodness that God offers them, rather
than some other goodness they want or expect. And, particularly
in marriage, he helps couples sense that God is with them, helping them
make their family a "domestic church." See Catechism 1642,
V. GUARDIAN ANGELS
angels have general roles in providing for God's people in addition
to their calling in heaven to praise God forever. But God also
sends to each of us specific guardian angels to guide, help, and assist
us on the road to salvation. The Book of Tobit gives a lengthy
description of a guardian angel guiding Tobias to find a cure for his
father's blindness, meet his future wife Sarah, and then drive away
the demon Azmodeus who was persecuting her. This narrative is
a dramatic example of these "ministering spirits, sent to serve for
the sake of those who are to inherit salvation." Heb. 1:14.
The Psalmist promises that the angels will ever guide our way and Jesus
declares that we should never look down on the little ones, for "their
angels always look on the face of My heavenly Father." Ps. 91:10-13;
Matt. 18:10. St. Thomas Aquinas says that this earth is the perilous
road to heaven and thus God gives each community and each person an
angel to instruct, protect and encourage him along that path.
See Summa Theologica, Part I, question 113, articles 1-6.
C.S. Lewis in one of his books exquisitely describes what a blessed
one arrives in heaven and meets the guardian angels that were assigned
to him, his family, and his communities, "The dim consciousness of
friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now
at last explained; the central music in every pure experience which
had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered."