Do We Still Believe in Angels?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Straight Answers from Fr. William Saunders

With all the talk about angels, the multitude of pictures and books about them, and even the television shows with angels, why don't we ever hear more about them? Don't we still believe in them?—A reader in Alexandria

The <Catechism of the Catholic Church> clearly affirms, "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" (No. 328). Given that we do believe in angels, we define them as pure spirits and personal beings with intelligence and free will. They are immortal beings. As Sacred Scripture attests, they appear to humans as apparitions with a human form.

We also believe that Almighty God created the angels before the rest of creation. At some point, some angels, led by Lucifer, did rebel against God and were cast into hell. This event is mentioned, albeit briefly, in several passages of the New Testament. St. Peter wrote, "Did God spare even the angels who sinned? He did not! He held them captive in Tartarus (hell)—consigned them to pits of darkness, to be guarded until judgment" (1 Pt 2:3). In the letter of St. Jude we read, "There were angels, too, who did not keep their own domain, who deserted their dwelling place. These the Lord has kept in perpetual bondage, shrouded in murky darkness against the judgment of the great day. Sodom, Gomorrah and the towns thereabouts indulged in lust, just as those angels did; they practiced unnatural vice. They are set before us to dissuade us as they undergo a punishment of eternal fire," (Jude 6-7). When Jesus spoke of the Last Judgment and the need to serve the least of our brethren, He said to the unrighteous, "Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, (Mt 25:41). Always remember that these fallen angels—the devil and demons—had been created good, but by their own free will chose to sin and turn away from God.

A key to understanding angels is by looking at what they do. First, angels see, praise and worship God in His divine presence. Jesus said, "See that you never despise one of these little ones. I assure you, their angels in heaven constantly behold my heavenly Father's face," (Mt 18:10), a passage which also indicates that each of us has a Guardian Angel. The book of Revelation described how the angels surround the throne of God and sing praises (Rv 5:11ff, 7:11ff). Moreover, they rejoice over the saved soul of the repentant sinner (Lk 15:10).

Second, angel comes from the Greek "angelos" which means "messenger," which describes their role in interacting with this world. St. Augustine stated that angels were "the mighty ones who do His word, hearkening to the voice of His word."

Throughout Sacred Scripture, the angels served as messengers of God, whether delivering an actual message of God's plan of salvation, rendering justice or providing strength and comfort. Here are a few examples of their role as messengers in the Old Testament. After the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion, the cherubim guarded the entrance of the Garden of Eden (Gn 3:24). Angels protected Lot and his family in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19). The angel stopped Abraham as he was about to offer Isaac in sacrifice (Gn 22). An angel guarded the people on the way to the Promised Land, (Ex 23:20). In the New Testament, an angel appeared to the centurion Cornelius and prompted his conversion (Acts 10:1ff). An angel freed St. Peter from prison (Acts 12:1ff). In all, Heb 1:14 captured their role well: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to serve those who are to inherit salvation?"

Sacred Scripture identifies by name three angels—St. Michael, St. Raphael and St. Gabriel. They are called archangels because of their important roles in God's plan. St, Michael, whose name means, "one who is like God," led the army of angels who cast Satan and the rebellious angels into hell; and the entire time, he will wield the sword of justice to separate the righteous from the evil, (Rv 12:7-10). St. Gabriel, whose name means "strength of God," announced to Mary that she had been chosen as the Mother of the Savior (Lk 1:26-38). St Raphael, whose name means "remedy of God," cured the blind man Tobit (Tb 5).

Since the 4th century, nine choirs of angels have been upheld: Archangels, angels, cherubim, seraphim, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations and thrones. (The latter five groups are mentioned in the epistles of St. Paul.) This schema became popular in the Middle Ages in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Hildegard of Bingen and John Scotus Erigina.

As members of the Church, we are conscious of the angels. At Mass, in the preface before the eucharistic prayer, we join with all of the angels and saints to sing the hymn of praise, "Holy, holy, holy...." In eucharistic prayer I, the priest prays, "Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven." In the final commendation of the funeral liturgy, the priest prays, "May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem." Moreover, we celebrate in our liturgical calendar the Feast of the Archangels (September 29) and Guardian Angels (October 2).

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the September 28, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.