Messengers of God: the real and powerful spiritual beings revealed in sacred Scripture and sacred tradition
Angels have a hidden presence and powerful influence in our lives. The vast majority of Americans believe in angels and many claim to have experienced divine intervention or help from one.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, angels exist and are a “truth of faith.” Citing St. Augustine, the Catechism teaches, “With their whole beings, the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they always behold the face of the Father who is in heaven, they are the mighty ones who do His word, hearkening to the voice of His word” (329).
Present since creation, angels serve to remind the material world of the spiritual dimension of existence. They belong to the communion of Saints, intercede for us, and invite people to have a greater, more beautiful image of God.
Guardian angels in particular are entrusted with our care. These celestial companions are often credited with saving lives, preventing life-altering mistakes, and influencing mortals to do good. The Church celebrates the Memorial of the Guardian Angels on Oct. 2.
“From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (CCC 336).
Watching over us
Kathy M. is certain an angel protected her from bodily harm after she lost control of a minivan on a rain-slick road 30 years ago. The mother of three young children at the time was about to hit a tree when the vehicle’s engine suddenly quit.
“I was inches from the tree. I knew in my heart, my guardian angel stopped the car,” she said, recalling the near accident as if it happened yesterday. “There was no damage to me or the car, and it turned right back on, so there was no mechanical failure.”
People often feel the presence of angels at times of grief and death. Early Church fathers believed angels help the soul escape the sufferings of death and assure the dying of a peaceful transition. Surviving loved ones receive comfort and healing.
A stranger eased Eileen Bain into a moment of acceptance as she waited outside a hospital’s cardiac unit to hear word of her gravely ill mother’s condition. Bain, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Arlington, watched intently for the unit’s door to open when a man she didn’t know suddenly tapped her on the shoulder.
“I spun around, and he said, ‘Isn’t it a beautiful night? My wife just had a baby!’ before walking into an elevator door that just opened,” Bain remembered.
The remark prepared her for what came next.
“I smiled. He reminded me how my mother always taught us the circle of life was birth then death,” she continued. “That man was my angel. Minutes later, a doctor came out to tell me my mother died.”
If you ask Jason Whitehead if he’s ever heard an angel story, the diocesan director of evangelization and catechesis quickly admits, “I grew up with one.”
Whitehead’s grandfather, a Methodist minister, swore to his dying day that an angel rescued his young family during a snowstorm in upstate New York. Stranded roadside as a blizzard raged around them, the minister’s children were on the verge of hypothermia when a man pulled up in a truck.
“He had all the requisite equipment to tow a vehicle out of a ditch, and he did so quickly and effortlessly,” Whitehead said, recounting a bit of family history.
His grandfather went to check on the car’s passengers, and when he turned around, the man and his truck were gone.
“There was no sign of him or tire tracks. Not anything,” the Catholic convert explained. “The only rational explanation for that was an angel.”
Messengers of God
Skilled in theology and Catholic teaching, Whitehead is used to fielding questions like, Why should we believe in angels?
“Because their existence is revealed to us in both sacred Scripture and sacred tradition,” the former director of faith formation responded. “Everyone has an angel, and they all possess the beatific vision.”
Skeptics often ask where the Bible mentions guardian angels. The answer is found in Matthew 18:10, where the Gospel’s writer quotes Jesus: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
Others question the nature of these supernatural beings. An angel’s office is one of mission as messengers of God while their nature is defined as nonphysical, personal, spiritual beings.
“People have the notion that angels are not much different than us, but they most certainly are,” Whitehead explained.
Confusion stems from how angels are depicted in popular culture, like Clarence in “It’s A Wonderful Life” and several TV series like “Highway to Heaven” (1984–89) and “Touched by an Angel” (1994–2003).
In most productions, the angels assume a human form as they intervene in the lives of ordinary people in trouble. Promoting the notion that angels are watching over us, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis, can instill a sense of comfort and well-being in the viewing audience.
But angels are not graduated human beings, Whitehead insisted. Angels are Christocentric, pure spirits devoted to God’s mission — our salvation.
“They were created precisely for service to God and, through service to God, service to us.”
Archangels are leaders
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger” in Hebrew. There are nine celestial orders of angels, with the seraphims — “the fiery ones” — ranked the highest. They are the guardians of God’s throne.
Archangels are found just above regular or guardian angels on the bottom of the list. They are recognized as leaders entrusted by God with special duties. The Church acknowledges seven archangels, but only three are named in the Bible — Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. Their feast day is Sept. 29.
Best known for appearing to the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation (Luke 1), Gabriel, whose name means “Strength of God,” is the patron saint of baptism. The significance behind Raphael’s name, “God is my health,” reflects his healing ability. By touching Tobit’s eyes, the patron saint of nurses and physicians cured them of blindness in the Old Testament’s Book of Tobit.
Some faith traditions claim Michael was the first angel created. Patron saint of police, firefighters, and soldiers, the archangel led the heavenly forces in casting out Lucifer during a rebellion against God.
St. Michael the Archangel visited the three children of Fatima — Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — in 1917 to prepare them for the apparition of the Blessed Virgin. His voice also spoke to Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl who led thousands of French troops into battle during the Hundred Years’ War against the English. St. Michael and other saints provided counsel, warned her of danger, and assured her of salvation for accepting God’s mission to free France from its enemies.
A powerful prayer
Deep devotion to St. Michael the Archangel, who strengthens bodies and souls against the powers of evil, has existed in the Church since the first century.
In the Diocese of Fort Worth and other parishes across the country, pastors have reinstituted reciting the Prayer of St. Michael after Mass as a spiritual weapon against the power of evil.
Written in 1884 by Pope Leo XIII, the prayer was originally said after every Mass in the Latin Rite to defend the Church during turbulent times.
The ritual fell out of practice after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s but was revived by Pope John Paul II in 1994. Today, Pope Francis recommends praying to
St. Michael the Archangel to guard against the ongoing spiritual battles present in modern society.
“The prayer to St. Michael is very powerful,” said Pallotine Father Vijaya Raju Mareedu. “In a world where things are changing so much, and we see so much evil, it makes sense to ask for the intercession of St. Michael to protect us.”
Native to Andhra Pradesh, India, and now pastor of St. Michael Parish in Bedford, Fr. Mareedu asks for help from St. Michael when he visits parishioners to perform a house blessing.
“It’s a prayer I like to share with people and, because our church is named for St. Michael, it’s appropriate to ask for his intercession to guard and guide us from evil.”
The saint’s name — which means “who is like God” — generates recognition and a sense of security, he added. Members of the parish come from 48 different countries and their familiarity with St. Michael and his story makes them feel at home. The archangel appeals to all people because of his leadership, loyalty to God, and determination to fight for good over evil.
“There is an assurance that he’s protecting God’s Church and that is something I love,” Fr. Mareedu said.
Growing up in India, Fr. Mareedu’s mother often spoke of angels — particularly guardian angels.
A holy card that pictured a winged angel hovering over a young boy and girl as they walk along a path is a favorite childhood memory.
“That small prayer we say to our guardian angel is powerful — especially if it’s said at the beginning of a journey,” he added. “A priest I knew in India always did that.”
Leading people to heaven
In Sister Mary Angelica Neenan’s religious community, praying to one’s guardian angel before travel is a tradition. The Dominican sister is a theology professor at the University of Dallas where the subject of angels occasionally comes up with students. She emphasizes the point that they are real and should not be disregarded as characters in a fable.
Another common misconception is that angels are childlike cherubs or cupids who are powerless.
“My younger students think angels are just a little voice on your shoulder that say do this or do that,” said the moral theology teacher. “But angels do much more than that. They can teach and speak to us if they want to. They’re pure spirits, and by their nature, they have a higher intelligence.”
More importantly, they see the face of God and pray constantly.
“Angels enjoy the beatific vision and, out of charity, want us to see the face of God like they do,” she suggested. “Their primary role is to praise God, but they also try to guide and help us on our life journey.”
Sometimes people encounter a human being who happens to be in the right place at the right time during an accident or crisis and wonder, “Was that Good Samaritan an angel?”
“I think it’s possible,” Sr. Angelica mused, citing angelic appearances in Scripture to support her opinion. “They appear in human form so as not to scare us. We more naturally receive supernatural things in a natural way.”
The Boston native recalled an incident reported by sisters from her community.
“A man helped them on the road when they had car trouble,” she continued. “They turned around to thank him and he was gone. There was no trace of him, and he couldn’t have walked away that fast. When that happens, I’m pretty sure it’s an angel.”
Everyone is assigned a guardian angel and some people have more than one, Sr. Angelica said. Along with offering protection, they inspire with thoughts that will lead people to heaven.
“They help us in so many ways to resist temptation and do what is truly good,” the theology professor explained. “I don’t think we teach enough about how important angels are.”