Angels have always played prominent roles in biblical stories. Over the years, they have inspired art, literature, and films. Saints have spoken with them. St. Paul advised, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). Many books and articles have been devoted to them and angelic images are common. However today, as in the past, not everything that is said about angels is completely accurate. There is some confusion regarding their role, while some people even deny their existence. If people knew more about the angels, their purpose and importance, then they could more fully appreciate how awe-inspiring these beings truly are.
The Existence and Role of Angels
Angels are spiritual creatures created by God. They have no physical bodies but are pure spirit. In every age, there are people who deny the existence of angels. Even in the time of Jesus, the Sadducees did not believe that angels were real (Acts 23:8). However, their existence is an article of the Catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “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).
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos meaning “messenger.” Angels are God’s servants, messengers, and offer God perfect worship. Although they have no bodies, they do occasionally take on human form, as seen for instance in the Book of Tobit. Some think that humans will become angels after they die, or refer to children who have died as “angels.” Though this popular opinion can be comforting for those mourning the loss of a loved one, it is inaccurate. Humans can become saints after they die but not angels. The soul of a human being who has gone to heaven enjoys God’s presence together with the angels and the faithful. United in heaven, they all offer God perfect praise and worship.
Although all angels were created as good in nature, some chose to reject God and his kingdom out of pride and envy. They are fallen angels, God’s adversaries. They now devote their powers and energies to tempt human beings, trying to lead them to refuse God’s loving plan to save them.
A Biblical Understanding of Angels
The Bible is filled with appearances of angels, from the first pages of Genesis to the final pages of Revelation. Since the time of Adam and Eve angels have played a role in the lives of humans. After they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God stationed the cherubim east of the garden “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). After the end of this world, twelve angels will stand at the gates of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12).
Angels appear at significant moments in the history of salvation, acting as God’s messengers. They are prominent both at Jesus’ birth and his Resurrection, explaining and revealing God’s will. A heavenly messenger announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and the birth of Jesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary. An angel announced the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds in the field (Luke 2:8-14). When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to see Jesus’s tomb, an angel descends from heaven, rolls away the stone, and urges them not to be afraid. He states, “I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6). Angels will accompany the glorious return of Christ and will gather together the faithful to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 24:31).
They often act as spiritual guides as well, giving people comfort and strength when they face difficulties. When the prophet Elijah fled from Jezebel into the wilderness, an angel brought him food and water, preparing him to encounter the Lord on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:5-8). An angel strengthened and comforted Jesus in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). At times, angels even rescue the faithful suffering injustices. For instance, an angel freed Peter from jail when he was imprisoned by King Herod (Acts 12:7-11).
The Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael
Only three heavenly angels are specifically called by name in Sacred Scripture: the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Church celebrates the these three with a liturgical feast.
The Archangel Michael (whose name means “Who is like God?) is the commander of God’s angelic army. He is depicted in Revelation 12:7-9 as leading an angelic host in the heavenly war against the dragon. Michael is described in Daniel 12:1 as “the great prince,” the guardian of God’s people. He is the chief angelic protector and defender of the Church.
The Archangel Gabriel (whose name means “God’s strength”) appears as God’s heavenly messenger during significant occasions. He was sent to Daniel to explain a divine vision (Daniel 8). He appeared to Zechariah to announce the birth of his son, John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. He appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary during the Annunciation to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 1). Christian tradition suggests he was also the angel who appeared to Joseph in his dreams, to the shepherds in the fields, and strengthened Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Archangel Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) is mentioned only in the Book of Tobit. He is sent by God in response to the prayers of Tobit and Sarah to bring healing. Raphael guides and protects Tobiah on his journey, leads him to his wife, Sarah, and heals the blindness of his father, Tobit.
Everyone has been assigned an angel who protects and guides each one of us throughout our lives. Scripture often refers to personal guardian angels. Psalm 91:11-12 states:
For he [God] commands his angels with regard to you,
to guard you wherever you go
With their hands they shall support you,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
Jesus spoke of the loving personal care that angels offer to each person. He advised us to take care of all people, especially the most vulnerable, since they have a guardian angel who constantly represents them before God. Jesus stated:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father. (Matthew 18:10)
Our guardian angels are both present beside us continually to guide us and at the same time are present before the Father in heaven, standing before Him, ministering to Him, and giving Him glory.
The ministry of individual guardian angels manifests God’s caring and loving presence. This angel watches over us, constantly guiding and protecting us, and leads us to eternal life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their [angels] watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (CCC #336). Being aware of our guardian angel’s presence, of this gift God has given each of us, can help us in our spiritual life and comfort us during difficult times.
Pope Francis spoke about guardian angels on October 2, 2015. He advised us to listen to our guardian angels with meekness and respect. Pope Francis described this angel who accompanies us as God’s Ambassador, who never leaves our side. This angel protects us and advises us, just as a friend would do. Pope Francis underlined that our guardian angel is “a friend we don’t see but we hear … A friend who one day will be with us in the everlasting joy of Heaven.”
Honoring the Angels
The Catholic Church honors the angels on two separate occasions. On September 29, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Archangels, while on October 2, the Church celebrates the Memorial of the Guardian Angels. On these occasions, we honor the mysterious presence and help of these heavenly beings both in the life of the Church, as well as in each of our own lives. May we always be grateful for the beautiful gift of the angels.