July 17, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Yes, we believe in angels

John F. Fink(Twenty-third in a series)

It’s surprising how fashionable angels have become in our secular society. From popular television shows to jewelry to books, there seems to be a widespread interest in these messengers from God sent to help us humans.

Unfortunately, many people might acknowledge an interest in angels, but will quickly say, “But, of course, I don’t really believe in them.”

Why not? I think a disbelief in angels is a form of pride. How do we dare to believe that there couldn’t be a higher order of creatures than humans? Because we can’t prove their existence scientifically? Because the idea of angels seems like myth?

Most religions do teach the real existence of angels. It’s part of the traditional beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, says, “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” (#328).

The word “angel” is the name of their office or function, not of their nature. St. Augustine taught that the name of their nature is “spirit” because they are purely spiritual creatures. They have intelligence and free will, and they surpass in perfection all visible creatures. Their mission is to serve as servants and messengers of God.

Angels have traditionally been assigned to nine “choirs”: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim.

Scriptures give us the names of only three angels: archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, although Jewish apocrypha add Uriel and Jeremiel.

Michael first appears in Daniel’s vision as “the great prince” who defends Israel. In the Book of Revelation, he leads God’s armies to final victory over the forces of evil.

Raphael’s only appearance is in the story of Tobit, where he guides Tobiah through a series of adventures and heals Tobit’s blindness.

Gabriel also makes an appearance in Daniel’s visions, announcing Michael’s role. He then appears in the New Testament, first to Zachariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist then to Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of God.

Angels appear throughout Jewish Scripture and the Christian Old Testament: They closed the earthly paradise, protected Lot, saved Hagar and her child, stayed Abraham’s hand when he was going to sacrifice Isaac, communicated the law by their ministry, and assisted the prophets, just to cite a few examples.

The Gospels tell us that angels ministered to Jesus during various times in his life. They protected him in his infancy, served him in the desert, and strengthened him in his agony in the garden.

The existence of Guardian Angels has never been explicitly defined as a matter of faith for Catholics, but belief in them goes back at least as far as St. Basil the Great, who died in 379. He wrote, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”

Angels aren’t as they are portrayed on TV, but they do exist. †

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