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Angels Participate in the History of Salvation

General Audience — August 6, 1986

In recent catecheses we have seen how the Church has professed throughout the centuries the truth about the existence of the angels as purely spiritual beings. Illuminated by the light that comes from Sacred Scripture, the Church has professed this with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and has confirmed it in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), whose formulation was repeated by the First Vatican Council in the context of the doctrine on creation: "God at the beginning of time created from nothing both creatures together, the spiritual and the corporeal, that is, the angelic and the earthly, and thus he created human nature as having both, since it is made up of spirit and of body" (Const. Dei Filius, DS 3002). In other words, God created both realities from the very beginning—the spiritual reality and the corporeal, the earthly world and the angelic world. He created all this at one and the same time with a view to the creation of man, constituted of spirit and matter and set, according to the biblical narrative, in the framework of a world already established according to his laws and already measured by time.

The faith of the Church recognizes not only the existence of the angels, but certain distinctive characteristics of their nature. Their purely spiritual being implies first of all their non-materiality and their immortality. The angels have no "body" (even if, in particular circumstances, they reveal themselves under visible forms because of their mission for the good of people). Therefore they are not subject to the laws of corruptibility which are common to the material world. Referring to the condition of the angels, Jesus himself said that in the future life, those who are risen "cannot die any more, because they are equal to the angels" (Lk 20:36).

As creatures of a spiritual nature, the angels are endowed with intellect and free will, like human beings, but in a degree superior to them, even if this is always finite because of the limit which is inherent in every creature. The angels are therefore personal beings and, as such, are also "in the image and likeness" of God. Sacred Scripture also refers to the angels by using terms that are not only personal (like the proper names of Raphael, Gabriel, Michael) but also "collective" (like the titles seraphim, cherubim, thrones, powers, dominions, principalities), just as it distinguishes between angels and archangels. While bearing in mind the analogous and representative character of the language of the sacred text, we can deduce that these beings and persons are as it were grouped together in society. They are divided into orders and grades, corresponding to the measure of their perfection and to the tasks entrusted to them. The ancient authors and the liturgy itself speak also of the angelic choirs (nine, according to Dionysius the Areopagite). Especially in the patristic and medieval periods, theology has not rejected these representations. It has sought to explain them in doctrinal and mystical terms, but without attributing an absolute value to them. St. Thomas preferred to deepen his researches into the ontological condition, the epistemological activity and will and also the loftiness of these purely spiritual creatures. He did this both because of their dignity in the scale of beings and also because he could investigate more deeply in them the capacities and the activities that are proper to the spirit in the pure state. From this he deduced much light to illuminate the basic problems that have always agitated and stimulated human thought—knowledge, love, liberty, docility to God, and how to reach his kingdom.

The theme which we have touched on may seem "far away" or "less vital" to the modern mentality. But the Church believes that she renders a great service when she proposes sincerely the totality of the truth about God the Creator and also about the angels. Man nurtures the conviction that it is he (and not the angels) who is at the center of the divine revelation in Christ, man and God. It is precisely the religious encounter with the world of the purely spiritual beings that becomes valuable as a revelation of his own being not only as body but also as spirit, and of his belonging to a design of salvation that is truly great and efficacious within a community of personal beings who serve the providential design of God for man and with man.

Let us note that Sacred Scripture and Tradition give the proper name of angels to those pure spirits who chose God, his glory and his kingdom in the fundamental test of their liberty. They are united to God by the consummate love which flows from the beatific vision, face to face, of the most Holy Trinity. Jesus himself told us this: "The angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 18:10). "To see the face of the Father always" in this way is the highest manifestation of the adoration of God. One can say that this constitutes the "heavenly liturgy," carried out in the name of the entire universe. The earthly liturgy of the Church is incessantly joined with it, especially in its culminating moments. Let it suffice here to record the act with which the Church, every day and every hour, in the whole world, before beginning the Eucharistic Prayer in the center of the Mass, appeals "to the angels and the archangels" to sing the glory of the thrice-holy God. She unites herself thus to those first adorers of God, in the worship and the loving knowledge of the unspeakable mystery of his holiness.

According to revelation, the angels who participate in the life of the Trinity in the light of glory are also called to play their part in the history of human salvation, in the moments established by divine Providence. "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to possess salvation?" asked the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:14). The Church believes and teaches this on the basis of Sacred Scripture. From it, we learn that the task of the good angels is to protect people and be solicitous for their salvation.

We find these expressions in various passages of Sacred Scripture, such as Psalm 91 which has already been quoted several times: "He will give his angels charge of you, to keep you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Ps 91:11-12). Speaking of children and warning against giving them scandal, Jesus himself referred to "their angels" (Mt 18:10). Besides this, he attributed to the angels the function of witnesses in the last divine judgment about the fate of those who have acknowledged or denied Christ: "Whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man likewise will acknowledge him before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God" (Lk 12:8-9; cf. Rev 3:5). These words are significant because, if the angels take part in the judgment of God, then they are interested in human life. This interest and participation seem to be accentuated in the eschatological discourse, in which Jesus has the angels appear in the Parousia, that is, in the definitive coming of Christ at the end of history (cf. Mt 24:31; 25:31-41).

Among the books of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles especially shows us some facts that bear witness to the solicitude of the angels for human beings and for their salvation. Thus the angel of God liberated the apostles from prison (cf. Acts 5:18-20) and first of all Peter, when he was threatened with death at the hands of Herod (cf. Acts 12:5-10). He guided the activity of Peter with regard to the centurion Cornelius, the first pagan to be converted (Acts 10:3-8; 11:1-12), and analogously the activity of the deacon Philip along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-29).

From these few facts which we have cited as examples, we understand how the Church could come to the conviction that God has entrusted to the angels a ministry in favor of human beings. Therefore the Church confesses her faith in the guardian angels, venerating them in the liturgy with an appropriate feast and recommending recourse to their protection by frequent prayer, as in the invocation "Angel of God." This prayer seems to draw on the treasure of the beautiful words of St. Basil: "Every one of the faithful has beside him an angel as tutor and pastor, to lead him to life" [1] .

Finally, it is appropriate to note that the Church honors the figures of three angels with a liturgical cult—those which Sacred Scripture calls by name. The first is Michael the Archangel (cf. Dan 10:13-20; Rv 12:7; Jude 9). His name is a synthesis that expresses the essential attitude of the good spirits. Mica-El means "Who is like God?" This name expresses the salvific choice thanks to which the angels "see the face of the Father" who is in heaven. The second is Gabriel, a figure bound especially to the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God (cf. Lk 1:19-26). His name means "my power is God" or "power of God," as if to say that at the culmination of creation, the incarnation is the supreme sign of the omnipotent Father. Finally, the third archangel is called Raphael. Rafa-El means "God heals." He is made known to us by the story of Tobias in the Old Testament (cf. Tob 12:15-20 ff.), which is so significant for what it says about entrusting to the angels the little children of God, who are always in need of custody, care and protection.

If we reflect well, we see that each one of these three figures, Mica-El, Gabri-El and Rafa-El reflects in a particular way the truth contained in the question posed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to possess salvation?" (Heb 1:14).

[1]   cf. St. Basil, Adv. Eunomium, III, 1; cf. also St. Thomas, Summa Theol., q. 11, a. 3