Popes on the Angels

ANGELS PARTICIPATE IN THE HISTORY OF SALVATION

ST. POPE JOHN PAUL II

General Audience AUGUST 6,1986

In his general audience of August 6th, Pope John Paul II noted that the modern mentality does not see the importance of angels. Yet in the encounter with the world of angels, man comes to see his own being not only as body but also as spirit.

In the recent catechesis we have seen how the Church, illuminated by the light that comes from Sacred Scripture, has professed throughout the centuries the truth about the existence of the angels as purely spiritual beings, with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and has confirmed this 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 body" (Constitution De Fide Catholica, 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 (simul) 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 (deinde).

Together with their existence, the faith of the Church recognizes certain distinctive characteristics of the nature of the angels. Their purely spiritual being implies first of all their nonmateriality 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 men), and therefore they are not subject to the laws of corruptibility which are common to all the material world.

Jesus Himself, referring to the condition of the angels, will say 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 man, but in a degree superior to him, 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 refers to the angels also 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 analogous and representative character of the language of the sacred text, we can deduce that these beings and persons, as it were grouped together in society, 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).

Theology, especially in the patristic and medieval periods, has not rejected these representations, seeking to explain them in doctrinal and mystical terms, without, however, attributing an absolute value to them. St. Thomas preferred to deepen his researches into the ontological condition, the epistemological activity and will into the loftiness of these purely spiritual creatures, 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, deducing no little light to illuminate the basic problems that have always agitated and stimulated human thought: knowledge, love, liberty, docility to God, how to reach His Kingdom.

The theme which we have touched on may seem "far away" or "less vital" to the mentality of modern man. But the Church believes that she renders a great service to man 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 being 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 tells 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 all the universe; with which the earthly liturgy of the Church is incessantly joined, especially in its culminating moments.

Let it suffice here to record the act with which the Church, every day and every hour, in all the world, before beginning the Eucharistic Prayer in the center of the Mass, makes appeal "to the angels and archangels" to sing the glory of the thrice-holy God, uniting 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 the salvation of man, 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?,'' asks the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:14).

This is believed and taught by the Church, on the basis of Sacred Scripture, from which we learn that the task of the good angels is the protection of people and solicitude for their salvation.

We find these experiences in various passages of Sacred Scripture, like for example, Ps. 90 which has already been quoted several times: "He will give His angels charge over 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. 90:11-12). Jesus Himself, speaking of children and warning against giving them scandal, refers to "their angels" (Mt. 18:10). Besides this, He attributes to the angels the function of witnesses in the last divine judgement 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 judgement of God, then they are interested in the life of man. 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, it is especially the Acts of the Apostles that show us some facts that bear witness to the solicitude of the angels for man and for his salvation.

Thus the angel of God liberates the Apostles from the 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). Or he guides 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 people 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"' (cf. St. Basil, Adv. Eunonium, III, 1; cf. also St. Thomas, Summa Theol. I, q.11, a.3).

Ministering Spirits

Finally, it is appropriate to note that the Church honors the figures of three angels with a liturgical cult; these are called by name in Sacred Scripture.

The first is Michael the Archangel (cf. Dan. 10:13-20; Rev. 12:7; Jude 9). His name is a synthesis that expresses the essential attitude of the good spirits. "Mica-EL" in fact means: "Who is like God?" In this name, therefore, we find expressed 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 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), etc.). 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 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).