There is no aspect of Catholic theology more compelling to non-Catholics than the existence of Angels. Oh, where does one begin? Movies? It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr. Jordan! (and its sequels and remakes), Gabriel Over the White House, and the odious Michael come to mind among a horde. Music? Innumerable Christmas carols and I have a Dream. Popular books? At this writing Amazon shows 4,360 titles dealing with angels in “spirituality.” For many, interest in angels is a way of feeling religious without being challenged by moral requirements. Indeed, from Mohammed’s time to Joseph Smith to the present, many a false prophet has covered his words in an angel’s wings.
Now, even within the Church there is a great deal of speculation and uncertainty concerning these beings. We know that they are created — not self-existing. Where each of us chooses salvation or damnation in that great drama called history, they all made their own choices early on — those who chose wrongly, we call demons, and of them and their master we will not speak in this article. Instead we will focus on what we know for certain about the unfallen angels, or what various approved (or, at least, uncondemned!) traditions in different parts of the Church tell us.
In the Latin Rite, the greatest feast of the Angels is that of the Dedication of St. Michael, popularly called “Michaelmas” — and which has had Ss. Gabriel and Raphael placed on it as well in the 1969 calendar. Now, while the church of S. Michele a Via Salaria has vanished well over a millennium ago, veneration of the great warrior archangel, leader of God’s cause, has not.
On the traditional calendar, he has another feast — May 8, the Apparition of St. Michael, which commemorates his appearance at what has become one of his major shrines — Monte Gargano. Less well known was a purely local celebration in Normandy, honouring the bright Archangel’s appearance at Mont-Saint-Michel (now manned by the Fraternity of Jerusalem). Much to my delight as a boy, I discovered that in the Byzantine Rite, my birthday of November 8 is the Synaxis of St. Michael and All Angels, as it is among the Eastern Orthodox. On September 6 the heirs of Byzantium, in or out of Union with the Pope also celebrate an apparition of the Archangel at Colossae. The Copts dedicate the twelfth day of each Coptic month to St. Michael, most especially that corresponding to our January 1. In the Armenian Rite, the feast of The Holy Archangels Gabriel and Michael and all the Heavenly Host is celebrated on varying dates in November, based upon Easter. The Ethiopians honour St. Michael on November 21 — which is November 8 in the Julian Calendar.
There are any number of St. Michael’s shrines and apparitions that do not have feasts in their honour, but are worth knowing about, as a reminder that God’s Captain remains very active in our lives. The Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome of course, where he appeared to St. Gregory the Great; Carpineto, Maddaloni, Monte Faito, Monticchio, and Sant’ Ambrogio, Italy (there are so many in Italy in great part because of the Lombards’ huge devotion to St. Michael); Aralar, Spain; Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, France; Skellig Michael, Ireland; Glastonbury Tor and St. Michael’s Mount, England; Istinye, Turkey (successor to the Michaelion of yore); Rajavoor, India; Ngodi, Cameroon; Bandeirantes, Brazil; and Tlaxcala, Mexico, to name a few.
There have been many apparitions of St. Michael during important battles when the Faith has been at stake; think of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael. For this reason, and his rallying to God at that First Battle, he has always been a patron of Chivalry; Knightly Orders in Portugal, France, and Great Britain (the latter with a beautiful chapel in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral) took him as their namesake, as did a Confraternity under the Royal House of Bavaria. In latter years, St. Michael has been taken as patron of Airborne troops in the American, Italian, Colombian, and French armies. In other armies, such as the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, he is patron of the Infantry. For Croatia and Guatemala, he is patron of the entire army. Catholic militant movements in Poland, Italy, France, and Canada claim St. Michael as well.
At every traditional Mass we call him to witness in the Confiteor, invoke him at each High Mass in the second blessing of incense, and at every low one in the prayers after Mass. This latter and a much longer one were composed by Pope Leo XIII after a vision. There is also the famous Chaplet of St. Michael, likewise the result of a vision.
By Scripture and tradition, St. Gabriel is the messenger of God — most notably, at the Annunciation. In the traditional Roman Calendar, his feast is celebrated on March 24, the day prior to that commemorating his most famous action — in the new calendar he has been placed with Ss. Michael and Gabriel on September 29. Not too surprisingly, he appeared alongside the Virgin Mary at l’Ile Bouchard. The Byzantine Rite do the same with him on their feast of St. Michael on November 8 — similarly to Western practise they also honour him close to the Assumption, only the day after. They offer him a third feast on July 13, commemorating St. Gabriel’s apparition at Mount Athos. In Ethiopia, there is a massive national pilgrimage to the country’s shrine of the Archangel at Kulubi every December 28. Their Coptic brethren of Egypt celebrate St. Michael June 19, and the following day St. Gabriel.
As a messenger, Gabriel is considered patron of communications. The Diplomatic Society of St. Gabriel, a fraternal order of Catholic diplomats have selected him as their namesake on that basis. The United States Military Strategists’ Association gives out the Order of the Archangel for the same reason, just as the Colombian, Uruguayan, Argentine, Italian, French, and other armies name him patron of their military communications branches.
The third great Archangel is St. Raphael, whom we know primarily from the Book of Tobit. His role in Scripture being one of healer, he is constantly invoked alongside Ss. Luke, Cosmas, and Damian by the ill and those who care for them; travelers and sailors as well seek his aid. As with his brother archangels, he has not been shy to appear — at Cordoba, for example. St. John of God was instructed by him, and he is co-patron with the founder of the Hospitaller Order founded by that saint. His feast day on the traditional Roman Calendar is October 24, and that remains his feast at his shrine in Ollur, India. Interestingly enough, he takes over St. Gabriel’s job as patron of military communications in the Paraguayan Army. He is also much venerated by the Copts.
These archangels are three of the “Seven spirits that stand before the Throne of God” — and the only ones named in Canonical Scripture. Despite the Council of Rome forbidding any others to be named back in 745 (a ban renewed in the Holy See’s 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, c. 217), both Eastern Catholics and Orthodox venerate all seven, giving the latter four names — and this has been tolerated in certain Latin Catholic areas — particularly in the German-speaking world and France.
Of the four usually unnamed in the West, Uriel is at least mentioned in the apocryphal Book of Enoch: the Ethiopians accept that book as canonical, and keep his feast o July 15. He has been taken as patron by the German Society of St. Uriel, a group of Catholic home missionaries who are amongst the few attempting to convert their countrymen to the Faith. Anglicans are very devoted to Uriel, seeing him as patron of Confirmation; a testimony to their devotion is the church of St Uriel in Sea Girt, New Jersey. Speaking of great churches, according to Fr. Marcello Stanzione, it was Uriel who in a vision inspired the 15th century priest, Antonio del Luca, to prevail upon the then Pope to build the wondrous S. Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri — most famous today as the parish of the Italian Royal Family, even at present. He also appears in both copies of da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks.
On June 29, the Ethiopians keep the feast of Sakuel, Saphiel, or Sealtiel (depending upon whom you rely). They see him as fighting to shield the minds of men from demonic influence, as ruling the rain. The Orthodox believe him to show men how to pray.
Jehudiel is considered by Orthodox and those Catholics who invoke him (and always depict him with the Sacred Heart) as being extremely concerned with human governance. Kings, judges, and the like in particular prayed to him for guidance. He is considered the Angel of Extreme Unction.
Uriel, Sealtiel, and Jehudiel, regardless of their official status, nevertheless boast images of themselves offered for sale at the gift shop of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles in Los Angeles. Not so favoured is Barachiel, bringer of blessings from God, and chief of the Guardian Angels appointed to each of us — of whom more shortly.
Tradition declares that there are nine choirs of angels: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The first three of these are taken up with direct contemplation of and service to God Himself. The Second set of three assist him in governing and running the cosmos. Of the last set, the Principalities are held to deal with large groups of people. In addition, Catholics and Orthodox at various times have venerated the Twenty-Four Ancients before the Throne of God, mentioned in St. John’s Apocalypse and the “Four Heavenly Creatures” of Ezekiel. In Medieval Christendom, the former were believed to consult with God about the world’s governance over the next quarter during the Ember Days; Archbishop John Peckham wrote a Votive Mass in their honour.
The relationship of the choir of Archangels with the Seven Spirits of whom we spoke earlier is described differently by various writers and theologians. What all agree on, however, is that from the ranks of the Archangels come the Guardian Angels of various countries. So St. Michael is the Guardian Angel of the Holy Roman Empire and Germany, France, and, since Popes Francis’ and Benedict’s consecration of the tiny state to him, Vatican City. Prior to St. Pius X’s alteration of the calendar in 1914, there were national feasts of the Guardian Angels of Spain (October 1, March 1, or the 4th Sunday in September, depending on the diocese); Mexico (October 1); Cuba (October 1); Guatemala (October 1); Argentina (1st Sunday in September); Brazil (3rd Sunday in July); Chile (September 18); Ecuador (October 1); and Portugal (3rd Sunday in July). The latter is well known to Catholics outside his country because of his appearances at Fatima. Our own United States have their Guardian Angel, whose name and work has been revealed during the apparitions of Our Lady of America. While these — as with all private revelation — need not be believed, they have been approved by Cardinal Burke. Regardless of what one thinks of these specific messages, that our country (and every other) has its own Heavenly protector cannot be doubted; more than ever before, patriotism as well as piety demand that we pray to them for our respective nations’ spiritual and temporal well-being.
It is from the lowest choir that our own individual Guardian Angels are recruited. Their feast is October 2 (some advice on observing it), and has given rise to any number of Papal meditations: to honour his upcoming canonization, here is one by Bl. John XXIII. Given the fact that they stand by our side from conception until death, it is little wonder that devotion to then has flowered throughout the history of the Church. There is a consecration and any number of other devotions. The saints, not surprisingly were very much connected to their own guardians — some going so far as to see them. Ss. Patrick, Gemma Galgani, Padre Pio, Josemaria de Escriva, and innumerable others found their angels playing key roles in their pursuits of sanctity. Certainly, as at Fatima, l’Ile Bouchard, Pellevoisin, and elsewhere, Our Lady, Queen of Angels has appeared with her subjects.
Not too surprisingly in the light of all that has been written here, there are, in addition to the groups mentioned earlier to a specific angel, a large number dedicated to angelic devotion in general. While differing greatly among themselves in approach and interest, they are united in believing that the work the angels have carried out for God since before the World was made should be responded to by us, who are so often the unconscious recipients of their help. Here are a very few: the religious family called the Opus Sanctorum Angelorum (whose work was revised but not condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); the Association des Saints-Anges-Gardiens of Lyons, and the Societe Henri-Marie Bourdon (dedicated to the work of the author of Devotion to the Nine Choirs of Angels).
In truth, since the days of Genesis, the Holy Angels have been among us; as St. Michael was the guardian of the People of Israel, he is now the protector of the Church. From the time that the Angel appeared to the Shepherds of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Christ, they have been urging us in uncountable ways into ever closer communion with Him — as a race, as nations, provinces, and cities, and as individuals. Both in our various capacities in the world and in our own deepest, most personal thoughts and prayers, let us honour and respond to them.