Catholic Culture Overview
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Catholic Activity: All About the Angels



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Explanation of the Church's teachings on angels, meaning of "angel", angels in art, choirs of angels and guardian angels.


In today's culture, we see artistic renditions of angels everywhere: statues, pictures, pins, necklaces, bumper stickers, posters. They are a highly popular item. But what are angels? Do we really understand that we must believe in angels, that they are a part of our faith? Do we realize that they are best allies in getting to our heavenly goal? Do we remember to continually ask for their assistance?

Dogma of Faith Angels are a dogma of the Catholic Faith. Every Sunday Mass when we recite the Nicene Creed (dating from the year 325), we restate our belief of the creation and existence of angels, implicit in the phrase "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen (or other translations of all things visible and invisible)..." The Credo of the People of God (Pope Paul VI, 20 June 1968) further explains the phrase: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Creator of what is visible--such as this world where we live out our lives--and of the invisible--such as the pure spirits which are also called angels...."

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that "[t]he 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).

"With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they 'always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven' they are the 'mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word' (Mt 18:10; Ps 103:20).

As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness" (Catechism, 329, 330).

Meaning of Angel In the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the most frequently used name to designate the Angels is mal'akh, which means, messenger of God or legate. The word "angel," comes from a Greek word angelos, meaning "messenger." (Pascal P. Parente, Angels, Chap. 1). This generic name "angel" does not reveal anything about the real nature of those celestial beings besides the fact that they are occasionally sent on a mission as messengers or legates of God to men. Because only on such occasions, and in such a quality, they make themselves visible to men, they have been given the name of messengers from the most common duty and office they fulfill towards God's children here on earth. "And to the Angels indeed he saith: 'He that maketh his Angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.'" But whatever term is being used, what is implied is that God is sending an intelligent non-human creature as his agent (P. Parente, The Angels).

Choirs of Angels The number of angels is exceedingly vast, but we have no way to know how many angels there are. The angels are not all created equal, and based on their degree of knowledge, love of God, and type of service, the angels are categorized into three hierarchies, each containing three different orders, making nine different choirs:

1st Hierarchy: Known as the Councillors of God, these angels have no direct contact with mankind; they are the angels of God's Presence
  • Seraphim
  • Cherubim
  • Thrones
2nd Hierachy: Known as the Governors, they regulate the forces of nature
  • Dominations or Dominions
  • Virtues
  • Powers
3rd Hierarchy: Known as the Messengers of God, these angels minister directly to Man.
  • Principalities or Princedoms
  • Archangels
  • Angels
(A. de Bles, How to Distinguish the Saints in Art, 1925)

These names are taken from the Sacred Scripture. Although all are called "angels", it is usually from the lower choir of Angels that Guardian Angels are chosen. It is practically beyond our power of comprehension and comparison to balance one against the other, the highest in the Order of Seraphim with the lowest in the Choir of Angels, in the third Hierarchy.

The highest in the Choir of Seraphim must have been the most brilliant, most perfect and glorious creature of the spirit world, a bearer of light and beauty, the ideal of creation. According to Sacred Scripture the apostasy of the fallen Angels must be attributed to one of the most exalted spirits. He sinned by pride and seduced the others by his example and his lies.

Angels and Art We must remember that the artistic renderings of angels with wings are not actually what they look like. They are pure spirits, meaning they have no bodies. Wings are depicted on angels because it implies their swiftness and speed in sending messages between God and man. In art, the angels are illustrated to distinguish their order. In the first hierarchy, the Seraphim are absorbed in perpetual love and adoration immediately around the throne of God. They are usually painted in red color and sometimes hold burning candles. They are shown as bodiless heads with six red wings, the wings usually sprinkled with staring eyes. The Cherubim, representing Divine Wisdom, are usually painted in golden yellow or blue, usually holding a book. They should possess six or four blue wings and they often stand upon a wheel, referring to the origin of their name, which is from a Hebrew word meaning a chariot. The Thrones uphold the Seat of God, and can be portrayed kneeling in adoration, holding a miniature throne in their hands or a fiery wheel covered with eyes. Often times they are wearing the robes of judges, and hold the staff of authority in their hands (See G. Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 97).

In the second hierarchy, the Dominations are crowned, carry scepters, swords, and sometimes orbs, as emblems of authority, representing the Power of God. The Virtues carry white lilies, or sometimes red roses as symbols of Christ's Passion. The Powers are often dressed in full armor as victorious warriors against the hordes of evil devils. In the third hierarchy the Principalities or Princedoms are the dispensers of the fate of nations. They usually have a chain mail shirt and helmet, carrying a lance, or sometimes just a lily. The Archangels are the warriors of heaven, and are dressed in full armor, with a shield and sword always pointed upwards. Finally, the Angels are dressed as deacons, in flowing white robes, with trumpets or other musical instruments or bearing a lily.

The three archangels who appear in art are St. Michael, St. Gabriel and St. Raphael. The symbol for St. Michael is a shield with the symbol of the Trinity. He is portrayed as young and beautiful, clad in shining armor with a sword, shield and spear. Resplendent wings rise from his shoulders, and he sometimes is wearing a jewelled crown. St. Michael is usually portrayed in the act of slaying a dragon or driving Satan from heaven. "He is unmistakable by his majestic dignity, his armor and his great splendid wings. He is the Prince-Patron of the Church Militant, and Captain-General of the Celestial Hosts" (Bles, 52). When he is carrying scales or balances, he is acting in the office as the weigher of souls.

St. Gabriel is the loveliest angel depicted in art. As the angel of the Annunciation, he wears long white robes, bears a lily and a scroll with Ave Maria, Gratia Plena ("Hail Mary, full of grace") His symbol is the fleur-de-lis.

St. Raphael, whose symbols are the staff, pouch and fish, "is the Guardian Angel, par excellence... for it was he who conducted Tobias on his quest" (Bles, 52) St. Raphael is usually pictured as a kind, mild and loving person, wearing either a long flowing robe, or dressed like a pilgrim or traveller wearing sandals. He usually carries a staff and a gourd of water or wallet to his belt.

Guardian Angels The role of angels most pertinent to our spiritual lives is our guardian angel. Every person is given a guardian angel because as Eusebius puts it: "Fearing lest sinful mankind should be without government and without guidance, like herds of cattle, God gave them protectors and superintendents, the holy angels in the form of captains and shepherds" (Dem. Ev., 4, 6). We are never without our protector, and the more we request their help, the more he can help us. A guardian angel's roles are threefold: 1) angel of peace, 2) angel of penitence (or penance) and 3) angel of prayer.

As an angel of peace, they protect against danger, both bodily and spiritual threats. They also can give peace and comfort to the soul when undergoing tribulations, like Jesus during his agony in the Garden.

As an angel of penance or penitence, our angel has the office of chastising and correcting us when we stray from God's path. The angel also helps us in restoring our soul to health after we sin, helping us obtaining remission of our sins.

As an angel of prayer, the guardian angel presents our prayers to God, both liturgical and private prayers. "The angel, indeed, of each one, even of the little ones in the Church, always seeing the face of the Father who is in heaven and beholding the divinity of our Creator, prays with us and cooperates with us, as far as is possible, in what we seek" (Origen, De or., 11, 5).

"Have confidence in your guardian angel. Treat him as a lifelong friend — that is what he is — and he will render you a thousand services in ordinary affairs each day" (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, no. 562).

Jennifer Gregory Miller Jennifer G. Miller

Activity Source: Original Text (JGM) by Jennifer Gregory Miller, © Copyright 2003-2023 by Jennifer Gregory Miller