On September 29th of each year, the Church celebrates the feast of the Archangels. Although angels have been theologically out of fashion in recent years, they continue to play in important part in popular piety and spirituality.
So what is an angel? There is so much misinformation and fanciful speculation about angels that a look at the Catholic understanding of these creatures might be helpful. First of all, angels are spiritual beings created by God to do his will. They are not the souls of the faithful departed, and when we get to heaven, we do not become angels. Angels are different from humans in two very important respects: Angels do not possess physical bodies, and angels have no free will. Although they are often depicted by artists as having wings and halos, or as pudgy little cherubs, angels have no physical form, so they don’t actually look like anything.
Accounts of angels appear throughout the Bible. Often they are God’s messengers, as in the scene of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, where an archangel appears to Mary and tells her that she will bear the messiah, if she’s willing. Angels are often depicted as ministers of God’s mercy and compassion, and often they fight against the forces of evil. In some places in the scriptures, thereís not much distinction between the actions of the angels, and of God himself, as in the scene of Jacob wrestling with God. Or was it an angel?
In the middle ages, many writers were very interested in angels, and they compiled fanciful works purporting to list the various ranks and names of the angels. Oddly enough, there are plenty of similar books for sale today, and they’re just as imaginative. The church has said very little about angels in its formal teaching capacity. The most important thing to remember about angels is that they are a manifestation of God’s love and care for us. We can’t say too much more than that, and we really don’t need to.