Like all ancient liturgical rites of the Church, the traditional Roman rite of Mass—especially if one includes the Asperges me and the Leonine prayer to St. Michael—is full of references and allusions to the holy angels, and more than that, prayers directly addressed to them. To cite all these wonderful texts, let alone comment on them, would make a lengthy article in itself. Since my purpose here is not to analyze the text of the Mass but to present an accessible introduction to the angels, I will pass up this tempting alternative. Still, in keeping with the ancient truth legem credendi statuit lex orandi (or more pithily, lex credendi, lex orandi), the best way to begin is to call to mind some of these liturgical expressions of our faith.
The prayer after the Asperges me asks the Lord to “vouchsafe to send Thy holy angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit and defend all that are assembled in this place.” The Confiteor invokes St. Michael the Archangel twice, and at a High Mass the priest blesses the incense at the Offertory: “Through the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, standing at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all His elect, may the Lord vouchsafe to bless + this incense and to receive it in the odor of sweetness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (It bears remarking that since the Confiteor is said a total of three times—twice at the start of Mass, and once before communion—and either the incensation takes place at High Mass or the Leonine prayer is recited after Low Mass, St. Michael will be invoked a total of seven times.) The Munda cor meum is based on Isaiah 6:6, where a seraph is the one that brings down the burning coal. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, rather like the creation account in the Book of Genesis, makes a brief but poignant mention of the world of created spirits: Credo in … factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium, “I believe in … the Maker of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible.” Read aloud or sung in every celebration of the Mass, the best-known liturgical reference to the angels is the Preface’s culminating line, which varies in its wording depending on the Preface used but always acclaims the angels as the chief chanters of the Sanctus. Thus we hear in the Preface of the Holy Trinity: “So that in confessing the true and everlasting Godhead, distinction in persons, unity in essence, and equality in majesty may be adored, which [Godhead] the Angels and Archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim do praise, who cease not daily to cry out, with one voice saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts…” There is a mysterious prayer shortly after the consecration: “Most humbly we implore Thee, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Thy Holy Angel to Thine altar on high, before the face of Thy Divine Majesty.” The medieval liturgical exegetes never fully agreed as to who this angel was, some arguing it is an angel properly speaking, even St. Michael, others that it is a symbolic reference to Christ Himself, “the angel of the great counsel” as He is titled in a verse of Isaiah according to the Greek Septuagint, carried into our liturgy in the Introit of the third Mass of Christmas, Puer natus est. (St. Thomas Aquinas decides to offer both interpretations and leaves it at that!) In addition to the foregoing, there are oblique and generic references, and, of course, the prayers and readings expressly commemorating the angels on certain feastdays.
Angels in the Old Testament
As is clear from the etymology of the word (Greek aggelos, Latin angelus, “messenger”), the angels derive their collective name from the missions on which God sends them in the course of salvation history; but Scripture also speaks of spirits or spiritual beings ministering before the throne of God (cf. Is. 6:1-2, Ezek. 10, Rev. 4:5). “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Ps. 148:2).
Although the book of Genesis does not explicitly mention the creation of angels, some Fathers of the Church see a reference to angels in the creation of light on the first day (Gen. 1:3). Regardless of how the opening of Genesis be interpreted, the existence of both good and evil angels is beyond doubt, their interventions in history becoming evident from the first book of the Bible onwards. When Adam is cast out of paradise, God sends cherubim to prevent his return to Eden (Gen. 3:24); an angel comes twice to Hagar (Gen. 16:7-9, 21:17-18), three angels appear to Abraham (Gen. 18:2,16), two angels visit Lot (Gen. 19:1,12,13), an angel prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac (Gen. 22:9-12), angels appear to Jacob at different times (cf. Gen. 31:11,13; 32:1-2, 23-28; in a dream he beholds the angels ascending to and descending from heaven, Gen. 28:12). The Lord promises that an angel will accompany His people on their journey: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (Ex. 23:20). An angel brings food to Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kg. 19:4-8). In the vision of Ezechiel we read: “This is the living creature, which I saw under the God of Israel by the river Chobar: and I understood that they were cherubim” (Ezek. 10:5), and in the vision of Isaiah: above the Lord’s throne “stood the seraphim. . .and one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Is. 6:1-3). In both Eastern and Western liturgies, this threefold song of the seraphim—the Sanctus or Thrice-Holy Hymn—is repeated at some point before the Eucharistic prayer commences. The Old Testament as a whole shows the angels as messengers, warriors, and guardians sent by a merciful God to His chosen people or to privileged individuals. We also see that Satan, the prince of the fallen angels, is at work trying to deceive souls and lead them to perdition (cf. Is. 14:12-15, Job 2:1-2).
Angels in the New Testament
The New Testament reveals the angels to have a still more intimate role in God’s work of salvation. “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb. 1:14). The angel Gabriel appears first to Zachary, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:11-19), and afterwards to the Virgin Mary with tidings of the wonder to be accomplished in her (Lk. 1:26-35). Angels announce the birth of Christ (Lk. 2:8-14) and tell Joseph to take Mary as his wife, to flee into Egypt, and to return to Israel after Herod’s death (Mt. 1:20, 2:13, 2:19-20). The devil tempts Jesus in the desert, and angels minister to Him after the devil’s departure (Mt. 4:11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel comforts Christ in his agony (Lk. 22:41-43), and when the temple guards come to arrest him, Jesus remonstrates with Peter: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:52-53, a Roman legion contained between 4000 and 6000 troops; cf. Apoc. 5:11, which speaks of “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels). Angels appear at the tomb of the risen Christ announcing his resurrection to the women (Jn. 20:11-13).
During his public ministry Jesus speaks many times of the angels. The angels who are given charge over children always remain in the immediate presence of God: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:10). Christian tradition interprets this and other texts as indicating that God provides human beings with guardian angels. At the final judgment, the angels will accompany Christ: “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Mt. 16:27), a teaching reiterated by St. Paul: “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Th. 1:7-8). Angels are aware of human affairs—one sinner who repents causes joy among the angels before the Father (Lk. 15:10)—and they share the glory of heaven with the elect: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:22-23). Jesus compares himself to the ladder beheld by Jacob: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn. 1:51). The Son and Word of God is He through whom and for whom all creatures, including the angels, are made (cf. Cos. 1:16-18; Jn. 1:3), and through Christ, God reconciles all things to himself, “whether on earth or in heaven” (Cos. 1:19-20). The angels adore Christ (Heb. 1:6), who by taking on human nature “lowered himself beneath the angels” only to be exalted above all creation as the Lord of all (Heb. 2).
In his letters, Paul repeatedly testifies to the work of good and evil angels, as do Peter and Jude. Angels intervene in the history of the early Church, liberating the apostles and, later, Peter, from prison (Acts 5:18-23, 12:6-11), telling Philip to go into Gaza (Acts 8:26) and Cornelius to seek out Peter (Acts 10:3-5), striking Herod, or Agrippa I, dead for blasphemy (Acts 12:21-23; this Herod was grandson of the Herod who had commanded the massacre of the Innocents), comforting Paul in his preaching (Acts 27:22-24). The angels offer our prayers to God (Rev. 5:8, 8:3-4, Tb. 12:12-15). The archangel Michael is revealed to John as the chief adversary of Satan (Rev. 12:7-8), which explains the Catholic custom of praying to St. Michael for defense against demons.
The metaphysics of pure spirits
Angels are pure spirits, intellectual beings without physical matter, yet capable, when God wills, of arranging matter into a temporary human-like body in order either to communicate with men or to intervene “humanly” in a situation without being noticed for what they are. Metaphysical reasoning can demonstrate the necessary existence of one supreme spiritual being, God, who is the efficient, exemplar, and final cause of all beings, their creator and sovereign Lord; but, given that man must reason from things apparent to the senses to their necessary causes, metaphysics can only demonstrate the possibility of purely spiritual beings inferior to God, a possibility grasped by anyone who appreciates that the human intellect as such is immaterial and consequently incorruptible. The perfection of the universe as a whole suggests the fittingness of God creating beings at all levels, from non-living material things (elements and minerals), to living material things (plants and animals), to living material things with a spiritual or intellectual soul (man), to living but wholly immaterial beings (pure intellects or angels).
Although the Church has never pronounced definitively on the exact metaphysical “identity” of the angels, the most probable opinion, defended by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that each angel is a distinct species or kind, since quantified matter is a principle of individuation for physical things (it is only because of the availability of distinct portions of matter that there can be many individuals belonging to the same species). At the same time, Christian theologians from the earliest times have interpreted various passages of Scripture as pointing to the existence of nine hierarchies or groupings of angels, which are, from lowest or least among spiritual beings to highest or nearest to God: angels (Rom. 8:38-39, 1 Pet. 3:22), archangels (1 Th. 4:15, Jude 9), principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones (Eph. 1:21 and 3:10, Rom. 8:38-39, 1 Pet. 3:22, Cos. 1:16), cherubim (Gen. 3:24, Ps. 17:10-11, Ezek. 10), and seraphim (Is. 6:2). These titles are given either from their missions in the world (thus the lowest hierarchy receives the common name of “angel” or messenger) or from some special characteristic (the seraphim are burning with the most ardent love, the cherubim are most perfectly illuminated by divine light).
An indication that the existence of angels is within sight of natural reason is the striking fact that many of the pagan Greek philosophers, foremost among them Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, accepted or argued to the existence of immaterial intellectual beings. (Famously, Socrates told people that he was restrained from consenting to falsehood or injustice by the prompting of his “daemon,” a term that refers to some kind of familiar spirit—not a “demon” in our sense of the word, in spite of the similarity of spelling.) Moreover, there is scarcely any religion in the history of mankind that has not recognized the existence of spiritual beings subordinate to God; and since non-Christian religions do hold something of the truth in spite of their admixture of error, this nearly universal testimony carries weight. Cardinal Newman, in his magnificent work Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, observes that Jewish and Christian beliefs about the angels were certainly shaped by Babylonian views of angelic ministers, and that we should not be anxious about such a pedigree. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis says, one of the most compelling proofs of the truth of the Christian religion is that it contains, while it far surpasses, the truths dimly foreshadowed in pagan religions of different ages and peoples.
Those, on the other hand, who maintain that angels are merely a “mythological” way of depicting the transcendent God’s interaction with creation are unable to give any reasonable account of the insistent and explicit testimony of Scripture, which speaks of the angels as creatures of God appointed to serve and worship him, presents them as personal beings (even names are revealed: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel), and attributes to them a certain independence in action (otherwise none of the angels could have rebelled against God, nor could the good angels minister for the salvation of men). The New Testament unfolds a vast cosmology in which the angels have their exalted place in the providential guidance of human affairs, in the first and second comings of Christ, and in the everlasting blessedness of heaven. Jesus speaks openly of the angels, while the inspired authors record their presence in the life of the Savior and the infant Church in the manner of simple historical fact. Disbelief in the existence of angels among some sectors of modern liberal Christianity can be traced to a more fundamental rejection of the very idea of supernatural revelation. Denying the truth of the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ as readily as they do that of the angels, such objectors first have to be convinced of the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Having accepted the truth of the Bible and the authority of the Church as its rightful interpreter, it is impossible not to accept the existence and ministry of angels.
Fellow worshipers in the liturgy of Heaven
Profound veneration or honor—a virtue St. Thomas names dulia—is the only appropriate response to make to such resplendent creatures. Throughout the Bible we are given to see how the apparition of an angel provokes reverential fear and homage. When the prince of the heavenly host appeared to him, Joshua “fell on his face to the earth, and worshiped, and said to him, ‘What does my lord bid his servant?’” (Jos. 5:13-14). Gideon feared he would perish for having seen the angel of the Lord face to face, so great is its majesty and power; but the Lord comforted him: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Jd. 6:22-23). When Raphael disclosed his identity, Tobit and Tobias “were both alarmed, and they fell upon their faces, for they were afraid. But he said to them: ‘Do not be afraid; you will be safe’” (Tb. 12:16-18). The same fear overcame Zechariah, and the same “Do not be afraid” is spoken, when an angel appeared to him in the temple to announce the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:11–13). The women who went to the tomb of the risen Christ “were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground” when they beheld two “men” in dazzling apparel (Lk. 24:4–5). Of course, an angel is never to be worshiped with the adoration that belongs to God alone (latria). The angel by whose ministry St. John received the apocalyptic visions tells him to worship God alone, for “I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book” (Rev. 22:8-9).
Angels are our fellow worshipers before the throne of the Lamb—both in heaven, where the saints behold the face of Christ, and on earth, where they silently and invisibly join in our adoration of the Eucharistic Lord. It is good, indeed it is consoling and strengthening, to know their nearness, and to profit from it by invoking their intercession and by entrusting ourselves, under God, to their powerful protection. Beyond the friendship of charity that every member of the Mystical Body of Christ enjoys with the hosts of heaven, the lives of the saints show us in vivid and sometimes surprising ways how willing the angels are to enter into a (so to speak) personal friendship with us that becomes more real the more we turn to them in faith, trust, and affection. To encourage this devotion and make this friendship accessible, God gives each and every one of us at the moment of our conception a guardian angel who walks beside us during our whole life—we, on pilgrimage toward the heavenly Jerusalem; our angel, beholding the face of God and well able to guide us thither. This angel is exceedingly perceptive of who and what we are, and exceedingly delicate and gentle in his dealings with us, for us, and around us. He will not force himself upon us; we must turn to him and invite his help, which he will gladly give. While I have never had what some would call a “mystical” experience of my guardian angel (the kind of direct experience St. Gemma Galgani had of hers), I have not failed to notice signs of his presence and action in my life. He has indeed been beside me countless times “to light and to guard, to rule and to guide.” What a tremendous gift of God’s loving providence! If only I could be still more mindful of and reliant upon this person of an entirely different species and order of being, who is far more intelligent, far more powerful, and far more loving and fervent than I!
A flight of angels—and their return
This article began with the observation that the ancient Roman rite teaches us (and reminds us lest we forget) that the angels are present everywhere, but especially at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as our fellow worshipers and as intercessors on our behalf. It seems obvious that one key reason why belief in the angels, or even an awareness of their existence, has become so crippled, faulty, and rare, is simply that the angels have largely disappeared from the texts employed in the public worship of the Latin or Western Church. They are there, to be sure, but somewhat marginalized, and easy to overlook; their role seems more decorative than dogmatic, a “demotion in rank” confirmed all the more by the general shift, liturgical and paraliturgical, away from explicit and repeated invocation of the saints (whether human or angelic). Arbitrary and banal translations of Latin texts have contributed even more to the overall phenomenon of marginalization, since the English missal employed in the Novus Ordo Missae has roughly the same depth, accuracy, and poetic flair as the New American Bible has—namely, none, or so little that it falls beneath the threshold of observation. Perhaps most tragic, however, was the brutal reduction of angels’ feastdays in the liturgical calendar. On the traditional calendar one could number five: St. Gabriel the Archangel (March 24), the Apparition of St. Michael the Archangel (May 8), Dedication of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29, “Michaelmas Day”), the Holy Guardian Angels (October 2), and St. Raphael the Archangel (October 24). Only two survive on the new calendar: The Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (September 29—a highly surprising scrunch given that these three angels are the only angels about whom Scripture speaks at length, making possible proper readings for each one); the Holy Guardian Angels (October 2).
Then there are more subtle losses, such as the fact that the Introit used for the Third Sunday after Epiphany—an Introit then repeated for as many more Sundays as there are until Septuagesima (meaning that there can be up to four Sundays with the same propers)—joyfully declares: Adorate Deum, omnes Angeli ejus: audivit et laetata est Sion: et exsultaverunt filiae Judae, “Adore God, all you His angels: Sion heard, and was glad: and the daughters of Judah rejoiced” (Ps. 96:7-8). In my experience of the sacred liturgy, the Introit, especially when chanted by a schola, is one of the most important moments for a rightly-understood participatio actuosa of the congregation. The priest has donned the chasuble, perhaps a bell is rung, and the nestled neums come to life in stately song. The Mass is really getting under way now, it’s time for us to pay close attention, to immerse ourselves again in the treasures the Lord has prepared for His disciples today. In that way, the Introit becomes emblematic and expressive of the entire banquet of prayer served up by the ministers of the Church to those who are hungry for the Word. Sadly, as we know, the Introit itself barely exists in the world any more. And so this noble antiphon—whose words dare to tell the angels to be busy about the very thing they are already doing far better than we will ever do in this life—is, for most Catholics, buried in the silence of books rarely opened.
In light of our situation, a neglected but important part of both the “reform of the reform” and of the movement to restore the traditional rite must be more and better catechesis on the Holy Angels of God, always accompanied by a lively devotion to them. On pilgrimage they are our guardians and our guides; in the blessed destiny that awaits us they will be our companions. As Jesus says concerning the elect: “In the resurrection they … are like angels in heaven” (Mt. 22:30, Mk. 12:25), “equal to angels and sons of God, sons of the resurrection” (Lk. 20:36). To the sharing of His resurrection may the Risen Lord bring us, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
For further reading:
Daniélou, Jean. The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church. Trans. David Heimann Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1957; repr. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, n.d.
Huber, Georges. My Angel Will Go Before You. With an introduction by Charles Cardinal Journet. Trans. Michael Adams. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1983; repr. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, Book II, Chapters 46–55 and 91–101; Book III, Chapters 78–80; Summa theologiae, Prima Pars (Ia), Questions 50–64 and 106–114.
 “The law of praying establishes the law of believing”: how we worship shows what we believe; worship embodies and expresses doctrine. Pius XII reminds us of the companion truth: Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi, “let the law of believing establish the law of supplicating”: the true faith is itself the measure and regulator of all true worship. Hence the presence of angels in the Church’s worship has shaped her doctrinal awareness, but conversely, the Church’s doctrine on the angels has been the occasion of instituting special feasts or other devotions in their honor.
 The prayer before the Gospel reads: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Almighty God, Who cleansed the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal.” This refers back to an entire exchange in Isaiah 6, verses 5-8: “I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’” Note first that the Lord purifies the prophet’s lips so that he may proclaim the word of the Lord, and second that the prophet is the figure or foreshadowing of the great Prophet promised by Moses (Deut. 18:15), Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is sent from the Father as the very Word of God in flesh, to cleanse our lips and our hearts.
 It is worth noting that we are told about this angelic hymn just a few lines before the burning coal incident mentioned just above. Isaiah chapter 6, verses 1–4: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” (Continue with the verses quoted in note 2.)
 The Introit: Puer natus est nobis, et Filius datus est nobis: cujus imperium super humerum ejus: et vocabitur nomen ejus, magni consilii Angelus. Since “angel” originally means “messenger,” this phrase says that Christ is the one who brings the message of mighty counsel for mankind, the Good News.
 In his mini-treatise on the rite of Mass (Summa theologiae III, q. 83), St. Thomas at one point raises the objection: “Just as Christ’s body does not begin to be in this sacrament by change of place, as stated above, so likewise neither does it cease to be there. Hence it is improper for the priest to ask: ‘Bid these things be borne by the hands of thy holy angel unto Thine altar on high’” (obj. 9 of art. 4). His reply is very interesting: “The priest does not pray that the sacramental species may be borne up to heaven; nor that Christ’s true body may be borne thither, for it does not [ever] cease to be there; but he offers this prayer for Christ’s mystical body, which is signified in this sacrament, that the angel standing by at the divine mysteries may present to God the prayers of both priest and people, according to Apocalypse 8:4: ‘And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God, from the hand of the angel.’ But God’s ‘altar on high’ means either the Church triumphant, unto which we pray to be translated, or else God Himself, in Whom we ask to share; because it is said of this altar in Exodus 20:26: ‘Thou shalt not go up by steps unto My altar’ (that is, thou shalt make no steps towards the Trinity). Or else by the angel we are to understand Christ Himself, Who is the ‘Angel of great counsel’ (Is. 9:6 [according to the Septuagint]), Who unites His mystical body with God the Father and the Church triumphant.”
For a similar case, namely when St. Augustine suggests why Christ is the “angel” that stirred the pool of Bethsaida or Bethzatha (cf. Jn. 5:2), see St. Thomas’s Commentary on John 5, lec. 1, n. 708.
 I will return to the question of the angels’ feasts at the end of this article.
 See Ex. 23:20, Ps. 34:7, Ps. 91:11-12, Job 33:23-26, Bar. 6:6-7, Zech. 1:8-11.
 See 1 Pet. 3:22, 2 Pet. 2:11, Jude 9.
 See Jude 9, Dan. 10:12-13, 20-21, Jos. 5:13-15.
 Note that “equal” here means equal proportionately, that is, all in heaven will be adopted sons of God, sons of the resurrection, and blessed forever, but each will be rewarded in proportion to his merits, which, St. Thomas says, means in proportion to the extent of his charity. Certainly there is no question of equality of rank or status. By her supreme charity and inseparable bond to her Son as His Mother, the Virgin Mary is Queen of All Saints, including the holy angels, who bow and submit to her, although in nature she is less than the least of them.