Question and Answer with Fr John Flader
By Fr John Flader
Question: Can you tell me the difference between angels and archangels? Also, is there any reference in Scripture to archangels?
Let us begin with the angels. The name angel, from the Greek aggelos, means messenger. Thus it refers to the role of angels rather than to their nature.
Angels as messengers of God appear numerous times in the Scriptures. For example, an angel appears to Jacob, telling him to return to the land of his birth (cf. Gen 31:11-13); an angel appears to Manoah’s wife announcing the birth of Samson (cf. Judg 13:3); an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that the child Mary is carrying is of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 1:20) and on two other occasions (cf. Mt 2:13, 2:19); and the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist (cf. Lk 1:11) and to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus (cf. Lk 1:26-31).
While only some of the angels act as messengers to communicate the will of God on earth or to accompany human beings as guardians, as in the case of the angel Raphael with the young Tobias (cf. Tob 3:17 ff), all the angels constantly behold the face of God in heaven (cf. Mt 18:10), where they adore God in the heavenly court.
As regards their nature, angels are pure spirits, with intelligence and free will, created by God in the beginning.
They are described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness.” (CCC 330)
“The 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.” (CCC 328)
From their creation the angels were given sanctifying grace and were submitted to a period of testing, to prove their worthiness to enter heaven. Some of them rejected God and became fallen angels or devils.
In this regard, St Peter writes: “For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment…” (2 Pet 2:4).
The Book of Revelation describes a battle between the angel Michael and the fallen angels: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down with him” (Rev 12:7-9).
Some of the angels are called archangels, a name meaning “first” or “chief” angel. They are mentioned twice in the Bible. The letter of Jude refers to the Archangel Michael (cf. Jude 1:9) and the first letter to the Thessalonians simply refers to an archangel whose call will announce the second coming of Christ (cf. 1 Thess 4:16).
In the Scriptures, there are various names given to angels, suggesting a certain hierarchy among them.
For example, St Paul speaks of “thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities” (Col 1:16); “rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21) and “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10.
In addition, the book of Genesis mentions cherubim (cf. Gen 3:24) and Isaiah mentions seraphim (cf. Is 6:2).
From these various names, different writers down the ages developed the idea of a hierarchy of angels with nine ranks or choirs. Among them were St Ambrose, St Cyril of Jerusalem and St John Chrysostom in the fourth century, Pseudo-Dionysius in his The Celestial Hierarchy in the fifth century, and St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologiae in the 13th century.
One of the most commonly accepted lists of the hierarchy of angels, mentioned by Pseudo-Dionysius and St Thomas, has three groups of three choirs each.
In descending order they are: seraphim, cherubim and thrones; dominions, virtues and powers; principalities, archangels and angels. It should be understood that this is not an official teaching of the Church.
Archangels and angels are listed at the bottom of the hierarchy, since they are the most involved in the affairs of human beings.
While Michael is expressly referred to as an archangel in the letter of St Jude (cf. Jude 1:9) it is Tradition that has also called Raphael and Gabriel archangels. The name Michael means “Who is like God”, Raphael “Healing of God” and Gabriel “Power of God”. The feast of the three archangels is celebrated on September 29.