“See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and obey him.” -Exodus 23:20-21
I grew up having a devotion to angels, especially the archangels Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow. Because my sister was born on this feast, my parents gave her the middle name Gabriela in honor of my mother and of the Archangel Gabriel – messenger of Good News. When I was a child, my mom often mentioned Raphael the Archangel as one of her favorite saints. She had prayed to him as a single woman because of his role in the Book of Tobit in bringing together Tobias and Sarah. Because of his intercession, she said, she met and married my father. Throughout their marriage, a photo of St. Raphael has always hung in their bedroom. Our devotion to St. Michael was uttered each day as we asked for his protection and intercession in the St. Michael prayer.
Because of my upbringing, I have come to know and love the angels as allies and friends. But what exactly is an angel? Are they ghosts, human beings with wings, or simply fairytales? In a morning meditation in 2014, Pope Francis urged us not to consider the Church doctrine on the existence of angels to be “a little imaginative.” Angels are real and active in the life of the Church and world today. “As purely spiritual creatures,” the Catechism writes, “angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures.” (CCC330). The Church’s teaching on the existence of angels comes from Scripture and Tradition.
Angels are the result of God’s creative work. When we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe in things both “visible and invisible,” we testify to the existence not only of physical creation, but also of spiritual creation. As servants of God, angels appear numerous times throughout Scripture in various roles and capacities. Angels guarded the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Adam and Eve, led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land, announced the birth of John the Baptist, appeared to St. Joseph in several dreams, and perhaps most notably, announced the birth of Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Scripture also notes that the angels ministered to Jesus after his forty days of prayer and temptation in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, and that Christ was strengthened by an angel during the agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
Not only did angels exist in Biblical times, but they are also present to each one of us every day. St. Basil the Great taught that "each and every member of the faithful has a Guardian Angel to protect, guard and guide them through life.” The Catechism reiterates this belief, stating, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life."
Angels, therefore, were created by God to praise and glorify him, as well as to serve as his messengers and our protectors, instructors, and allies. Our guardian angels are a gift from God to help each one of us achieve eternal life. As we read in Hebrews, "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” The beauty of their existence means that, as human beings, we are never alone. We journey through this life with a celestial companion who wills our good and helps us achieve sanctity.
Pope John Paul II wrote that devotion to our guardian angels and the angels overall leads to two outcomes: gratitude to God and peace and confidence. As we know, growth in the spiritual life can be difficult on our own. Each day we are called to overcome many temptations and weaknesses, to be healed, to grow in virtue. In God’s generosity, he not only gave us the gift of the Church and sacraments to receive grace and strengthen us on our journey; he also gives us celestial help through the existence of angels.
As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Archangels tomorrow, Pope Francis leaves us with pertinent and thought-provoking questions:
“How is my relationship with my guardian angel? Do I listen to him? Do I say good morning to him in the morning? Do I ask him: ‘Watch over me when I sleep?’ Do I speak with him? Do I ask his advice? … We can answer this question today, each of us: how is our relationship with this angel that the Lord has sent to watch over me and accompany me on my journey, and who always sees the face of the Father who is in heaven?”
— Pope Francis, Homily, October 2, 2015
“The New Evangelization is accomplished with a smile, not a frown.” – Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Address to the College of Cardinals, February 2012)
There is nothing simplistic about Cardinal Dolan’s point above. Some, who are not examining it carefully, might see it as such. No, instead, in a short, pithy comment that is very emblematic of his style of speaking, he is summarizing his main point that “the missionary, the evangelist, must be a person of joy.” Sadly, there are many dour people among the baptized who Pope Francis calls “sourpusses” in Evangelii Gaudium, n. 85. Interestingly enough, Pope Francis uses this word not simply as a rebuke to those who hold a particular view, but instead as a call to trust in the One who sends us forth, Jesus Christ.
“One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’. Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).”
The smile then on the face of the joyful evangelizer is one of confidence in Christ. Note that it is confidence, not arrogance. Some confuse the two and become self-proclaimed judges of the level of Catholicity of another. Instead, we are called to docility in Christ, a trait that is not practiced often enough. It is a humility that understands that no one person has every answer. We look rather to the community of faith, the Church, for our guidance, our deeper understanding, and our unity with one another amid our diversity. As Pope Francis teaches, “differences between persons and communities can sometimes prove uncomfortable, but the Holy Spirit, who is the source of that diversity, can bring forth something good from all things and turn it into an attractive means of evangelization” (EG, n. 131).
Let us go forth, then, joyfully – as evangelizers, as missionary disciples, as apostles – as those who are fully confident in the message that we have received, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all and that the Church shares this good news and continues his mission until he comes again.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
“Dear catechists, I thank you for what you do, but especially because you walk with the People of God. I encourage you to be joyful messengers, custodians of the good and of the beauty which shines through the faithful life of the missionary disciple.” – Pope Francis (Message to Participants in the First International Catechetical Symposium, July 5, 2017)
On September 17, the Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate Catechetical Sunday with the theme, “Living as Missionary Disciples.” This theme is taken from the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders focused the Church in the United States on ways in which we can live the “The Joy of the Gospel in America.” In a time in the United States that is marked less by joy, love, peace, and unity and more by anguish, hate, violence, and division, the work of missionary disciples, and particularly those who form missionary disciples, is critically important.
Catechists are called to joyfully witness and teach the faith not simply as a set of rules, regulations, or esoteric beliefs, but as true life and freedom in Jesus Christ. The mission field of the catechist is a vast one in our culture today. The classroom is only one place of witness and teaching. More so, we witness the love of Christ in workplaces, schools, and families, among friends, in the public square, and even in a ministry, apostolate, or parish church. As the Bishops of the United States teach, “We become missionary disciples when we take our encounter with Jesus Christ out into the world” (Living as Missionary Disciples, 17).
We, then, as the baptized, must witness Jesus Christ in the world, not simply in the Church, responding to the love of Christ that we have encountered. We are sent into the world to accompany others into their own encounter with Jesus Christ and the community of faith, the Church. This is how we live as missionary disciples. This is how we evangelize most effectively, not simply by words, but particularly by deeds. As St. Vincent Pallotti said almost two centuries ago, “Remember that the Christian life is one of action; not of speech and daydreams. Let there be few words and many deeds, and let them be done well."
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
This past winter, as I knelt in prayer at the tomb of the Blessed Elisabetta Sanna, I experienced a great sense of peace. I also felt a profound connection to this holy woman, who is largely unknown in the United States. I was blessed to be in Rome on a pilgrimage with a few great friends during our university’s winter break. Before embarking on the pilgrimage, my thoughts chiefly centered on finishing final exams and looking forward to having the opportunity to pray with Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica. This opportunity with the Holy Father ended up becoming a moment I will always treasure. Yet, as I reflect back on the pilgrimage, it is clear that my encounter with the Venerable Elisabetta Sanna in the small Church of San Salvatore in Onda left the greatest mark on my spiritual life.
Born in 1788, Elisabetta Sanna grew up in Sardinia. When only three months old, Elisabetta contracted smallpox, a disease that left her physically handicap for the rest of her life. Despite her disability, Elisabetta married and had seven children. She became well known in her town for devoting herself to the catechetical education of youth. Elisabetta also educated women from the town in basic Christian doctrine. After her husband died in 1825, Elisabetta decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and entrusted her children to the care of her mother and brother. Though she started her pilgrimage, Elisabetta never made it to the Holy Land, instead going to Rome. It was in Rome that she met a humble priest with a bold vision proclaiming that all the baptized were called to be apostles. This priest, Fr. Vincent Pallotti, would become her spiritual director, as well as a saint. He was canonized on January 20th, 1963 by Pope John XXIII. While Elisabetta planned on returning to her children in Sardinia, her physical disability prevented her from travelling back. Hence, while understandably upset, Elisabetta remained in Rome and continued to selflessly serve others in collaboration with Fr. Vincent Pallotti. In addition to performing multiple works of mercy, such as visiting the terminally ill, Elisabetta’s life was rooted in prayer. Both Sacred Scripture and the Holy Mass gave her the ability to be the face of Christ to the marginalized. In other words, Elisabetta’s love for Jesus Christ, which was grounded in her personal prayer, impelled her to the apostolate.
What I find so remarkable and inspiring about Elisabetta’s life is that her path towards holiness appears so un-extraordinary. She was not the founder of a religious community, nor did she author a great theological treatise. Yet, it is exactly the ordinariness of her life that makes her so extraordinary. Elisabetta’s life is important because it demonstrates that God calls each one of us, in whatever place, in whatever situation, to be apostles. If you begin to doubt your ability to do great things for Jesus, look to the example of Elisabetta. I invite you to pray for her intercession and ask her to assist you in living out your vocation to be an apostle.
For more resources on the Blessed Elisabetta Sanna, click here.
Editors Note: This blog post was originally published on July 7, 2016 and Elisabetta Sanna was beatified on September 17, 2016.