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Assigning Names to Angels

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the Philippines there is a growing devotion to the seven archangels with the corresponding images and names to the remaining four aside from those of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. In the Holy See’s 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, No. 217, item 2, it clearly states that “The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.” However, this seems to be clearly violated as in many Catholic religious stores images, prayer booklets dedicated to Saints Uriel, Barachiel, Sealtiel and Judiel are being sold, and priests are asked to bless these images. Moreover, there are Catholic retreat houses, spirituality centers and Catholic cemeteries being dedicated to them, or their names and images are part of the fixtures of churches for the people’s veneration. We wonder whether the devotion to the seven archangels with their names and images are doctrinally licit and approved at the level of the official Church magisterium since there are priests promoting them in their preaching and in parish devotions. — W.F.C., Manila, Philippines

A: The precise text mentioned by our reader is: 

“Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations:

“when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and demons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer; 

“when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ, are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.” 

Roman Catholic Tradition generally does not mention the names of seven archangels or even stress very much the number seven. It is true that Tobit 12:15 mentions seven angels ready to enter the presence of God, and Revelation 8:2 mentions seven, but these texts have not influenced Latin Catholicism very much. On the other hand, there has been continuous and great devotion toward the three mentioned by name in Scripture, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, as well as to the guardian angels.

Some branches of Eastern Orthodoxy do, however, venerate the seven archangels, although many only add Uriel as a named archangel. The Anglican tradition also has prayers to Uriel as a fourth archangel.

The sources of the other names are apocryphal Jewish writings that do not form part of the Bible. The names are found in First Book of Enoch and another list in the so-called Second (or Fourth) Book of Esdras. The lists do not always agree, although the name Uriel is fairly constant. Other names include Raguel, Sariel, Jeremiel, Jehudiel, Barachiel, Gabuthelon, Beburos, Zebuleon, Aker and Arphugitonos. Some of these names might be variations in spelling of the same name but others are unique to some books. These and similar books were written by Jewish writers in the period between the Old and New Testaments or even after much of the New Testament had already been written, following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 

Similar names are mentioned in the PseudoDionysius (late fifth to early sixth centuries) and in Pope Saint Gregory I. (540-604).

With respect to the naming of the angels, the Latin Church has always been somewhat wary. In a synod or council held in Rome in the year 745 Pope St. Zachary sought to curb a tendency toward angel worship and forbade the use of names not found in Scripture. 

A text describing this synod (or council) is reported in Volume XII of Cardinal Cesare Baronio’s “Annali Ecclesiastici” (published 1607). The remarkable and somewhat harsh text of this synod dealt with the supposed heretical teachings of a priest living in Germany called Adalbert. A prayer he had composed included the lines: 

“I pray ye and conjure ye, and supplicate myself to ye, angel Uriel, angel Raguel, angel Tubuel, angel Michael, angel Adimis, angel Tubuas, angel Sabaoth, angel Simuel.”

Baronio’s text said, “And when this sacrilegious prayer had been read to the end, the holy Pope Zachary said: How, holy brothers, to you respond to this? The holy bishops and venerable priests responded: What else is to be done, but that all these things that have been read in our presence should be burned in flames; and their authors cast into the chains of anathema? For the eight names of Angels, which Adalbert has invoked in his prayer, are not, excepting Michael, names of Angels, but rather of demons, whom he has invoked to bring aid to himself. But we (as taught by your holy Apostleship), and as divine authority transmits, acknowledge no more than the names of three Angels, that is, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. These the Fathers [say]. By whom you perceive that the book called by the vulgate name Fourth Esdras, in which there is frequent mention of the angel Uriel, is rejected and altogether proscribed by the Roman Church.”

In this text the basic doctrine is clear regarding the restriction to the three biblical names. The strong language regarding the possible demonic nature of the other names should be seen in the context of the concrete condemnation of Adalbert’s doctrine and not as an absolute statement. It is not clear when this document was written, and it might have been redacted many years after the synod took place. Forty four years later, in 789, at the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, the capitularies of Charlemagne also condemned the naming of angels.

There has been little more official teaching regarding this point. In 1992 a decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith forbade addressing or using names of angels, but this decree was primarily concerned with supposed private revelations to a concrete person and is not directly related to our case. It might, however, have contributed to the Directory on Popular Piety’s discouragement to naming angels.

On the other hand, notwithstanding the overall reluctance on the part of the Church, occasionally there have been paintings with images of the seven angels, such as a fresco in Rome’s St. Mary of the Angels which has Mary surrounded by seven angels. Permission was also granted in 1720 to dedicate a church in Germany in which each of the Seven Angels have an altar.

Doctrinally, not much can be read into such approvals. According to generally accepted principles of theological interpretation, the Church’s approval of a liturgy or a feast based on extra-biblical traditions or legends cannot be used as to proof of their historical veracity. The Church is merely acknowledging a particular religious tradition which might have some spiritual benefits for the faithful. 

In this sense the use of taking names from apocryphal sources is not in itself forbidden. The Church, for example, has taken the names of the three wise men, the names of Mary’s parents, as well as the feast of Mary’s presentation in the temple from Christian apocryphal writings. This practice does not mean that the Church gives historical credence to these books but only affirms that they reflect a longstanding tradition.

Thus, for example, the myriad images and churches dedicated to Mary’s presentation in the temple do not attest the historical truth of the pious legends regarding her actually spending years in that building or that there ever was a group of virgins in Jerusalem’s temple. The feast affirms the basic truth of Mary’s total dedication to God from the beginning of her life that is reflected in the apocryphal gospels written several centuries after the time of Christ.

Likewise, the fact that on some rare occasions paintings and a church were dedicated to the seven archangels does no more than recognize some local devotion and tradition. The overwhelming spiritual practice of the Latin Church has shown great devotion toward the three archangels while practically ignoring the other four spirits mentioned in Tobit and Revelation. Nor can anything certain be said about the supposed characteristics, symbols, or particular patronages of these other named archangels.

Therefore I would say that, since the Church has itself officially discouraged promoting a spirituality based upon naming angels other than the traditional three plus the guardian angels, a Latin Catholic should refrain from doing so, even if it is not, strictly speaking, forbidden. It is clear that the Latin Church does not believe that much spiritual profit can be gained from following this path and considers that it is not exempt from some dangers.

Setting up an icon for public veneration or dedicating a building or chapel to an angel other than Michael, Gabriel and Raphael or the guardian angels as a collectivity would require special permissions, and a bishop would not allow such a dedication or blessing to a personage not generally recognized as an angel or saint in the current universal calendar.

This applies above all to Latin Christianity. The Orthodox and Anglican practices are legitimate within the context of their own spiritual traditions.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

About Fr. Edward McNamara

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