Cherub angel statue

Alvernia Magazine | Angels Around Us

Young George Bailey was balancing on the edge of a bridge, two toes away from a jump, when he had his first angelic encounter with Clarence Oddbody, AS2. “Hey, what’s an AS2?” wondered Bailey aloud. “Angel Second Class,” quipped Clarence. “I haven’t won my wings, yet. That’s why I’m called an Angel Second Class.”

Wingless but lovable, Oddbody made his screen debut in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” leading a generation to ponder angels and their presence all around us … and leading Bailey to reconsider his fatal plunge.

Nearly 70 years later, angelic interest has hit a fervor pitch. A 2011 Associated Press poll showed nearly eight in 10 Americans believe in angels. That belief is often linked to religion, with 88 percent of Christians, 95 percent of evangelical Christians and 94 percent of those who attend weekly religious services of any sort saying they believe in angels. But most non-Christians think angels exist too, as do more than four in 10 of those who never even attend religious services.

None of this comes as a surprise to Frederick Mannella, Ph.D., who spoke on all things angelic to a riveted audience of Alvernians and area residents at the Reading-based McGlinn Conference Center of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters earlier this year. The former parish minister and instructor at both St. Thomas University and Catholic University said God and angels are very much alive and working in the world.

Mannella says angels are all around us, despite claims from skeptics who discount them because they can’t be seen or scientifically proven. We only need to be attentive to their presence to know they are there. “God’s providence is real. There’s an invisible world behind the scenes that’s really operative in our lives,” Mannella says.

While angels are more prevalent in the Catholic tradition than in many other faiths, people of any religion can touch the invisible world as they draw nearer to God, according to Mannella. In fact, many faithful believe angels are sent from God to help those in need. It is a commonly held belief that in times of turmoil, life-threatening situations or even death, God will send them if He desires and if we seek their intercession.

Father Richard Brensinger ’86 is well acquainted with angels, both theologically and personally.

An Alvernia alumnus who serves as Catholic chaplain for Kutztown University and Albright College, Fr. Brensinger recalled an experience of being saved from serious injury by his guardian angel after taking a tumble off a ladder. Sister Roberta Agnes McKelvie, assistant to the president for mission integration and education at Alvernia, also has had firsthand experience with her guardian angel. “I’ve had four or five experiences throughout my lifetime where I believe my guardian angel has protected me,” she said, noting that some were even lifesaving events.

Some actually see and communicate with angels, like Lorna Byrne, whose book “Angels in My Hair” is an international best-seller. “I see angels every day and always have … I cannot remember a time when I have not seen angels,” she said in her book. “I see them as physically as I see my daughter sitting across the dinner table from me and I talk with them as I talk with other people, although I can also communicate with them without words.”

Byrne says every person has a guardian angel, regardless of his or her religion, nationality or belief in God. “Your guardian angel is trying to help you. It is a gift from God and it never leaves you for one moment, from before your birth to after your death,” she said.

“I see guardian angels as a light about three steps behind each person,” writes Byrne on her website “Sometimes, a guardian angel will open this light up for me and will show me a very beautiful, perfect human appearance. Although angels are neither male nor female, they will sometimes take on the appearance of a man or a woman. Sometimes, the guardian angels I am shown have wings, sometimes they don’t.”

In the beginning, there were...angels
According to Catholic theology, angels are spiritual creatures superior to human beings and often commissioned by God for work on earth. Perhaps the most significant activity of good angels (yes, there are bad angels commonly known as demons) is to be agents of God’s particular providence for mankind.

Thus, the Catholic Church teaches that everyone has a guardian angel, a notion that is grounded in Biblical accounts. (A 2013 Harris poll showed that slightly more than half of Americans believe they have been saved from harm by a guardian angel.) “I am a big believer in angels because I have experienced their good work firsthand in many life situations,” said Sister Christen Shukwit, who is not alone in giving her guardian angel a name. “Years ago, I named my guardian angel Carlotta Henrietta, Charlie Hank for short. It just came to me out of the blue … heaven sent.”

Angels have been present since creation, and their presence in the Bible is frequent. It was an angel who brought Elijah bread and water while fleeing from Jezebel after his victory on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19:5-6). An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to take Mary as his wife and name her baby Jesus (Matthew 1:20-21).

It was an angel who instructed Philip where to go in his travels so that he could meet the Ethiopian eunuch and lead him to Christ (Acts 8:26). When Paul and his shipmates were caught in a horrible storm, an angel appeared to him, assured him that no life would be lost, and that he would live to stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:23). Daniel Chapter 6 tells the story of how an angel shut the mouths of the lions when Daniel was thrown into their den.

It was an angel — if not the Angel of the Lord, who joined Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, rescuing them from the flames (Daniel 3).

And it was Jesus himself who said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 18:10). (Jesus was no stranger to angelic help — they protected him in his infancy, served him in the desert and strengthened him during his agony in the garden.)

Angels in America
Angels are no strangers to Americans and are more than a passing phenomenon. There are retail stores and websites devoted to them. They are the subjects of movies, art and television shows. Frequent best-selling books are written about them. More than 2 million copies of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” were sold after the novel, which describes in detail a beautiful guardian angel who the author claims to have encountered during a visit to heaven, was released in 2012.

Websites contain thousands of similar stories posted by people from all walks of life and all religious backgrounds. A woman is saved from a fatal car accident without explanation. A man is pulled from harm’s way by an invisible presence. A young child recovers from a severe illness and recalls conversations with his angel.

Maureen Sweeney-Kyle, of Lorain County, Ohio, has been receiving visions, apparitions and messages from angels, saints, Jesus and the Blessed Mother almost daily since 1985. She shares them on her website, as a means to call the world back to the Ten Commandments. Her visions include encounters with the angels Michael (“he came as all light except for his blue eyes”), Gabriel and Raphael, whom she described as having “large wings, dark hair and features and dressed in green.”

So how is it that in a world of rapid scientific and technological advances, many Americans are fascinated with other-worldly beings that cannot be seen or proven to exist? How do angels not only remain relevant in 2015, but shape the beliefs and lives of so many science-age Americans?

James F. Gontis, director of religious education for the Diocese of Harrisburg, has no problem reconciling his belief in angels with modern science. “You cannot find empirical evidence that angels exist, but there’s no scientific means of disproving them,” Gontis said. “If you believe in God and believe that God is all-powerful, why wouldn’t you believe that God has created angels?”

Empirical evidence — information acquired by observation or experimentation — is not the only valid form of proof, he argues. “Just because certain things cannot be empirically proven doesn’t mean that those things are not true,” said Gontis, who has done extensive extensive research on angels and often speaks about them.

Dr. Gerald Vigna, associate professor of theology at Alvernia, suggested that people look to angels because they are not content with science and the secular. “Clearly, human beings want something more than what science can provide,” Vigna said. “It might help to remember that science concerns itself with what has happened, and how, but religion also asks ‘why’ and ‘who.’ Science might respond that asking ‘who’ is unnecessary, but the question of meaning — the why — is not in science’s arena.”

Angels for the unbeliever
With increasing violence and ever-present threats globally, belief that angels are looking out for us can be extremely comforting. Angels become even more important, Father Brensinger said, to people who are not strongly connected to a faith tradition.

“What I have seen is that many who are not regularly practicing their faith have turned to these spiritual beings as their connection with God,” Brensinger said. “These other-than-human creatures give a sense of peace to those who are missing that closeness with God. They (angels) are not judgmental, but rather comforting.”

Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon and author of “Proof of Heaven,” had no belief in heaven, God or the soul before a rare illness caused him to fall into a coma, in which he remained for seven days. During that time, he claims to have traveled with an angel on the wing of a butterfly, and to have conversed with the Creator. He was enveloped in peace and experienced the most profound love he’d ever encountered.

He told his story after healing, and stands by what he experienced. He wrote of the angels, the light and of God. “Communicating with God is the most extraordinary experience imaginable, yet at the same time it’s the most natural one of all, because God is present in us at all times,” wrote the former atheist. “Omniscient, omnipotent, personal — and loving us without conditions. We are connected as One through our divine link with God.”

Alexander’s sense of humans’ divine link to God is not unique, Sister Roberta said. Humans have a deep longing to be close to God, and angels can serve as a bridge between humans and the Creator.

“If you believe humans are created by God and destined to return to God, then there is a gap between those things and our human lifespan,” Sister Roberta said. “One of the ways we can navigate that is by a belief in an angel who takes care of us while we’re here.”

Although they are revered, guardian angels exist in the lowest of nine “choirs,” according to the Bible. The hierarchy of angels from lowest to highest is: angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim and seraphim.

Angels within these groups are very different from one another and serve various purposes. They often intervene or intercede on behalf of humans and some angels, such as the one in 2 Samuel 24:16 who “stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it.”

In an ironic act of role reversal, sometimes humans can help or care for angels, the example of George Bailey helping Clarence Oddbody earn his wings notwithstanding. In the book of Hebrews (13:2), it says: “Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Lorna Byrne says angels rely on human help often to accomplish good. “As adults, we have to be aware that when a thought comes into our heads to do something for someone, even a stranger, we need to just go and do it. We are the angels’ messengers and at times it can be hard for the angels to deliver messages or give signs …”

Whether you believe or do not believe in the winged seraphim, it appears that, to many Americans in the 21st century, they are as real and important as they were in the ancient days of the Bible. And that, according to Gontis, is not surprising.

“Faith and reason can’t be in contradiction, because they both come from God,” Gontis said. “The God that creates the laws of science also gives us the faith to see beyond science. You see, it all hangs together. One teaching so easily leads to another, because they all come from God.”