Do angels intervene in sacraments?
We know from our earliest instructions in the faith that angels exist and are concerned about our welfare. Anyone who has learned the traditional Guardian Angel Prayer (“Angel of God”) knows that they are sent “to light, to guard, to rule and guide” us throughout life. (See the text of the prayer at the end of this article.)
Their activity potentially affects every sphere of human life, although they usually act indirectly, through grace and mediation of one sort or another. But they sometimes intervene in human affairs very directly, even taking on visible form. There is plenty of biblical and anecdotal evidence to support this assertion.
Since both angels and sacraments are given to us by God for our salvation, it stands to reason that angels would intervene from time to time in the administration of the sacraments. Their singular concern and mission toward the human race is the salvation of souls.
The drama of salvation
Canadian priest, Fr. John Horgan, wrote a marvelous book entitled, His Angels at Our Side, in which he tells an amazing story about a direct angelic intervention in a sacrament. The story is short, but it has many lessons for us about human beings and sacraments, as well as angels. They are all involved in the great drama of salvation.
Fr. Horgan recounts the tale of a man who had lived a life of rather questionable integrity. Father is charitable about the details, but we can read through the lines. What he reveals is that the man had never been baptized and that he had abandoned his wife and children, only to marry another woman, who then abandoned him when he later got cancer.
But the story about this man’s spiritual journey illustrates the real dilemma of sin and redemption. Entering the Kingdom of God is not automatic or easy, as some would like to think. We’ve been told the road that leads there is narrow (Matthew 7:13).
Sometimes the salvation of a single soul is the work of many factors and labors in addition to the individual’s own free choice.
The wayward soul’s journey
From the beginning of their marriage, the man’s wife always urged him to be baptized, and he always promised to do so but then never did. Despite the hardship he inflicted on his family by his desertion, the wife still persisted in her desire for him to be baptized and continually prayed for his salvation.
“Father, I am praying to his guardian angel and to my guardian angel. I’m sure he will be baptized,” she once told Fr. Horgan, who was her pastor.
When the man came down with cancer, the wife arranged for him to reconcile with his children and stayed at his side until the end. The priest also entered this man’s life as the Church’s witness to the goodness of God. As a good shepherd, Father visited him numerous times in the hospital during his final illness, but at each visit the man put off the big decision.
Why did the man hold out his whole life against a free gift such as Baptism despite so many invitations? Here we get lost in the complexities of human psychology and the mystery of free will. I can’t answer that question other than to say that God’s Providence takes our resistance to grace into account and gives us every possible chance to open our hearts to receive His gifts along the way.
And sometimes He sends an angel.
A mighty command
Here is the description of the priest’s final encounter with the man, in the words of Fr. Horgan himself:
One Sunday morning I stopped, by chance, to visit the man. I asked once more, “Will you be baptized and accept the grace of Christ? You know that the Lord has been calling for you all these years, and you’ve seen the evidence of His love in the faithfulness and devotion of your good wife.” The man answered, “Yes, Father, I know what I’ve done; I know how I’ve lived. I’m sorry for everything, and I asked the Lord‘s forgiveness. I want to be baptized.”
I began to prepare the oils and the holy water for Baptism. But as I was about to begin the ritual, unmistakably I heard a voice within my mind that said, “NOW!” And so without any further delay I took the water in a small medicine cup, poured it on the man’s forehead saying the words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.“ And before I could say “Amen,” he died.
I can’t read that account without getting goose bumps.
Many lessons for us
This story about the astounding intervention of an angel – the man’s guardian angel, no doubt – is filled with unmistakable theological truths and lessons for us:
The angel had direct knowledge of the moment of the man’s death:
Angels are not omniscient like God, but God gives them sparks of His eternal foresight at times, especially where it relates to the salvation of a soul. Do you realize that your guardian angel probably knows the exact moment of your death and is preparing to fight for you until that very instant?
The angel had perfect “timing”:
Angels are not inhabitants of this world, although they can enter time and space when needed. And when they do, they usually do so “in the nick of time”. (Remember the angel who stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last moment?) Someone has likened their interventions to slow motion film clips where the director, who sees every element of the scene, enters the action at a critical point to change something or produce a desired outcome and then returns to his director’s chair to let the action play out. That’s a pretty good analogy to describe angelic interventions into time and space.
The wife obtained graces for her wayward husband by years of prayer:
We don’t earn salvation by any human merit – it is a gift – but in that same vein, the wife spent years asking for God to give that gift to her husband. The suffering he put her through gave great strength to her prayer. It is entirely likely that God – with His divine foresight – put that woman in that man’s life for the sake of the final dramatic moment, without which he may never have been saved.
The man actually repented and accepted the gift:
An iron law of salvation is repentance from sin and the free choice of it. God will force no one into His Kingdom. It seems that an overflowing river of grace came upon him at the last moment of his life, and his heart finally accepted what for years he had resisted. Only God’s grace (through a little angelic help) can make that happen, but the man had to freely decide for it on his own. He finally let go of his resistance.
The priest did his job:
The way Fr. Horgan tells this story is very self-effacing, but we must recognize that a pastor of souls played a vital role in this drama of salvation. He was a regular and loving presence to the man at the time he was most needed. He had heart-to-heart conversations with him and directly invited him to accept Baptism and salvation. He generously responded to grace and inspriation by visiting the man (even on a Sunday morning). He performed the final sacramental act. Fr. Horgan was not an efficient administrator. He was a good shepherd to the man, as every priest should be.
Above all, he obeyed the angel’s sweet command when everything was on the line for a soul.
We too play the part of the angels at times.
It’s likely that God has placed you in someone’s life for the salvation of their soul. Many people who are lost will only be saved by the persevering prayers of people whose main concern for them is the salvation of their souls – even when the individuals themselves don’t seem to be all that concerned about it.
Even if you don’t know them, make it a habit to pray for the “hardest cases”, the lost sheep, the souls farthest away from God’s grace. They need it the most, and we can be sure that God doesn’t give up on them, even to the very last moment. Nor should we.
Make it a daily habit to say the traditional “Angel of God” prayer and entrust all your intentions to God’s good angel at your side, particularly the spiritual needs of those you love. You should have a long prayer list, one that only gets longer as time goes on.
Here is the prayer for those who may have forgotten it or never learned it:
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To light, to guard, to rule and guide. Amen.
And pray daily for priests. The vast majority of them, like most parents, are living out their sometimes thankless vocations in silent sacrifice, fidelity, and grace. Their priestly ministries serve a necessary function of the Kingdom. In fact, sometimes they literally usher us into heaven!
Source: Fr. John Horgan, His Angels at Our Side: Understanding Their Power in Our Souls and the World (Irondale, Alabama: EWTN Publishing, Inc., 2018), 272–273.