Friday, October 20, 2023

The Healing Angel

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Archangel Raphael with Bishop Domonte,” 17th c.

October 24 is the feast of Saint Raphael the Archangel in the traditional calendar. Raphael, whose name means “Medicine of God,” is a spiritual balm for all times and places but, as we shall see in this article, he has a special relevance to our own day and age.

Along with Saints Michael and Gabriel, Raphael is one of only three Angels mentioned by name in the canonical Scriptures. Unlike Michael, he is not called an Archangel in the Bible but is nonetheless recognized as such by the Church. Raphael himself explains his rank as being one of seven Angels “who stand before the Lord” (Tob. 12, 15). [1] Filling in the blanks, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians identify the other six as Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Jegudiel or Jehudiel, Selaphiel or Salathiel, and Barachiel. The names of these Angels, however, are taken from Jewish and Christian apocrypha and not from the Bible.

Gabriel, Michael,Raphael, Selaphiel, Uriel, Barachiel, and Jehudiel--the seven angels who stand before the Lord. Russian icon, early 1900s. The latter four are from apocryphal literature.

All our information about Raphael comes from the Book of Tobias (Tobit), one of the seven deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. Tobias is a pious Jew living in Nineveh under Assyrian persecution who continues to perform mitzvahs in secret like burying the dead, despite threats to his life. Tobias’ deeds come at a cost; to avoid detection, he must bury the dead in the middle of the night. One morning, exhausted from his work, he comes home and falls asleep outside under a swallow’s nest. As he sleeps, dung from the nest falls into his eyes and blinds him. One might be tempted to think of the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” but the author of the sacred text is quick to point out the event’s true meaning: “Now this trial the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him, that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as also of holy Job” (Tob. 2, 12).

Tobias prays to God for mercy at the same time that a young maiden far away offers a similar prayer. Sarah is a distant relative of his who has been married seven times, but whenever a husband tries to consummate the marriage, a demon named Asmodeus kills him. God, hearing both prayers at the same time, commissions Raphael to heal them both.

Thinking that he is about to die, Tobias tells his only son, also named Tobias, to retrieve money owed to him by a friend. The problem is that the friend lives a great distance away, and the young man does not know the route. As he is pondering what to do, he sees Raphael, a “beautiful young man” (5, 5) who says that his name is Azarias and that he knows the way to the friend’s house. The elder Tobias and his wife are thrilled, and the young man and Angel depart. During the journey, Tobias is attacked by a giant fish as he is washing his feet in the Tigris River. Christian art typically portrays Raphael as spearing the scaly monster, but the narrator explains that he simply told Tobias what to do, namely, to pull it ashore by the gills. The Archangel also instructs Tobias to keep the heart, gall, and liver, “for these are necessary for useful medicines” (6, 5).

Peter Lastman, Tobias and the Angel, ca. 1613

Young Tobias and Raphael then lodge at the home of Sarah and her parents. At the angel’s behest, Tobias insists on having Sarah’s hand in marriage, but her father Raguel, who knows all too well of his daughter’s marital woes, agrees only very reluctantly. After the wedding feast, Sarah’s mother is weeping as she leads her daughter to the bridal chamber, praying that this time will be different.

Thanks be to God, it is. Tobias heeds Raphael’s advice to observe three nights of continence before consummating his marriage as a demonstration of the couple’s honorable intentions, namely, that their marital intimacy is not to be dominated by lust but by a desire for children. (The so-called “Nights of Tobias” are still a custom among some Catholic couples.) Tobias tells his bride:

Sarah, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are the children of Saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God (8, 4).

He also places the fish liver on burning coals, after which Raphael binds the demon Asmodeus and banishes it to the Egyptian desert. Raguel, on the other hand, assumes the worst and before dawn instructs his men to dig a grave for Tobias. When they go to retrieve the body, they are astonished to discover the young couple snuggling together safe and sound. Raguel has the grave filled in in haste, and a much grander wedding feast now commences.

Jan Steen, The wedding night of Tobias and Sarah, 1660

Two weeks later, Raphael and the happy newlyweds head home with half of Raguel’s possessions as well as the money they retrieved from the elder Tobias’ friend. Upon arrival, Tobias junior takes the fish gall and, following the angel’s instructions, cures his father of his blindness. When the family offers “Azarias” a large reward for his service, he reveals who he really is, as well as an interesting detail about angelic intercession:

When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord (12, 12, emphasis added).

Shocked by this revelation, father and son fall on their faces, and Raphael departs.

Understandably, Saint Raphael the Archangel is the patron of pharmacists and related professions, as well as of eye problems and blindness. Since he accompanied the young Tobias on a long journey, he is the patron of the young and travelers (the old Raccolta has several prayers to him for emigrants); and since he helped arrange the match between Tobias and Sarah, he is a patron of lovers and happy meetings. Lastly, because he bound Asmodeus, he is invoked against diabolical obsession, mental illness, and nightmares. [2]

Raphael has also had other admirers over the centuries. King Manuel I of Portugal insisted that the flagship of Vasco de Gama’s four-ship fleet to India be named the São Rafael. When the fleet reached the Cape of Good Hope on October 22, 1497, the grateful sailors went ashore and erected a column in honor of the Archangel.

Another grateful client was a French doctor by name of Juppet, who, as he was inventing a liqueur in 1830, lost his sight, and so prayed to Saint Raphael. When his sight was restored, he gratefully named his potation after the Archangel. Saint-Raphaël liqueur is made from wine, grape juice, bitter orange, vanilla pods, cacao beans, and quinine.

The memorable details of Tobias’ adventures have also inspired great works of art. Rembrandt was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church who did not believe that the Book of Tobias was divinely inspired, and yet he made several paintings and sketches based on the story. And in 1775, Joseph Haydn composed an ambitious oratorio called Il Ritorno di Tobia.

Feast Dates

The Byzantine Rite honors Saints Michael and Gabriel with separate feasts, in addition to a “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers of Heaven” on November 8. The feast implicitly includes Raphael, although he is not mentioned by name.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches such as the Copts and Ethiopians have a more explicit—and colorful—devotion to the healing angel. Their feast of Saint Raphael falls on September 8, and to commemorates the anniversary of a church dedicated to him that was built on the back of a whale. According to the story, the Coptic Patriarch Saint Theophilus (385-412) built a church on an island outside of Alexandria. During the dedication ceremony, the church began to tremble, and the people realized that they were on top of a very patient (or very lazy) whale that was covered in sand. Satan, however, was now goading the whale into action, and so the people of God prayed to Saint Raphael. The Archangel responded by lancing the whale and commanding it to be still. The whale stayed that way for centuries until the Muslim conquest in A.D. 641, at which point the church was destroyed, the whale swam away, and many people were killed. [3]

Ethiopian icon of St. Raphael the Whale-Slayer

The Christian West also has angelic feast days determined by church dedications (e.g., Michaelmas on September 29), and it also has feast days for Saint Raphael, but none quite so exotic. Parts of Spain celebrated him on December 30 in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in the early sixteenth century, Hereford, England kept his feast on October 5. During that same century, the Archangel appeared to the people of Cordoba, Spain and saved them from a plague; in return, the grateful townsfolk successfully petitioned Pope Innocent X to celebrate a feast for Saint Raphael on May 7, the date of the principal apparition. (In 1970, when the Holy See suppressed a separate feast to Saint Raphael on the General Calendar, it gave Cordoba permission to celebrate him on October 24, and suppressed the May 7 celebration.)

But the most popular date in the West, for reasons unknown, is October 24. Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year, which was written in the nineteenth century, notes that Saint Raphael’s Day was being kept on October 24 “by many particular churches.” [4] In 1911, the Catholic Encyclopedia could matter-of-factly assert that the Archangel’s feast was October 24. [5] This as also the preferred date outside the Roman Rite: the Ambrosian Rite officially celebrated it long before the feast was put on the Roman General Calendar (in 1921), as does the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. In fact, in Ollur (Kerala, India), Saint Anthony’s Forane Church Parish and its Shrine of Saint Raphael host an annual feast Malakhayude Perunnal that has attracted thousands of pilgrims since 1839. The preparations begin on October 15 and culminate on the 24th.

Thus, when Pope Benedict XV extended the feast to the universal Church in 1921, October 24 was the most obvious choice.

Friend of the Family

The reason that the Pope promoted the cult of Saint Raphael is rather curious. According to the Holy See’s official annals, the Supreme Pontiff acted “in compliance with the hopes and wishes of many bishops” and “was deeply moved by their specific, valid arguments.” In consultation with the Sacred Congregation of Rites, he authorized a mandatory Office and Mass for the Feasts of the Holy Family, of Saint Gabriel, and of Saint Raphael. “It escapes no one’s notice,” he writes,

how right and salutary (aequum et salutare) it is for the domestic family and for society itself to foster and propagate the association of the Holy Family that has been established by the Apostolic See, strengthened by laws, and honored with indulgences and special privileges for sodalities and parishes—and, with this same end in mind, to worship and celebrate the Holy Family of Nazareth in the universal Church through a particular liturgical rite and with a continual and fruitful meditation on their kindnesses and imitation of their virtues.

The Pope continues:

It is no less fitting as well, for the increase of piety and of actual association with the Holy Family, to commemorate with religious celebration the divine mission of both Archangels, namely, Saint Gabriel for announcing the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, and Saint Raphael, whose kindnesses bestowed on the family of Tobias are described in the Sacred Scriptures. [6]

In other words, Raphael’s feast day was elevated to the General Calendar not because of his rank as an Archangel or his reputation as a healer, a protector of seamen, or a seasoned whaler, but because of his relation to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which only exists insofar as Raphael bestowed kindness on the family on Tobias. It is a bit of a stretch but, as we shall see later, perhaps the hand of Providence was guiding it.

The Mass and Office

The propers that Benedict XV approved draw richly from liturgical tradition and Scripture. The Collect is a modified version of a tenth-century Spanish Collect, and the Postcommunion is lifted verbatim from the same source. The antiphons of Lauds and Vespers, together with the responsories of Matins, recapitulate the story of Raphael accompanying young Tobias, while the Mass Gradual describes Raphael binding the demon. The Epistle reading for the Mass, the little chapter for the Divine Office, and the first Matins nocturn are taken from Tobias 12 and are a beautiful summary of the story, especially the great intercessory activities of Angels such as Raphael and God’s boundless mercy. (Matins also contains a beautiful sermon by Saint Bonaventure on the allegorical meaning of Raphael’s actions.)

The liturgy for today’s feast also confirms a suspicion that the Angel who stirred the pool of Bethsaida in John 5 was Saint Raphael, even though the Angel’s name was not given. By making the Gospel of the Mass John 5, 1-4 and by including a sermon by Saint John Chrysostom on this passage in Matins, the “official liturgy of the Church” confirms “the conjecture of the commentators.” [7]

Perhaps the most interesting liturgical insight into Saint Raphael is one that did not make it into the liturgy. In the eleventh century, a monk named Notker composed a Sequence honoring Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael called Ad celebres. Here is the stanza on Raphael:

Atque Raphael,

Vitae vernula,

Transferte nos

inter Paradisicolas.

Which I translate as:

And Raphael,

A native of [the House] of Life,

Bring us to

Those who dwell in Paradise.

The stanza alludes to Raphael’s mission as the protector of Tobias and Sara and, by extension, all travelers and pilgrims. Its most difficult line to translate is the second, vitae vernula. A verna is a house-grown slave (a slave born into the household), and a vernula is the diminutive form. The sequence is essentially calling the mighty angelic spirit who binds and exiles demons a little houseboy. It is not the wording one would have expected, but it is surprisingly illuminating. The diminutive could be a reference to Raphael’s appearance in the Book of Tobias as a youth or adolescent, while the use of verna calls to mind the double identity of the Archangel in the story, who is first thought to be Azarias, the son of the great general Ananias (Tob. 5, 18) and then revealed to be Raphael, “one of the seven who stand before the Lord.” (Tob. 12, 15) Better than being native to a general’s household, Raphael is native to God’s inner court. He is indeed connected to the Holy Family, as Pope Benedict XV wisely knew.

Bicci di Lorenzo, 15th c., Scenes from Tobias (Tobias takes farewell from his father; Wanderings of Tobias and Archangel Raphael; Tobias taking the fish’s heart, lever and gall)

The Novus Ordo

In the 1969 new Roman Missal, September 29 is the combined “feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels.” No official reason was given for what Dr. Peter Kwasniewski calls an “almost rabid smushing together” of feasts, [8] but it may have had something to do with the antiquarian tendencies of Archbishop Bugnini and his colleagues, who disdained relatively recent additions to the calendar. The Concilium may have ignored the thousand years that Saint Raphael’s Day was on particular calendars and focused only on the fact that it was not added to the universal calendar until 1921. And they also ignored the Eastern Rites (to which they were so often deferential) that have a separate feast for the Healing Angel.

One result of the combined feast is that far less liturgical attention is now paid to Saint Raphael. Astonishingly, the only time that Raphael’s name appears in the new feast is in the title. There is no mention of him in the biblical readings, the responsorial psalm, the preface, or the orations (Michael is mentioned once in one of the optional readings and Gabriel not at all). The propers of the new feast put one in mind of Angels but not Archangels, not even the Archangels that the feast is ostensibly honoring.

That is a shame. First, in a world such as ours, one that is schizophrenically split between materialism on one hand and, on the other, fantasies about aliens, zombies, and incoherently-constructed cinematic universes, it would be good for the faithful to have more rather than fewer opportunities to contemplate the full height and depth of Christian cosmology, which includes Archangels battling demons.

Second, the old feast of Saint Raphael occasions a revisiting of the Book of Tobias, which is one of the most charming books of the Old Testament, a marvelous blend of comedy, misfortune, suspense, and piety. Tobias (or as it is now more frequently called, Tobit) is used in the new Lectionary, but never in a way that gives the entire arc of the narrative. The book is an especially inspiring story for Catholic singles seeking marriage, Catholics who are dating or engaged, and Catholic spouses.

Third, if Pope Benedict XV is right that St. Raphael is a patron saint of the family, and if Sr. Lucia of Fatima is right that the devil’s final assault will be on marriage and the family, then the Church should be adding to his cultus rather than subtracting from it. After all, Raphael is the only Archangel who articulates a Catholic understanding of marriage. Explaining to Tobias how the devil prevailed over Sarah’s previous husbands, Raphael states:

They who in such manner receive matrimony as to shut out God from themselves and from their mind and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding—over them the devil hath power (Tob. 6, 17).

To rephrase: the devil has power over those who shut God out from themselves and from their minds and who give themselves over to lust and become like animals. If that is an accurate description of so much of contemporary society, then we should be turning all the more to the Healing Angel and begging him to bind once again the demon of lust who is destroying us and our children. Pope Benedict XV did a great service to the Church when he linked Raphael’s intercession to that of the family and the Holy Family. It is lamentable that some in the Church later undermined the very thing we now need so badly.

This article originally appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 32:3 (Fall 2023). Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

Readers are invited to join Michael Foley on a pilgrimage cruise to Croatia in July 2024. For more information see here and here.


[1] All citations of Tobias in this essay are taken from the Douay Rheims translation of the Vulgate. If you have a Bible that calls this book Tobit, it is drawing from a different manuscript tradition and the verses will probably not align.

[2] “Obsession” is when a person harassed by a demon from the outside, as was the case with Sarah; “possession” is when a demon takes over a person’s body.

[3] From the fourteenth-century Ethiopian Synaxarium, quoted here.

[4] The Liturgical Year, vol. 14, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 439.

[5] “Saint Raphael,” J.F. Driscoll, Catholic Encyclopedia (1911).

[6] AAS 13 (1921), 543, trans. mine.

[7] Driscoll, "Saint Raphael."

[8] Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico Press, 2017), 222.

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