What are Guardian Angels
Feast of the Guardian Angels
"How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it." – St. Jerome, 4th century
October 2 is the Feast of Guardian Angels, but how much do we know about guardian angels? In recent years, two things have happened. Outside of the Church, theology about the role of angels has been twisted and altered to fit in with New Age ideas or else toned down so that angels are thought of as nothing more than kind, smiling “guys in sparkling pajamas,” as a child in the 90’s remake of the film Angels in the Outfield describes. As a result, Catholics have either adopted some these views, or on the other side, have taken a hands-off approach, backing off from the subject out of caution.
However, belief in angels has been a part of our faith since the very beginning, even well before the time of Christ. The angels played roles throughout the Old Testament and the New. To briefly summarize the Catholic doctrine that angels were created, as was man, and that angels are pure spirit, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“The angels are represented throughout the Bible as a body of spiritual beings intermediate between God and men: "You have made him (man) a little less than the angels" (Psalm 8:6). They, equally with man, are created beings; "praise ye Him, all His angels: praise ye Him, all His hosts . . . for He spoke and they were made. He commanded and they were created" (Psalm 148:2-5; Colossians 1:16-17). That the angels were created was laid down in the Fourth Lateran Council. The decree "Firmiter" against the Albigenses declared both the fact that they were created and that men were created after them . . . We mention it here because the words: "He that liveth for ever created all things together" (Ecclesiasticus 18:1) have been held to prove a simultaneous creation of all things; but it is generally conceded that "together" (simul) may here mean "equally", in the sense that all things were "alike" created. They are spirits; the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister to them who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14).”
Furthermore, Catholic doctrine states that within the realm of angels, there is a hierarchy:
St. Thomas (Summa Theologica I:108), following St. Denis (De Coelesti Hierarchia, vi, vii), divides the angels into three hierarchies each of which contains three orders. Their proximity to the Supreme Being serves as the basis of this division. In the first hierarchy he places the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; in the second, the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; in the third, the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The only Scriptural names furnished of individual angels are Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel, names which signify their respective attributes. Apocryphal Jewish books, such as the Book of Enoch, supply those of Uriel and Jeremiel, while many are found in other apocryphal sources.
It is believed, as discussed in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, that guardian angels are part of the lowest order in the hierarchy. The focus in this article is on guardian angels, but you can read more about the other angels in depth in books such as The Angels and Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them?
While belief in guardian angels has been in the mind of the Church since the earliest days, the notion that each soul is assigned an angel from birth to death has not been explicitly defined by the Church, and so is not a definitive article of faith. The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls "angels" is a truth of faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church 328), but as the assignment of guardian angels is not overtly defined, the greatest Catholic theologians have discussed this at length throughout the Church’s history.
There were some who believed guardian angels were assigned only to some people and not all men. In large part, this claim was made because Jesus is greater than all angels, and so it seems he would not have need of one, and that Adam and Eve, while still innocent would not need a guardian angel. St. Thomas Aquinas answers these ideas eloquently in his Summa. Christ indeed is greater than any angel. However it is written in scripture that God sent angels to minister to him, and so angels were appointed to Christ, though they were inferior to him, where angels are on a superior level to other men. St. Thomas also explained why the first man and woman would indeed have need for angels:
In the state of innocence man was not threatened by any peril from within: because within him all was well ordered . . . But peril threatened from without on account of the snares of the demons; as was proved by the event. For this reason he needed a guardian angel. (Summa Theologica I:113:4)
Some also believed that unbelievers may not be appointed angels, such as Origen, who like some others, at times said that sinners were excluded from the privilege of angelic ministry. St. Thomas also answers this in his Summa:
The infidels, and even Anti-christ, are not deprived of the interior help of natural reason; so neither are they deprived of that exterior help granted by God to the whole human race--namely the guardianship of the angels. And although the help which they receive therefrom does not result in their deserving eternal life by good works, it does nevertheless conduce to their being protected from certain evils which would hurt both themselves and others. For even the demons are held off by the good angels, lest they hurt as much as they would. In like manner Antichrist will not do as much harm as he would wish. (Summa Theologica I:113:4)
St. Thomas provides perhaps the most direct, succinct argument for guardian angels, but he is not alone. St. Jerome also states that every soul is granted a guardian angel from birth, and for the most part, the church fathers are in agreement that all men, faithful or not, are privileged with an angel. In short, there is no disagreement about the existence of guardian angels, though there has been much philosophy as to when and to whom guardian angels are appointed.
The idea of angels as winged people was introduced in art as a way to attempt to depict a being which was true spirit. In fact angels can take on a visible form, such as when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, or they can remain with us unseen, as is the case most likely for most people. It is not unheard of for people to be able to see and to communicate with directly their guardian angel. Many beloved saints enjoyed this relationship with their guardian angel. Two well-known examples are Padre Pio and St. Gemma Galgani. These, as well as some other saints, were not only able to speak with their angels, but their angels also helped to deliver correspondence to other people for the saints. Such direct contact with a guardian angel was also the case for St. Catherine of Siena, Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis De Sales, and others.
As to the Feast of Guardian Angels, which we celebrate October 2, it was not placed on the Roman calendar before 1608, but was celebrated locally in individual parishes for some time before that. Several churches requested, and were granted permission, to celebrate a feast for the guardian angels throughout the 1500s before Pope Paul V added it to the calendar in the early 1600s. This time frame does not imply that guardian angels were not reverenced prior to the 16th century, however. Intercessory prayers to one’s guardian angel were a tradition of the faithful long before this, and angels were recognized in general in the celebration of the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, one of the oldest feasts in the Church. The intercessory power, of the saints and angels alike, was recognized even in the first centuries of the Catholic Church.
Angel of God, my guardian dear to whom God's love commits me here.
Ever this day, or night, be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.