Circular Letter: Summer 2014
Commonly Asked Questions on the Angels
Currently there is great interest in the angels. At the same time, there is also much confusion with regard to their nature and ministry. This is because, on the one hand, the angels are not sufficiently discussed in catechism classes and sermons, and on the other hand, many ideas about the angels have been presented – mainly from the New Age movement and the Mass Media – which are contrary to Catholic belief.
That people are eager to learn about the angels is reflected in the fact that we receive many questions about the angels both through the mail and at the retreats and missions that we preach around the country. Therefore, we wish to present in this and the following circulars the most frequently asked questions, in order to make the responses available to all our readers. We hope that this will help our readers to deepen and strengthen their knowledge and love for the holy angels and, consequently, experience their powerful assistance more effectively in their lives.
1. Should we give a name to our Guardian Angel?
The short answer to this most asked of all questions about the angels is simply “no.” For the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Sacraments of the Vatican stated in the document The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy of 2001, that “the practice of assigning names to the holy angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, and St. Michael, whose names are contained in Holy Scripture” (217).
We do well to reflect, then, that the term “Holy Guardian Angel” expresses very deeply our bond to the angel assigned to us by God for life. For just as there is only one woman and one man in this whole world who can respond to us when we say, “Mom” or “Dad”, so too in all the choirs of angels, there is only one angel who can respond to us when we cry out, “Holy Guardian Angel, help me!”
2. Does every human being have a Guardian Angel?
That every baptized person has a Guardian Angel is clear from what St. Basil taught and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterated, “Every one of the faithful has an angel standing at his side as educator and guide, directing his life” (cf. CCC 336). This passage does not state specifically that every human being, without exception, has a Guardian Angel. Nevertheless, in another passage, the Catechism stresses in no uncertain terms that “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their [that is, the angels’] watchful care and intercession” (CCC 336).
In accord with this, the general teaching of theologians holds that not only every baptized person, but every human being has their own personal Guardian Angel which also teaches the recently published YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 2010, “Every person receives from God a Guardian Angel” (n. 55). This view is biblically based and founded on the words of Our Lord in the Gospels, where He states emphatically to His disciples, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I say to you that their angels in heaven always see the face of My Father Who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Moreover, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the protection of the angels is a gift not only of grace, but also a gift to mankind in the order of nature. Finally, since each individual, based on their own free will, has a unique destiny, it is fitting that there be a one-on-one relationship with an angel. This same position was also taught by St. Gregory the Wonder Worker and St. Jerome, who held that every person has from birth their own special Guardian Angel.
3. When is our Guardian Angel assigned to us?
St. Thomas Aquinas maintains that everyone receives a Guardian Angel at birth. Moreover, he states that the Guardian Angel of the mother guards her child while it is still in the womb. Other Fathers and Doctors of the Church, however, for example, St. Jerome and St. Basil the Great, believe that our Guardian Angel is assigned at baptism. St. Anselm, on the other hand, goes a step farther by stating that “every soul is committed to an angel when it is united with a body.” In other words, he believes, along with some other saints and theologians, that everyone receives a Guardian Angel at conception. To sum up, then, there are three opinions about when our Guardian Angel may be assigned to us, namely, 1.) at conception, 2.) at birth, or 3.) or at baptism.
The fact, that every human person has a Guardian Angel excludes implicitly that we receive the Guardian Angel at baptism. It remains, then, a question open to speculation whether a human being receives the Guardian Angel at conception or birth. But since a person’s life begins at the moment of conception, there is no reason for the angel to have to wait until the person is born. Considering the importance of prenatal care, it is reasonable to believe that the Guardian Angel would be want to be involved. It may also be true, that all benefit from the angelic assistance from the beginning of life according to the natural providence of God, and that in baptism a deeper supernatural bond with the holy angels arises.
4. Will our Guardian Angel be reassigned to someone else after we die?
It is generally agreed that our Guardian Angel will not be reassigned to another person after we die, because our Guardian Angel has been uniquely matched with us from all eternity by God Himself in order to help us carry out the special mission in our earthly life for which He has created us. For this reason, it would seem unlikely that our Guardian Angel would be assigned to another person after he has finished guiding us. And so, after we die, it is believed, our Guardian Angel will continue his normal tasks in the ranks of the heavenly hosts.
If we receive the grace to enter heaven, we will worship the Lord together with our Guardian Angel, side by side in the heavenly liturgy. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “When he arrives at the end of life he no longer has a Guardian Angel; but in the kingdom he will have an angel to reign with him” (Summa Theologica, I, 113, 4). But if we have the misfortune of going to hell, then our Guardian Angel will return to heaven alone. If we go to purgatory our Guardian Angel will wait in heaven, and then come to escort us to paradise once our time in that place of punishment is finished. For as St. John Chrysostom states, “if we need a guide in passing from one city to another, how much more will the soul need someone to point out the way when she breaks the bonds of flesh and passes on to the future life” (cf. Homily on Lazarus, 2,2).
5. Can the holy angels or the devils know our secret thoughts?
No, they cannot. For only God Himself can know what we are thinking at all times; only God Himself can know the depths of our soul. For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas states in no uncertain terms that “the angels do not know the secrets of hearts” (Summa Theologica, I, 57, 4). Nevertheless, as he goes on to explain, angels and devils can sometimes figure out what we might be thinking. And they can do this in two ways: for “thought is sometimes discovered not merely by an outward act, but also by change of countenance” (Summa Theologica, I, 57, 4). For example, our face can look happy or sad, if we are thinking uplifting or depressing thoughts. Further, our thoughts about other persons can be reflected not only in what we say about them, but also by the way in which we appear and react when coming into their presence.
We must keep in mind, then, that the angels and the devils have not only a superhuman intellect, but also thousands of years of experience at observing the behavior of human beings under all kinds of conditions and circumstances. For this reason, they can like a most skillful and experienced psychologist often discern what we might be thinking without actually knowing our thoughts or being able to read our minds. We could say, therefore, that whereas they are good at reading our faces, they are not able to read our minds.
In this context, it is important to mention that, if we willingly direct our thoughts to an angel (e.g. in mental prayer or inner conversation), then the angel can “hear” those thoughts. Just as the angels communicate between themselves by an act of the will, so we can communicate with them by an interior act of the will.
6. Will we become like angels in heaven?
This question sometimes arises because Jesus revealed to us in the Gospels that, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are “like” angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30; cf.: Mk 12:25; Lk 20:36). It must be stressed here that we are not called to be angels, but to be like angels. For likeness indicates similarity which is different from identity. God does not intend, then, to eliminate the natural difference between men and angels; in heaven they will always be distinct and complementary. Man and angel will therefore be like each other in certain aspects, while both retain their nature. What are these aspects?
First, it should be pointed out that both angels and men were created in the image and likeness of God. What’s more, this original perfection of nature and grace is brought to a higher perfection of nature and grace in those who get to heaven. And so, since the assimilation of the holy angels in heaven, then, is already completed in their state of glory when we finally get to heaven, we will become like them, not only in the personal glory which they currently possess, but also in their divinized likeness to God.
Second, the angels are “purely spiritual creatures”, they “have intelligence and will: they are personal creatures” (CCC 330). Our souls are also spiritual in nature. We are created for the same final goal and we have received the same sanctifying grace of Christ. These are the reasons why we ask the angels in our consecration prayer, “enlighten my mind and my heart so that I may always know and accomplish the will of God”. These similarities help us to understand more about our “being like the angels”.
Third, we will be eternally blessed with the vision of God “like the angels,” with the contemplation, love and perpetual possession of God, the fountain of all good; we will adore Him in total surrender. We will all enjoy the communion of the Blessed Trinity. For “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord Who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Fourth, we will enjoy the communion of the saints, angels and men, because both are united with God, the only One who is infinitely holy in His very (natural) being. That is why we ask the angels in the consecration prayer, “lead me to union with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.
Fifth, in heaven we will have joined the company of the holy angels. Therefore, we will not only enjoy perfect rest and fulfillment of all desires so that we will be ”like the angels” – at peace, immaculately pure, full of joy, light and life – but we will also participate in God’s perfection, richness, beauty and glory. For “the righteous will shine like the sun” (Mt 13:43) and find themselves in paradise free of pains, tears, sadness, suffering and death.
Finally, in heaven we will live forever in intimate communion with Jesus and all the angels for the glorification of God (cf. Jn 17:24; Eph 1: 12,14), as the Book of Revelation describes: “I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying … ‘Worthy is the Lamb …’ and the elders fell down and worshipped” (Rev 5:11-14). Life in heaven will be a glorious liturgy of praise that will unite both the angels and the saints in the unending song of joy: “Holy, Holy, Holy” are You, “Lord, God of hosts” (cf. Rev 4: 8-10).
7. How do the angels communicate with us?
There are two main ways that they do this. We could call one the common way, and the other, the less common way. In the common way, the angels communicate with us by putting thoughts into our minds, images into our imaginations, and feelings into our emotions.
First, they can put thoughts into our minds by sending us words that are received in the interior senses, for example in the imagination. Secondly, they can send us intellectual visions that communicate an abstract truth or the light to make such judgments of the truth. Moreover, the holy angels can communicate to us spiritual consolations (cf. St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Second Week, Rule 3). Finally, the angels communicate with us by causing a certain kind of tension or pressure in our soul or body. We may get the strong feeling that we just have to do something, or go somewhere, or help someone, or pray for a special intention. Many of us, to be sure, have experienced these feelings that seem to come out of nowhere, urging us to act decisively in order to help someone who may be in desperate danger or need.
On the other hand, there is another way by which the angels communicate with us in a sense that we could call less common. That is by using words, and speaking to us out loud in a way that we can clearly understand. It is rare, of course, for an angel to speak to us in a tone of voice that we can easily understand. But there are many examples that we can find in the Scriptures of angels speaking to the persons to whom they have appeared. For example, consider the long conversations between St. Raphael and Tobiah recorded for us in the Book of Tobit; or the extensive revelations given by St. Gabriel to the prophet Daniel; or the announcements given to Mary by St. Gabriel in her home at Nazareth, and to the priest Zechariah in the temple at Jerusalem.
8. Is it possible for someone to receive a second Guardian Angel?
We receive only one Guardian Angel during our lifetime, who is our personal guardian. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, with a number of other theologians, holds that not only bishops receive an additional angel to help them fulfill their responsibilities when they are ordained; but also that certain types of public officials who have grave responsibilities, for example, the rulers of nations, governors of states, or of large communities receive an additional angel to help them rule and guide as well (cf. II Sent., D. 14 q. 1, art. 2, ad 4, et 5). It must be stressed, however, that the additional angel assigned to a person with ecclesiastical and civil responsibilities is not an extra Guardian Angel. Rather, the additional angel acts as a kind of auxiliary to help the person to whom they are assigned to more effectively carry out their mission and duties of state in life (cf. Fr. Pascal Parente, Beyond Space, TAN Books, 1973, p. 124).
Furthermore, St. Thomas Aquinas points out that charisms in the Church are appropriated to the Holy Spirit who administers them through the holy angels. Now every religious community and spiritual movement has a charism. For this reason, whoever belongs to any such movement, enjoys the ministry of the holy angel who is assigned to watch over that movement with its members. What’s more, each diocese and perhaps each parish has its own Guardian Angel. And so, at any one time, we are under the guidance and protection of several angels. But to repeat, only one holy angel individually is assigned to us personally by God as our Guardian Angel.
9. Do angels have wings?
We can find a number of references about angels appearing with wings in the Scriptures. For example, Cherubim were depicted with wings extending over the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus (cf. Ex 26: 20); the prophet Isaiah relates a vision of a six-winged Seraph, “with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft” (Is 6:2); the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of Cherubim who had not only four faces, but also “four wings” (Ez 10:21). What’s more St. John in the Book of Revelation records for us that he saw not only four Cherubim who had “six wings” (Rev 4:8), but also that he saw an angel “flying high overhead” (Rev 14:6).
Since the angels are pure spirits, they do not, of course, have physical wings nor do they need wings for mobility. Rather, wings are a fitting symbol not only of the angels’ willingness to readily, eagerly, and joyfully carry out the will of God, but are also an appropriate symbol for the angels’ capability to travel anywhere in the universe with the speed of thought. In short, wings are an apt symbol to represent the angels’ capacity for rapid movement of spirit, thought, and will.
10. Are there male and female angels?
Angels, like God Himself, are purely spiritual persons, and therefore they do not have a gender as such. Strictly speaking, there are no male nor female angels. Nevertheless, if we study what the Scriptures have to tell us about the angels, we will discover that they are always depicted and spoken of in masculine terms. We will never find in all of the Bible, no matter how hard we might look, a single reference to the angels that is made in feminine terms. Rather, the angels always appear as men.
To offer one example among the many, regarding the angel who appeared to her, the mother of Samson said, “A man of God came to me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel of God, very terrible” (Judges 13:6). Even when they are not explicitly called men, they appear as magnificent, intimidating, and powerful persons—qualities that we associate normally with masculinity. For example, the first angels that appeared on Christmas morning had so frightened the shepherds that they had to be told not to be afraid. What’s more, not only did the guards at the tomb of Jesus become like “dead men”, as St. Matthew puts it (Mt 28: 4) when an angel appeared to roll away the stone from the grave, but also the prophet Daniel “fainted” (cf. Dan 10: 9) at the mere sight of St. Gabriel when he appeared to him. For Daniel described St. Gabriel as appearing as a man “with a body like chrysolite. His eyes were like fiery torches, his arms and feet looked like burnished bronze, and his voice sounded like the roar of a multitude” (Dan 10: 6). We have to see these facts as a revelation from God, and a manifestation of His will. It is an indication, and a strong one at that, that the Lord wants us to understand that masculine qualities are more fitting in the representation of the angelic spirits.
11. Is it possible for me to consecrate myself to my Guardian Angel, if I have already made the Total Consecration to Mary?
First of all, we must realize that, ultimately, we can only consecrate ourselves to God alone, Who is our origin and our final end. A consecration to another person, then, is a sacred bond that serves as a means to an end, the end being God Himself. For this reason, a consecration to another person, even the Total Consecration to Mary, cannot be exclusive, that is, it cannot rule out the possibility of making additional consecrations. When we consecrate ourselves to another person, then we, in effect, make a covenant with them. That is, a sacred contract by which we pledge to honor and love them in return for their special help and protection, so that we can more effectively come to know and love God Himself.
The Consecration to the Holy Angels, then, is above all a covenant. That which is implicit in the baptismal promise, namely, communion with the holy angels, is formally expressed and adhered to in the consecration. The soul commits itself trustingly in fraternal love to the holy angels as to those brothers and fellow servants before God (cf. Rev 19:l0; 22:9), who are entirely holy and irrevocably united to God. In this way, the soul opens itself consciously to the efficacy of their spiritual help. Simultaneously, the soul obliges itself to listen to and heed their admonitions (cf. Ex 23:21), which always have the glorification of God and the accomplishment of His will as their goal. The soul pledges itself to an intimate collaboration with them for the spreading and the defense of the Kingdom of God upon earth and for leading a life of perfection as a living member of the Church.
A Consecration to the Holy Angels assents wholeheartedly to their salvific mission which, as minister of Christ, they exercise on behalf of man (cf. CCC 331). It means a voluntary bond with the angels so that, with their help and imitating their virtues, one strives not only for Christian perfection according to one’s state in life, but also to collaborate with them in the apostolic mission of the Church for the salvation of souls.
To sum up: Through the Consecration to Mary, the soul accomplishes all its works through, with, and in Mary, so as to perform them more perfectly with and in Christ. In a similar way it can be said, through the Consecration to the Holy Angels the soul strives to do everything like the angels and with them, so as to be more perfectly united to Christ and to be transformed into His likeness.
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