Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of the guardian angels. This feast helps us put the current culture wars into perspective. It reminds us that, ultimately, “we are not contending against flesh and blood” but fallen angels (Eph 4:12). It also reminds us that God has not left us to our own devices and hopelessly outmatched. He has given each of us an angelic bodyguard.
The Old Testament makes it clear that God charges his angels with guarding (Psa 91:11), guiding, and even healing the just (Tobit). However, the New Testament reveals that everyone has a guardian angel.
When Peter is delivered from prison in Judea, he seeks refuge at the house of Mary, the mother of St. Mark. Rhoda, a maid, goes to ask who is requesting entrance. She recognizes Peter’s voice. However, the rest of the household insist that it can’t be Peter. “It is his angel!”, they exclaim (Acts 12:12-16). These first Christians certainly believe that Peter has his own guardian angel. They probably believe that every person has one. After all, Jesus had indicated that unbaptized children have their own angels (Matt 18:10).
According to some Church Fathers, however, this does not mean that every person has a guardian angel from birth. Basil and Cyril of Alexandria follow Origen in holding that only the baptized and catechumens get a guardian angel. St. Basil even claims that, just as we repel bees with smoke, sinful Christians drive away their disgusted guardian angels. Only good Christians keep their guardian angel.
Other Church Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers—Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodoret of Cyrus, John Chrysostom, Augustine—do not put any such restrictions on the remit of guardian angels. As St Jerome explains, “Great is the dignity of souls. Consequently, each one has an angel delegated to it as soon as it is born.”
This is the position that the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (n. 336) takes when it sets out the Church’s current official teaching on this issue.
It cites St. Basil: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”
However, it does not share Basil’s view that only the faithful have a guardian angel. It states instead that, “From its beginning (Matthew 18:10) until death (Luke 16:22) human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession (Job 33:23-24; Zechariah 1:12; Tobit 12:12).”
The provisional 1992 edition of the Catechism taught that angels care for human life from infancy on. That might even mean that they only care for it from baptism on. However, in a change to the text, the 1997 editio typica specifies that they care for it from its very beginning, namely, conception. True, by using the expression ‘human life’ instead of ‘every human person’, it sidesteps the theological dispute over whether a human foetus is a person from the moment of conception. Nevertheless, it makes it clear that every new human life, not just the baptized, enjoys the care of some angel. By basing this assertion on Matthew 18:10, it suggests that every new human life enjoys the care of its own guardian angel from the very outset.
The Catechism does not spell out in detail how they exercise “their watchful care and intercession”. However, the Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez is still a useful guide.
In the early seventeenth-century, after combing through the Bible, he identified six ways in which our guardian angels assist us.
First, they protect us from bodily and spiritual harm. They can do this by moving objects physically. Mostly, however, they inculcate thoughts that will lead us to avoid harm and temptation.
Second, they rouse us to reject evil and do good. They also do this by stimulating apposite thoughts.
Third, they fight off the demons who assail us. They do not always do so. In his providence, God also allows us to be tempted.
Fourth, they present our prayers to God (Tob 12:13; Rev 8:3). This means that they back them up with their own.
Fifth, they pray for us even when we do not.
Sixth, should God allow them, they chastise us to correct us.
So, if you are concerned about the culture wars and discouraged by them, take advantage of the annual liturgical celebration of the guardian angels. On October 2, we contemplate something that the secular media is unable to pick up: the myriad angels who are working non-stop to help each person overcome sin, live virtuously, and reach God. In that case, we have no reason to be discouraged by the culture wars. Instead, we should entreat more assiduously, both for ourselves and others, the aid of our guardian angels.
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