The Holy Guardian Angels
Born: The Dawn of Creation
Establishment of Feast Day: In 1607 by Pope Paul V. Their feast is currently celebrated on October 2nd.
Among the first prayers I learned as a young child was the prayer to my Guardian Angel. Like many children, I had a prayer card of a Guardian Angel, guiding two small children over a bridge, vigilantly leading them to safety.
In my experience of visiting and teaching children in Catholic schools, I have discovered an intense interest and love for the angels, with many children claiming to have seen and conversed with their Guardian Angel (a claim that I frequently believe to be true).
The belief in Guardian Angels is held among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as many Christians from various ecclesial communities. Angels are also revered by many Jews and Muslims, and angelic like creatures are honoured in various non-Christian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism.
Much can and should be said about the Guardian Angels. For the sake of this article, I will explore the writings of the Church Fathers and the work of Fr. Jean Danielou SJ to show what some of the first Christian theologians had to say about the existence and roles of the Guardian Angels.
The Church Father, St. Athenagoras, taught that “God, the creator of the world, through the medium of His Word, has apportioned and ordained the angels to occupy the elements, the heavens, the world and whatever is in the world.”[i] While Origen noted that it is not clearly stated in Holy Scripture when the angels were created, how they exist, or of what nature they are composed, he affirmed that the teaching of the Catholic Church has always held that the angels exist and that they are the Lord’s special servants in working to accomplish the salvation of humanity.[ii]
St. John of Damascus taught that “God, the Maker and Creator of the angels, brought them out of nothing into being and created them after His own image, an incorporeal race, a sort of spirit or immaterial fire: in the words of the divine David, ‘He makes His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire’ (Ps 103:4). [iii]
When one begins to read the Old Testament, we discover the roles that Angels will play in the salvation of humanity. St. Basil taught that “among the angels, some are set in charge of nations, others are companions of the faithful…it is the teaching of Moses that every believer has an angel to guide him as a teacher and a shepherd.”[iv] St. Basil founds his teaching on Genesis 48:16, which states, “the angel that delivereth me from all evils, bless these children.”
In the Book of Tobit, we find in the story of Tobias and Sarah the intercession of St. Raphael the Archangel, who both leads the young couple to marriage and serves as their angelic protector in delivering Sarah from the influence of the demon Asmodeus.
In the New Testament, Our Lord at Matthew 18:10 says of little children that “their angels in heaven always behold the face of the Father”, affirming in us that belief in Guardian Angels is not an invention of the Catholic Church, but is a clearly defined article of faith issued from the mouth of the Word of God.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that in the time of the First Christians, belief in the Guardian Angels was already commonly held among the faithful. When St. Peter was released from prison by an angelic deliverer, a woman named Rhoda saw St. Peter at the gate of her home and upon telling others of his miraculous escape, they chided her saying it could not be him but rather that it was his Guardian Angel (see Acts 12:5-15).
From these scriptural references, the early Church Fathers offered further teaching on the role of Guardian Angels. Origen taught that “all of the faithful in Christ, no matter how small, are helped by an angel, and Christ says that these angels always see the face of the Father who is heaven.”[v] St. Basil taught further that “an angel is put in change of every believer, provided we do not drive him out by sin. He guards the soul like an army.”[vi]
A question that arose among the Church Fathers regarding the Guardian Angels was whether or not they were assigned to all of humanity at the time of birth or only to the baptized?[vii] St. Thomas Aquinas taught that while the Church Fathers were of differing opinions on this question, Tradition leaned towards the belief that “every human receives a Guardian Angel at birth, but that this angel plays an entirely new role after baptism.”[viii]
Prior to baptism, according to Fr. Jean Danielou SJ, the role of a Guardian Angel is similar to the role fulfilled by the angels of the nations. (The Church Fathers taught that angels had been assigned to protect various nations and cities, many of which were not yet Christian, and so their angelic intercession was required to lead these citizens to Christ and keep them safe from the snares of Satan.)
Fr. Danielou, based on the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen and St. Basil, explains that “it is true that an angel has been given to each person at birth. But, on the other hand, from the first day of his life the little child becomes the prey of the devil, whether this be due to Satan’s rights over the race of Adam or whether the child has been dedicated to him through idolatry. As a result, the Guardian Angel is almost powerless over him, just as over that nation…that is why the Guardian Angels were waiting for the help that would come to them from God. The Coming of Christ reverses the situation. Now, thanks to Christ, the good angels are more powerful, able to defend the child who is, as it were, newly entrusted to them by Christ. Christ entrusts the newly baptized to their angels in a very special way and they are formed by the angels in the doing of good.”[ix]
In addition to offering protection to the newly baptized, St. John Chrysostom taught that the Guardian Angels offered special protection to those in the higher offices of the Church: “If the angels have been delegated by the God of the universe to those who have only their own personal lives to regulate and are to do nothing for the common good, how much more will they do for those men to who the care of the whole earth has been entrusted! The virtues of heaven are always with those who are charged with such offices.”[x] It is for this reason that we must continually prayer for our leaders, both civil and ecclesiastical, that they be attentive to the intercession of their Guardian Angels to strive for the good and proclaim the Kingdom of God before the Kingdom of Man!
The Church Fathers also assigned three specific functions to the Guardian Angels. They were known as the Angel of Peace, the Angel of Penitence and the Angel of Prayer.[xi] Fr. Danielou notes that the title of Angel of Peace is especially venerable. St. John Chrysostom said of the Guardian Angels: “learn now that there are angels of peace. Listen to the deacons, who frequently repeat in their prayers: ‘pray to the angel of peace’.”[xii] St. Basil said similarly that “we pray to God who is well disposed towards men in order that He might give an angel of peace as a companion to protect us.”[xiii]
As Angels of Peace, the Guardian Angels help us in spiritual combat with the devil, assisting us in resisting the snares and wickedness of Satan. St. Hilary taught that “in warfare we carry on to remain strong against the evil powers, the angels are our helpers, these spirits have been sent to aid the human race, for our weakness is such that, if the guardian angels had not been given to us, we could not resist the many and powerful attacks of the evils spirits. To this end, we had need of a higher nature…That is why God has taken out these spirits from among his treasures, and has given through them an aid to human weakness, so that this divine assistance might help us against the powers of this world of darkness to attain the heritage of salvation.”[xiv]
As Angels of Penitence, St. Clement of Alexandria taught that “he who has approached the angel of penance will have to repent no more when he leaves his body behind, nor blush when he sees the Lord coming with His armies.”[xv] The writer known as the Shepherd of Hermas explained further that, “but I entreat you, I the angel in charge of penance, to remain firm in your proposal, whoever of you are such simple and innocent, so that your seed will not be rooted out forever. For the Lord has put you to the test and entered your names among ours in the Book of Life.”[xvi] Origen explained further that the Guardian Angels do not only call us to penance for our sins, but are also involved in the healing that comes from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness.[xvii]
As Angels of Prayer, The Book of Revelation shows us that the angels continually present our prayers to the Heavenly Father. St. Clement of Alexandria taught that the angels assist in the offering of prayers, showing that even when a person prays on their own, his prayer is joined to the choirs of angels.[xviii] Tertullian went so far as to say that a Christian should never sit while praying, out of respect for “the angel of prayer who is at our side.”[xix]
Finally, many will be surprised to learn that it was the early Church Fathers who suggested that every man had both an angel and demon accompanying him at all times (giving some credence to the cartoonish depictions of an angel and demon resting upon our shoulders.) The author known as Pseudo-Barnabas taught how our angel draws our soul towards good, while the devil towards evil.[xx] The Shepherd of Hermas insisted further that “there are two angels for each man: one of justice and one of wickedness…the spirit of justice is mild and reserved and meek and peaceful. When he enters into your heart, he speaks at once with you of justice and modesty and temperance and kindness and pardon and charity and paternal love. As often as these thoughts arise in your heart, know that the spirit of justice is with you…Now learn the works of the spirit of wickedness too. First of all, he is irritable and bitter and rash and his works are evil…when you recognize his works, depart from him.”[xxi]
While official Church teaching has never definitively taught that each person has an angel and demon accompanying them as duelling powers for the salvation of their soul, it was these writings of the Early Church that would influence the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the discernment of spirits[xxii] and the need to carefully consider whether inspirations were coming from the Lord, through the mediation of his angels, or from the hellish whispers of the angels of darkness. For each of us, the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa is very relevant since “the good angel presents his spirit with the fruits of virtue everything that those who do good see in hope. The other angel holds before him the pleasures of the earth, pleasures which hold no hope for the future, but pleasures which can captivate the minds of the foolish when they are seen and enjoyed in the present.”[xxiii]
From the writings of the Church Fathers, we can see that the belief in Guardian Angels has long been a cherished teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church Fathers give us insights into the role they have in salvation history, accompanying us from birth as angels of peace, penitence and prayer, helping us to discern the good and keeping us safe from the lies of demons.
May each of us seek to cultivate a deeper friendship and devotion to our Guardian Angel, to whom God’s light commits me here, ever this day, be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide, Amen.
Fr. Nathan Siray
[i] St Athenagoras, Suppl. 10. Found in The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church by Jean Danielou, SJ, Christian Classics Publishers: Allen, Texas, 1957. Pg. 3.
[ii] Origen, On First Principles, Bk.1 Preface 10. Found in The Teaching of the Church Fathers, edited by John R. Willis, SJ. Ignatius Press: San Fransisco, 2002. Pg. 216.
[iii] St John of Damascus, Expositions of the Orthodox Faith, Bk.2, Ch.3. Willis, Pg. 217.
[iv] St Basil, Adv. Eun., 3, 1, Danielou, Pg. 68.
[v] Origen, De Princ, 2, 10, 7, Danielou, Pg. 69.
[vi] St. Basil, Hom in Ps 33:6, Danielou, Pg.69.
[vii] Danielou, Pg. 70.
[viii] Ibid, Pg.70-71.
[ix] Ibid, Pg.71-72.
[x] St John Chrysostom, De Laude. Paul, 7, Danielou, Pg.72.
[xi] Danielou, Pg. 73.
[xii] St John Chrysostom, Serm. Asc., PG 50, 444 A, Danielou, Pg. 73.
[xiii] St. Basil, Ep., 1, 11, Danielou Pg. 74.
[xiv] St. Hilary, Tract. Ps 65 and 134, Danielou, Pg. 74-5.
[xv] St. Clement of Alexandria, Quis Div., 42, 18, Danielou, Pg. 76.
[xvi] The Shepherd of Hermas, Mand., 12, 4, 7, Danielou, Pg. 77.
[xvii] Danielou, Pg. 77.
[xviii] Ibid, Pg. 78.
[xix] Tertullian, De or., 16, Danielou, Pg. 78.
[xx] Danielou, Pg. 79-80.
[xxi] The Shepherd of Hermas, Manuel of Discipline, 4, 2-14, Danielou, Pg. 80.
[xxii] Danielou, Pg. 80-1.
[xxiii] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, PG 44, 337 D-340 A, Danielou, Pg. 81.