Scripture consistently affirms the existence of the Angels. Today is the feast of the Guardian Angels and in the liturgy we are reminded of their care for us and also admonished to heed their voice.

Devotion to the angels is somewhat diminished in the Church these Church these days. And while it is good to see any devotion to them at all, there are some practices and attitude that need attention and some correction.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say on angels, and is perhaps a good place to start in setting a foundation for proper and balanced understanding of them. Here are just a few verses:

The whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels….In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God….From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God. (CCC #s 334-336 selectae)

The words “protector” and “shepherd” are significant and can help to correct a  tendency  in modern times to sentimentalize the role of the angels and to drift from the Biblical data regarding them. Here therefore it may be good to propose a few corrective ideas to balance the sentimental notions we may have. I do not say that sentiment is per se wrong, but it needs to be balanced by deep respect for the angels.

1. Angels have no bodies, they are spiritual beings. And though they are spoken of as having wings, hands, many eyes, faces, etc., these are said by way of analogy, or in terms of visions granted so as to reveal some aspect of their spiritual capacity, e.g. swift movement, the capacity to see comprehensively, etc. But of themselves, as pure spirit angels cannot be seen or touched unless God grants a kind of vision to the soul of man.
2. Angels are not human and never have been human.
3. Human beings never become angels or “earn wings.”
4. Angels are persons, but persons of pure spirit.
5. Hence they have no “gender.”  Now we have to envision them somehow, so it is not wrong that we portray them with masculine or feminine qualities but it is important to remember that they transcend any such distinction.
6. Biblically, angels are not the rather fluffy and charming creatures that modern portraits often depict. In the Bible angels are depicted as awesome and powerful agents of God. Many times the appearance of an angel struck fear in the one who saw them (cf Judg 6:22; Lk 1:11; Lk 1:29; Lk 2:9; Acts 10:3; Rev. 22:8). Angels are often described in the Bible in warlike terms: they are call a host (the biblical word for army), they wage war on God’s behalf and that of his people (e.g. Ex 14:19; Ex 33:2; Nm 22:23; Ps 35:5; Is 37:36; Rev 12:7). While they are said to have wings (e.g. Ex 25:20; 1 Kings 6:24; inter al) recall that they do not have physical bodies so the wings are an image of their swiftness. They are also mentioned at times as being like fire (Ex. 3:2; Rev 10:1).
7. And as for those cute little “cherubs” we have in our art, those cute baby-faced angels with wings and no body? Well read about the real Cherubim in Ezekiel 10. They are fearsome, awesome creatures, powerful and swift servants of God and more than capable of putting God’s enemies to flight.

And this is my main point, angels are not the sentimental syrupy and cute creatures we have often recast them to be. They are awesome, wonderful, and powerful servants of God. They are his messengers and they manifest God’s glory. They bear forth the power and majesty of God are immensely to be respected. They are surely also our helpers and, by God’s command act on our behalf.

A practice to be avoided is the practice of some to “name” their Guardian Angel, or to ask that the name of the angel be revealed. Regarding this practice, a document written in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship entitled Directory On Popular Piety in the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines says, “The practice of assigning names to the holy angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel Raphael and Michael, whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.” (# 127)

While the Congregation does not offer reasons for discouraging the practice, I would like to offer a couple.

First, there is the understanding of what a name is. For most of us in the modern Western world, a name is simply a sound we go by. But in the ancient, Biblical world, and even in many places today, a name has a far deeper meaning.  A name describes something of the essence of the person. This helps explains the ancient practice of the Jews to name the child on the eighth day. The delay gave the parents some time to observe something of the essence of the child, and then, noting it, they would name the child. Indeed most Biblical names are deeply meaningful, and descriptive.

But it is presumptive to think that we can know enough of the essence of a particular angel, in order to be able to assign a name. Hence, assigning a name seems inappropriate.

The second reason is that assigning a name indicates some superiority over the one named. Thus, in the case of children, parents, who are superior over their children, rightly name them. However, in the case of angels, they are superior to us. And, even though we often speak of them as serving us, they do this on account of their superior power and as guardians. Thus, God commands us to heed their voice (cf Ex 23:20-21)

So naming an angel does seem problematic, and to be discouraged. As for the name being revealed to a person by God or the Angel, let me respectfully offer that this is not likely the case, since it seems unlikely that an Angel, or the Holy Spirit, would act contrary to the directive of the Church, herself graced to speak for Christ.

What then is our proper reaction to the great gift of the angels? Sentimental thought may have its place, but what God especially commands of us toward our angel is obedience. Read what God said in the Book of Exodus:

Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. (Ex 23:21)

So our fundamental task is to hear and heed the voice of our angel. How, you might ask do we hear the voice of our Guardian Angel? I would suggest to you that we most hear the voice of our angel in our conscience. Deep down, we hear God’s voice, we know what is true and what is false. In terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. I am convinced that our conscience interacts with our Guardian Angel.

We like to try and rationalize what we do, explain away bad behavior, make excuses. But in the end, deep down inside, we know what we are doing and whether or not it is wrong. I am sure it is our angel who testifies to the truth in us and informs our conscience.

God’s command is clear: listen to and heed this voice. Respect this angel God has given you not so much with sentimental odes, but with sober obedience.

33 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    Msgr.,
    I would like to propose to you that there is a reason the Bible always refers to angels as “he.” It is true that they are pure sp3pits and do not have bodies, but neither does God and He is always “he” as well.
    This is because sex or gender is not primarily a physical anomaly. We as human beings are “male and female” because of our soul’s “masculinity or femininity.” Our soul is what animates the body and makes us who we are. Masculinity and femininity are cosmic principles; the physical reality is only an expression of that.
    So, even though angels do not have “gender” (a bodily trait, male and female), they do have sex (masculinity or femininity). God is spirit, but He is not she, and this difference between masculinity and femininity is most certainly applied to the angels as well, as attested by Scripture. (Not: there may very well be “feminine” angels, though, to my knowledge, they do not officially appear in the Bible, always being referred to as “he”.)

    • Matthew says:

      Ben:
      I would prefer to invert your terms: sex is physical, gender is “spiritual”. In this case we are all receivers from God (and the angels). We never stand in a relationship ‘above’ them as if we give them something they do not have. Hence I believe it appropriate to use the masculine pronoun in reference to them.
      This also opens up the question as to whether souls have gender. Aquinas would say no. I am not sure that I agree.
      Matthew

      • tz says:

        (Directed at the post more than as a reply) Has no one read CS Lewis “Perelandra”? Angels aren’t male and female, but I wouldn’t go beyond. Same with whether in Heaven – or more importantly in the resurrection of the BODY that we will be “neuter”. Saying our gender is merely temporal opens a can of worms affecting a lot of current issues, from who can be a priest to marriage. Do you really wish to go there?

  2. Will says:

    I agree with Ben. It seems that the spiritual persons of the Bible (the Persons of the Trinity, the angels, the devils) are always masculine. I have long thought that God, while not male, has revealed Himself as masculine. So He is always a He, even if He transcends sex. Same goes for the angels, or at least the ones named in the bible.

    I have always been taught that sex can be separated from gender, though gender cannot be separated from sex.. So, some sexless entities some languages other than English are either masculine or feminine. God, as a sexless entity, can still be masculine. On the other hand, traditionally, if an entity had a sex, it is referred to by the gender that corresponds to that sex. In the case of Jesus, who is both a Person of the Trinity and affirmatively Male, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around it. He is masculine as he is the everlasting Son of the Father. But he is also male, as he was begotten and made man (both in the sense of “human” and “male”.)

  3. justoni says:

    Thank you for this clarity, Msgr. Pope. It has always been an issue with me that some would make these magnificent beings into ‘precious’ servants to us. They are God’s and it is Him and only Him they serve and adore and with great distinction. Because of that, we benefit. I thank God for them.

  4. Annette Strachan says:

    Given by the angel, to the` three children of Fatima, Portugal’ in 1917, to learn, before Our Lady appeared to them, rarely heard now, is a beautiful prayer. “The Angel’s Prayer.”

  5. [...] diminished in the Church these days. And while it is good to see any devotion to them at all… Some attitudes and practices to avoid regarding the angels… __________________ Your socks stink. To view links or images in signatures your post count [...]

  6. Mr. Martin Savage says:

    Msgr., Another point, though obvious, which I found most helpful in understandig Angels is that they are ‘creatures’, just as we are creatures.

    Sort of helped me understand that they are nearer to us than God.

  7. Linus says:

    Our next best source on Angles besides the Catechism and the Scriptures is the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Questions 50-64. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1050.htm

  8. Vijaya says:

    You should see the plethora of books for young people featuring angels falling in love with humans. Thud! I guess vampires are on the way out …

    • Cynthia BC says:

      Well, I guess given a choice between vampires and angels, I’ll have to go with angels. One hopes their teeth aren’t as long and sharp, and that they’ve no need of human blood for sustenance.

  9. TaylorKH says:

    Good instruction. Thank you.

    You stated:

    “As for the name being revealed to a person by God or the Angel, let me respectfully offer that this is not likely the case, since it seems unlikely that an Angel, or the Holy Spirit, would act contrary to the directive of the Church, herself graced to speak for Christ.”

    I would suggest that this question could be answered satisfactorily within the context of whether each person really needs to know the name of their Guardian Angel or needs to have interactive conversations directly with their Guardian Angel. I don’t think we understand the angels as much as we would like. If they are talking to us, we don’t know how or when. Why not? Do they really “talk” to us? I’m not sure they do.

    In summary, my impression is that Guardian Angels receive our prayers and situations and deliver them to God, and then they deliver to us whatever God instructs them to – inspirations, instructions, graces, protections, healings, etc. If we were meant to have a personal relationship with our Guardian Angels, then the 99.9999999999999999999% of us who don’t, would be talking about what our Angels are saying. But, we’re not. It would be EXTREMELY unusual if more of us claimed personal friendships with Guardian Angels who look upon the Face of God. True?

  10. TaylorKH says:

    But, here is where I think my Guardian Angel may be helping me in routine ways…..He doesn’t talk to me, but he helps me by sending me reminders:

    1) He reminds me of what I have forgotten but should remember. This is a very kind and useful assistance. I don’t know where the sudden reminder comes from when I have forgotten something other than that it could be my Guardian Angel helping me. For example, I often forget to do something (like get a prayer book or send a special note or something like that) before leaving the house. Inevitably, he reminds AFTER I have set the alarm and am in my car backing away from the house. The Angel steps in at the very last minute – perhaps in hopes that I would first remember it on my own.
    2) He reminds me of what I ought to do.
    3) He alerts me to something I have done which is or may have been offensive.
    4) He wakes me up early when he knows I’m planning to go to early Mass but do not have an alarm clock

    So, I attribute these friendly helps to my Guardian Angel. I’m not sure how else to attribute them since I can not see how myself can be divided in two – one side which seems to be oblivious and the other side who keeps track of all of the “shoulds” and “oughts.” It must be my Guardian Angel. If so, he is very, very friendly to me – and very gentle.

  11. TaylorKH says:

    I have known others who have sensed that through their lives, especially tough times, that they were being carefully guarded and protected by an angel. It was not just the statement of a wish; it was a statement based upon sensing an unexplained, comforting presence which might, for example, bring them to tears of joy – that joy in knowing they are neither forgotten nor discarded.

  12. Matthew says:

    Msgr:
    I think you commit a logical fallacy when talking about naming angels. The Church tells us not to give a name to our angels. The Church does NOT command our angel not to reveal his name to us. I agree that I remain sceptical of these things and see dangers in them but there is a significant difference between us giving an angel a name and the angel giving us his name.
    Matthew

    • Just quotin the Congregation Matthew, the practice is to be discouraged. I’m not calling for a crusade against the practice, just issuing a gentle reminder. You might also consider backing off a bit in making unnecessary accusations about logical fallacies and all…. Save that kind of powder for bigger issues.

    • TaylorKH says:

      Matthew – in the spiritual world where expressions like “i am” are extremely important, it might be logical to conclude that “you are” is also extremely important. My opinion is that any name we try to give to our Guardian Angel will or could be an insult or an extremely ignorant (and potentially harmful) statement since it will almost surely not reflect reality. When the Lord teaches us to let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no,” [Mt 5:37], I think we miss the spiritual importance of this as regards truth and sincerety, and I would think that our Guardian Angels would be very keen to what is true and not true. So, for example, if you make up a name for your Guardian Angel, and that name is false, why would your Guardian Angel ever respond to a false name? I don’t think he would. Here’s the scenario which occurs by assigning a false name: Angel: “I don’t know who Matthew is talking to. Why isn’t he directing his petitions through me? That’s too bad. Whoever “Insert Name Here” is, he’s not going to do for Matthew what I could have been doing. This is not good. But may God be blessed for free will!”

  13. Greg V. says:

    Father,

    Thanks for a good review of the qualities of angels and our proper relationship with them.

    I found particularly interesting your point that angels are “awesome, wonderful, and powerful servants of God” who have caused fear when appearing to people in the Bible.

    That led me to two thoughts. First, how we might react upon meeting God Himself, who is of course infinitely greater than the angels. We really must strive to advance in holiness to best prepare ourselves for that meeting.

    Second, our enemies are the fallen angels, and they must have much the same qualities of the angels in Heaven, particularly being powerful themselves, and being much more intelligent and capable than we humans. We truly need our guardian angels to protect us every moment, or we would not stand a chance.

  14. Annette Strachan says:

    The Angel’s Prayer

    O most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly. I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges, and indifferences by which He is offended. And through the infinite merits of His Most Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg of you the conversion of poor sinners.

    [say three times]

  15. John Ashley says:

    The naming of Jesus illustrates the concept of being named by a superior. Joseph is told “.. and you shall call his name Jesus..” (Mt 1:21). Mary is told “.. and you shall call his name Jesus..” (Lk 1:31). The naming is not left to mere mortals even if they were Mary and Joseph.

  16. Marie says:

    How did the angels in the bible get their names? Were they named by God and their names revealed or were they named by men?

  17. Nathan says:

    Great post as always Msgr, I run across the whole confusion between saints and angels all too often, I blame It’s a Wonderful Life. I would echo Ben’s comment though, that while angels are NOT male or female, they ARE (or at least can be) either masculine or feminine. The conclusion “angels have no gender” doesn’t follow from the premise “angels are pure spirits” because God is a pure spirit and God has gender (although not biological sex, except for the Second Person of the Trinity, post incarnation).

  18. brian says:

    Ben is mistaken. God contains both masculine and feminine–he created mankind male and female in his image. He is called he because he is masculine *in relation to* his creation, not because his essence is predominantly male or female.

    Contrariwise, angels have neither masculinity nor femininity. They are called “he” because “he” in English is “unmarked”; it is the default.

    Thank you,

    Brian

    • Nathan says:

      I think we have to look at it a little closer and make sure to distinguish between “male and female (a biological concept)” and “masculine and feminine (a spiritual concept)”

      All things that exist are either created or uncreated. God, as you said, is “masculine *in relation to* his creation” (ie all created things). God is also masculine in relation to himself (The first person of the Trinity is neither ‘mother’ nor only ‘parent’ to the second person, but Father (and all fathers are masculine). Likewise the second divine person is neither ‘daughter’ nor only ‘child’ but Son in relation to the first person (and all sons are masculine). But God is the whole class of uncreated things, therefore God is masculine in relation to all uncreated things. Thus, God is masculine in relation to all things (all uncreated things and all created things), which shows that God is essentially masculine (b/c there is nothing that exists, or can exist, to which God is feminine or neuter).

      You are right when you say he is not “predominantly” male or female (better masculine or feminine) because he is not predominantly anything, being absolutely simply (i.e. without parts) and whatever lacks parts cannot be predominantly one thing and partially another. For the same reason, God doesn’t “contain” anything, rather he IS his attributes (God IS love, he doesn’t contain love – God IS being itself, he doesn’t contain being, etc). If God contained both masculine and feminine, then he would be composed of parts which he isn’t, being absolutely simple.

      You also correctly point out that God made men and women in his image, but not in a literal way, ie he is not a big person in the sky. He gifted humanity (ie human nature) with his divine image and human nature is equally shared by men and women, in this sense women (and men) are created in his image. This no more means God is feminine than the fact that both brunettes and blondes are made in the image of God means God contains both brown and blonde hair. Human nature itself (and therefore all who are human) is created in the divine image, but the various accidents that accompany human nature (sex, height, skin color, etc) are not each representations of the divine nature (ie God doesn’t have every human accident, or, for that matter, any accidents at all). Therefore it doesn’t follow that because women are feminine and women are created in the divine image that God is feminine.

      With this in mind, we see that purely spiritual beings can have gender, therefore we can’t conclude that angels lack gender simply because they are purely spiritual beings. In fact, all persons (God, humans, angels) have gender (no persons are neuter). Based off Biblical evidence, we can suggest that (at least some, possibly all) angels are masculine.

  19. Michael says:

    Thank you for the insights on angels….I was actually going to spend some time in trying to come up with what I thought was a suitable name for my guardian angel, I think I will now spend more time in quite making sure I can recognize his/her voice

    Blessings

  20. Peter Wolczuk says:

    There seems to be a huge push going on to rob the passion from religion, especially conserning passion that is uncomfortably real. Many churches seem to negate the serious nature of sin, which resulted in my departure from them and into a Catholic faith where, in The Sacrament of Reconciliation, I face that there are spiritual consequences to my actions and that foregiveness is not to be rationalized as being inevitable.
    Cutsey cherubims portrayed as looking like a girl’s doll and, that do nothing to disturb our self deception, are another illusion that is used to falsly justify an escape of the tough lessons of the New Testament; such as when we are told that, although salvation may seem impossible, it is possible with God. Perhaps the many who experience change from last to first (He said “many”, and not all) are those who follow the tough suggestions of placing our resources (treasure) in heaven instead of squandering them on earth for extreme comfort and for stealing adoration that belongs to God. Matthew 19:24-30 Mark 10:24-27 Luke 18:23-27 on salvation and Matthew 6:19&20 for treasue in heaven.
    Two dreams where an angel, in one case, and several angels on a ladder like arrangement, in another case, offered an alternative to my negative behaviour – an alternative that required extra effort in both cases – resulted in a better outcome.
    I readily acknowledge the prescence of angels in my life and, that they serve the challenges which God inspires me to take rather than the escape into false comfort which worldly ways suggest.

  21. Deo volente says:

    Monsignor,

    A great book on angels is “Angels and Demons” by Professor Peter Kreeft. He has all the statements in your list and adds more. Since angels are beyond time and space, they can “bilocate.” This means that they can watch over us while still seeing the face of Almighty God. One segment I found fascinating is that each angel is unique and no two are alike in intelligence or ability. The book is a real treasure as is the prayer to Guardian Angels by Saint Gertrude which I pray every day. She was a mystic so I regard her opinions highly.

    D.v.

  22. RichardC says:

    This is the neatest thing I ever learned about angels:

    “I answer that, Some have said that all spiritual substances, even souls, are of the one species. Others, again, that all the angels are of the one species, but not souls; while others allege that all the angels of one hierarchy, or even of one order, are of the one species.

    But this is impossible. For such things as agree in species but differ in number, agree in form, but are distinguished materially. If, therefore, the angels be not composed of matter and form, as was said above (Article 2), it follows that it is impossible for two angels to be of one species” St. Thomas Aquinas, S.T. (1, 50, 4)

  23. VistaNow says:

    Thank you Monsignor Pope, you have strengthened my Faith with this post. I now have a better understanding of Angels. One question at the beginning of the world seem to recall that angels came down from heaven and married humans, however not to soon after that the world was destroyed by a flood, so although angels are pure spirit as you described they can take on human appearance, is that correct?

  24. Cathy says:

    In the “God, Man & the Universe” course at Catholic Distance University, the anthology of readings contained the chapter “I believe in angels” from the short book, “My Angel will go before you” by Georges Huber. Fascinating reading. In particular, I was impressed by the special devotion of Pope Pius XI to the guardian angels. In his diplomatic missions, he always sent his angel ahead in advance to come to an agreement with the angel of the other person, so as to favorably influence the attitude of that person. I have taken up this practice myself and often send my angel ahead to assist others or to smooth my way.

  25. Leo says:

    This message is very informative and useful. It should be preached more often. I am over 60 and have never heard this instruction on how to show devotion to Angels properly. I believe I learned a good deal from this. Thank you.

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