Why write about the angels in a column devoted to saints? Because the Church honors angels as well as saints in the liturgy. The three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are given a Mass on September 29, and on October 2 there is a Mass of the Guardian Angels.
Granted, we can’t imitate angels as we can imitate saints. Since angels are pure spirits without bodies, we can’t even see them, much less copy their good ways. But they are like human saints in that they live with God, so we can surely ask them to help us just as we ask saints to help us.
The whole subject of angels is staggeringly wonderful. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament tell us of these spirits created by God. There are “Thousands upon thousands” of them, says the Book of Daniel (7:10). They are “countless in number” says the Book of Revelation (5:10). One of their tasks is to praise God (“Bless the Lord, all you his angels,” says Psalm 103). Another is to go on missions assigned them by God. (That is why they are called “angels”. The Greek word angelos means “messenger”.)
What missions does God assign them to? A few are related in the Scriptures, like that of the angel who rolled away the stone of Christ’s sepulchre. How many more tasks they have is past imagining. St. Hilary wrote sixteen centuries ago: “You might wish to understand these angels as the eyes or the ears or the hands or the feet of God.”
Their role as guardians of human beings is probably the one that interests us most. Psalm 91 says “To His angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.” Our Lord, in turn, said of the children gathered before him, “See that you never despise one of these little ones. I assure you, their angels in heaven constantly behold your heavenly father’s face.” (Mt. 18:20). And in the Acts of the Apostles, when St. Peter was miraculously released from jail and came knocking at the door of John Mark’s house, the disciples, sure that their leader was still in prison, said of the person knocking at the door, “It must be his angel.”
Now, the Church has never actually defined as an article of faith that God gives to each human being a guardian angel. It could be defined, certainly, because it is an accepted part of Catholic teaching. The fact that for centuries we have had a Mass in honor of the guardian angels confirms that teaching.
It is not in the liturgy alone that Christians have honored the guardian angels. Private devotion to them is very ancient and praiseworthy. One prayer that has come out of this devotion is the Angele Dei. It dates from 12th-century England, and was probably composed by Raymond of Canterbury.
What are you and I doing to acknowledge the presence and aid of our own guardian angel? He certainly deserves our prayers and thanks, considering all he has done to protect us whether we realized it or not. (The theologian Origen even wrote in the third century: “To every man there are two attending angels, one of justice and the other of wickedness.” The angel of justice is our bodyguard.)
Even though few people have been permitted to see their guardians (St. Frances of Rome was one), we know the angels exist, as St. Augustine says, through our faith. The least we could do is to say the Angele Dei in our morning or night prayers. Remember its familiar English translation? “Angel of God, my guardian dear,/ To whom His love commits me here;/ Ever this day (or night) be at my side,/ To light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”
–Father Robert F McNamara