The secretary of the International Theological Commission provides a clarification about the nature and mission of our celestial companions.
After disappearing from most theological and philosophical think tanks of the modern era, the questions related to angelology have recently made a comeback in the West through postmodern spiritual movements like the New Age.
This growing interest towards angels in contemporary societies, however, is giving rise to dangerous distortions of the Christian metaphysical conception of the world.
Alerted by the numerous perversions of this important element of the Christian faith, Father Serge-Thomas Bonino, secretary of the International Theological Commission and dean of the faculty of philosophy of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, applied himself to provide solid theological foundations to the belief in the existence of angels through his book Angels and Demons: A Catholic Introduction.
Padre Pio tirelessly reaffirmed the importance of prayer to one's own guardian angel, and for his part Father Bonino is convinced that the angelic figure gives human creatures a foretaste of the beauty and greatness of God. According to him, the estrangement of many Christians from their celestial companions, combined with the current climate of spiritual confusion, highlights the urgent need to speak about these intermediary spirits between the human and divine realms as an avenue for evangelization.
At the approach of the feast of the holy archangels, Sept. 29, and that of the guardian angels, Oct. 2, the Register sought his valuable insights into this too-often-neglected spiritual subject.
You often denounce a "hijacking" of angelology by New Age movements, while Christians themselves have been gradually turning away from it. How do you explain such a phenomenon?
First of all, it is important to say that angels are not central to Christianity; the central question is the mystery of God and that of Christ. Their existence is nevertheless a fact that the Scripture and the Tradition of the Church have always maintained, deepened and supported. Thus, this is not an optional truth, although it is not an essential one.
I think that, over the past centuries, in Christianity, there has been in some way a desire to demythologize the Christian faith in a way that has not always been relevant and smart. To put it in a more popular way, we sometimes threw the baby out with the bathwater.
For sure, in ancient times, the figure of angels was connected to a certain cosmology which is no longer ours. But the existence of angels and their actions in the life of the Church, as well as in human beings' lives, has always been a very present element in the Scripture, and the Church has always taught this truth. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a very important part dedicated to the invisible world that we also mention in the Creed ("all things visible and invisible").
Then I am afraid that angels as they are presented in New Age spiritualities have very little to do with Christian angels. They are not really spiritual beings, but kinds of ghosts or "doubles." They are a figment of imagination. So the belief in angels must always be evangelized. It means that one must think about the world and especially about angels according to the great mysteries of Christianity, not according to one's own imagination or projections.
Is the loss of consideration for guardian angels a consequence of the loss of popular faith within Christian cultures and societies?
The doctrine related to guardian angels is intrinsically connected to the faith in divine Providence. It is probably the faith in Providence that suffers the most from a certain weakness nowadays. We saw it during the coronavirus crisis. God was never really considered this whole time. The best thing that many people said was just that God supported the sick and the efforts of the medical staff, but the fact that cosmos and events are all in God's hands is no longer that obvious for many Christians, unfortunately.
So I believe that the devotion to guardian angels is a way to recall that Providence has a daily dimension and is part of the very details of our lives.
What is the guardian angel's specific role in the human life?
Guardian angels are an instrument of Providence. They aren't indifferent executors, because everything they do is the fruit of their own charity towards us. One thing we often tend to forget is that angels are part of the Communion of Saints. In heaven, they participate in the joy of the vision of God. They are united to God, and, therefore, they want what God wants: our salvation. They want human beings to sanctify themselves. Thus, guardian angels are, out of love, at the service of human beings to guide them on the path that leads them to God.
However, as everyone may know, this path is full of pitfalls. So we need our guardian angels' help, which can take a thousand different forms. He can inspire us with good thoughts and resolutions. I like to quote the beautiful film Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, in which we see guardian angels going around the city of Berlin. In a scene taking place in a bus in Berlin, we see a totally desperate man. He thinks he wasted his life; he even considers suicide. At this point, we see a guardian angel appearing (the character doesn't see him) and putting his arm around his shoulders, without saying anything. We can feel that he is transmitting something. We hear the man's internal rumination suddenly stop, while, little by little, his thoughts start going in another direction. He starts seeing some positive aspects about his life: He remembers a nice gesture he received from a friend, he remembers the people who care about him, and he finally starts taking new heart.
This scene is, in my view, a very beautiful way to explain the guardian angels' action that can inspire us with good thoughts and desires. They can also act on external circumstances of our lives to protect us in difficult times, to avoid accidents, favor encounters with other people, and so on. All these actions belong to Providence, which is made concrete through them.
The feast of the Guardian Angels really is a celebration of divine Providence that uses every creature to guide us toward our Creator. These creatures can, of course, be angels, our cousins in heaven, but also our parents, friends or priests.
What are the main mistakes of the postmodern conception of angels?
There is a first mistake, which is not specifically postmodern, as Christians can also make it, and that is a kind of infantilization of the relationship with one's guardian angel, thinking that he is here to fulfill all of our desires. But our guardian angels are not meant to execute our wishes but to achieve God's desires for us, to make us want what God wants for us.
Then I think that the postmodern angel is kind of a reaction to the desiccating of our relationship to the cosmos. Since the cosmos is seen as a sort of big inert machine that only science would be allowed to explain — as it is the case in the contemporary mentality — then dreams are needed. Therefore, we [as a secular society] offset the dryness and disenchantment of the world by reenchanting it in a purely anthropocentric way, imagining weird creatures which would be at our service. They are no longer creatures at the service of God's plans. It is the great difference between the Christian angels and the figures we can find in contemporary culture.
What is the concrete difference between archangels and guardian angels?
In the Scripture, we find several categories of angels. It was later systematized by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in his work on the celestial hierarchy, distinguishing nine categories of angels. In this hierarchy, the highest angels, the cherubim and seraphim, are those who are more turned towards adoration of God. All angels adore God, but some of them are more dedicated to this. The other angels, who are closer to the human world, are commissioned by God to help human beings on earth. The "lowest" category — if I may use that term, considering they are already infinitely high — are simple angels. And right above are the archangels, who all have important missions with regard to human history. It is, for instance, Archangel Gabriel who announced the news of the Incarnation to Mary. These categories were never formally defined by the Church, but they are part of a venerable tradition. So let's say archangels are above guardian angels, like a general is above a soldier.
What power do angels have on fallen angels, on their actions?
They have the power to carry out God's orders against demons. So their power over demons depends on God's power over demons. God lets the devil do things that can somehow be good for a person. For instance, he can let a demon tempt us in order to make us stronger, to make us able to show more charity in our life, to grow spiritually. But God can also prevent some demonic actions because it would damage his design, and angels always accomplish his will. Therefore, they are able to prevent some of the demons' actions against human beings.
St. Thomas Aquinas used to say that a guardian angel is assigned to every human creature since his conception, in order to avert the dangers coming from demons, who obviously want the death of humans.
What is angels' specific intercession power, in comparison with saints?
They have the same power. Angels, precisely because they belong to the Communion of Saints, pray for us. This is why we invoke them during the Litany of the Saints, and we even start with them, after the Virgin Mary.
But angels have a double mediation, in other words, an ascendant and a descendant mediation. On the one hand, they bring and transmit to us the tenderness of God; and on the other hand, they make us go up to God in prayer and intercede for us. This is why the Bible says that they offer incense to God, as incense is the symbol of prayer that goes up to God. We see this clearly in sacred Scripture that tells us angels ascend above the Son of Man, that is to say, they make our prayers rise towards God and then come down to bring us God's blessings, by transmitting to us good thoughts and graces.
How could the Church reappropriate angelology, taking advantage of the current growing interest of people for these celestial creatures?
We must continue evangelizing people's beliefs with regard to angels, as the Church always did in the past. I think that our teaching about angels mustn't occupy center stage but that it is important, since it reminds us of the spiritual dimension of existence.
The simple fact to think of an angelic world, that is a purely spiritual world, would be a good way to fight the world's underlying materialism and make people understand that there aren't only material realities. The preaching about angels invites us to have a greater and more beautiful idea of God, as the Liturgy of the Holy Angels — that we are about to celebrate — recalls. In fact, the prefacesays: "For the honor we pay the angelic creatures in whom you delight redounds to your own surpassing glory, and by their great dignity and splendor you show how infinitely great you are, to be exalted above all things."
Thinking about the beauty of the angelic world gives a glimpse of the beauty and greatness of God.
Nowadays, when thinking about what a human being is, two references come to one's mind.
The first one is a monkey. We teach children that human beings are a sort of improved monkey. It is true that we have a rooting in the animal world, that's for sure. But recalling the fact that we also have a rooting in the spiritual world and that our closest cousins may not be chimpanzees, but angels, makes our perception of humankind change. We are called to such a reflection when the Lord says that we will be "like the angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). He doesn't say that we will be like chimpanzees on their banana trees, but like angels.
The second model is a robot. When we try to think about the human person, we tend to compare him with what a robot can do or cannot do. And thinking that our true model, through which we must regard ourselves, is an angel rather than a robot helps put the human person in his rightful place.
He is given a sense of his greatness, and it makes him understand he is not a kind of failed robot because some of his functions don't always work very well, nor a kind of super-monkey, but an incarnate angel cousin. Indeed, through his soul, the human being is in close contact with the spiritual world of angels. It is a good way to get closer to God. So angels can be good intermediaries to bring us to God.
Is there any specific prayer to the holy angels that you often say and would recommend to our readers?
I would mention, of course, the Prayer to Our Guardian Angel. And there are very beautiful prayers during Mass for the feasts of the holy archangels and guardian angels. Then we can pray to them very simply and directly, like we pray to saints.
Just like Archangel Raphael guided young Tobiah (Tobias) during the course of his journey to Ecbatana, we can invoke him, too, asking him to be our traveling companion, both for a physical trip and for our spiritual journey towards God.
Solène Tadié, "Amazing Facts Every Catholic Should Know About Angels." National Catholic Register (September 29, 2020).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Solène Tadié is the Europe Correspondent for the National Catholic Register. She is French-Swiss and grew up in Paris. After graduating from Roma III University with a degree in journalism, she began reporting on Rome and the Vatican for Aleteia. She joined L’Osservatore Romano in 2015, where she successively worked for the French section and the Cultural pages of the Italian daily newspaper. Solène has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.Copyright © 2020 National Catholic Register
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