One of the first prayers many cradle Catholics are taught is directed to their guardian angels: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule, to guide. Amen.”
But while Scripture frequently mentions angels assisting mankind, it does not specifically state that each person is guarded by a particular angel.
Even in the Catechism, guardian angels receive just a short paragraph of explanation: “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their (guardian angels’) 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.”
Still, the Church celebrates a feast for the guardian angels on Oct. 2. So where did this idea come from? And how does it all work?
The Pillar brought our questions about all things guardian angels to several Catholic theologians and experts to find out more.
What do we actually know about angels?
Philip Porter, PhD, is a theologian at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, and wrote his dissertation on the fall of the angels.
Porter said that while the idea of personal guardian angels is a broadly held belief in the Church, it is not a doctrine of the Church - that is, it is not a belief neccesary for salvation, or binding upon Catholics.
The number of doctrinal matters that the Church has defined as definitively true are relatively few, he said. As for angels, there are one a handful of things that the Church can say it definitively knows about them.
“The big ones are that they're created - they're not gods, they're not something standing alongside God, they are creatures. They are created good. It’s not as though God made bad angels. The angels have the power of an intellect and a will, and when they use their will to defect from God, they are fallen angels, and they fall precisely from the goodness in which they were created.”
Another important teaching about angels is that they are engaged in a great cosmic war - the heavenly angels versus the fallen angels, also known as demons.
“We hear about this in Revelation 12 in particular, and this is mentioned a couple of times in Church documents,” he said. “Humans sort of enter into this war that's been raging between the demons and the holy angels.”
“Those are the basics about angels, generally,” Porter said. “You have other things that could be deduced from Scripture and certainly are licit positions to hold, but aren't doctrinally defined. Guardian angels are one of those. There are good reasons to think (they exist), but it's not something that the Church has thought that she needs to make a definitive statement on.”
Guardian angels in Scripture
While the idea of personal guardian angels is not explicitly defined by the Church or in Scripture, there are passages in Scripture that may suggest their existence. In the Old Testament, there are numerous examples of angels of the Lord that are sent to guard and protect humanity. The Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 91: “For he commands his angels with regard to you, to guard you wherever you go. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
In a more extended case, Porter added, the angel Raphael in the whole book of Tobit could be seen as acting in the capacity of a guardian angel.
“Raphael seems particularly invested in the life of this one particular family,” Porter noted. “...the whole Book of Tobit is in some ways about this elaborate plan that Raphael is hatching.”
Fr. John Kartje, a theologian and the rector of Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, told The Pillar that the book of Tobit is the “granddaddy example” of all Scriptural references to guardian angels.
“It's a wonderful story of Tobit’s son Tobiah who goes on this journey that’s ultimately going to end in his marriage and his family. And there's all sorts of dangers he has to deal with, including literally battling an evil demon. And the angel Raphael is assigned to his protection,” Kartje said.
While the story of Raphael is not an exact parallel of the way guardian angels as understood today, “it is the one case (in Scripture) where you have an angel who is definitely set on a very particular mission, which is to protect this guy. And it's just that - it's protection. He doesn't do the work for (Tobiah),” Kartje noted. “He clears the way for Tobiah, but Tobiah still has to do the work of his humanity, of the mission that he’s on.”
In the New Testament, there is even more evidence for the existence of guardian angels, Porter noted. He cited two examples:
In Matthew 18:10, Jesus tells his disciples: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”
In Acts 12:15, Peter, just freed by an angel from prison, goes to Mary’s (the mother of Mark) house. While Mary is convinced she sees Peter, her houseguests tell her that she must be mistaken, and instead she might be seeing “his angel.”
“So in both these cases, the key that makes them interesting for thinking about guardian angels is the possessive form,” Porter said. In Matthew 18, it is “their” angels, and in Acts, they speak of “his angel.”
Andrew Salzmann, an associate professor of theology at Benedictine College in Kansas, told The Pillar that Acts 12 also demonstrates that the earliest Christians had a belief in personal angels who guard and protect people.
“The first Christians in the book of Acts had this idea that there was an angel that accompanied and helped people. It’s kind of a passing glance at that, but it's an important verse for confirming that the first Christians had this idea in their minds.”
Guardian angels and the Church Fathers
Besides Scripture, the early Church fathers addressed guardian angels in their writings and homilies.
Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, was perhaps one of the most prolific writers on guardian angels.
It was Origen who talked about two angels that “attend each human being” in his homilies on Luke. In contemporary thought, Porter said these would be like the “shoulder angels” that are sometimes depicted in modern cartoons.
“One is an angel of justice, the other an angel of iniquity. If good thoughts are present in our hearts and justice springs up in our souls, the angel of the Lord is undoubtedly speaking to us. But, if evil thoughts turn over in our hearts, the devil’s angel is speaking to us,” Origen wrote in one of his homilies on Luke.
While the Church has not stated definitively that the “shoulder angel” theory is correct, Porter said, it does show that the early Church fathers generally held the view that each person is attended by a personal angel.
“You've got this pretty early gestation (of the idea of guardian angels) from Origen, thinking about not just an angel, but also demons warring over a particular person's fate and each of them capable of making suggestions to the person,” he said.
Salzmann said Origen drew much of his thought on guardian angels from the Shepherd of Hermas, an important early Christian work that some Church Fathers considered to be canonical, though it was ultimately not included in the Roman Catholic canon.
“The Shepherd of Hermas is about this liberated slave named Hermas. And he's visited by an angel while he’s sitting and praying at home,” Salzmann said. “And Hermas says, this man of glorious aspect dressed like a shepherd walked into the room and saluted him and said, ‘I've been sent by a most venerable angel to dwell with you the remaining days of your life. So we get this idea of guardian angels in some of the earliest post-Biblical literature in the second century,” he said, which would have influenced the thought of Origen.
St. Jerome, a fourth century Church father, theologian, and Doctor of the Church, famously said of guardian angels: “How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.”
When are guardian angels assigned - at conception, birth, or baptism?
The short answer?
“It’s tricky,” Porter said.
That is because angels, like God, do not experience time in the same way that humans do. While they are created beings, and therefore have a beginning, they exist in “God’s eternity” and are continuously beholding God face to face, he said.
“The kind of relation that God bears to time is tricky for us to think about,” Porter said. “Augustine talks about it as the Eternal Now, Today the capital T. God is always present to all moments of time, wherever they are...so we might be able to think similarly about angels, that they participate in this kind of mode of relation to creation.”
The Catechism passage on guardian angels talks about an angel standing beside “each believer,” which lends credence to the theory that they are assigned to baptized individuals only.
But Kartje said that generally, the tradition of the Church holds that all people, regardless of baptism status, have a guardian angel, which is stated explicitly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa.
“He goes back to this quote by St. Jerome (quoted earlier in this article)...which says that the protection of the angels is afforded to us in our humanity. It's not tied to baptismal grace,” Kartje said. “(St. Jerome) just says ‘a soul’, which is not a baptized entity, a soul is just part of our anthropology...so every soul is so great that from birth, each one has an angel.”
Whether each soul’s angel appears at conception or at birth is slightly harder to parse out. The Catechism simply says they are present from “infancy.” St. Jerome said that guardian angels arrive at birth.
St. Thomas Aquinas also favors the understanding that guardian angels appear at birth.
“...it can be said with some degree of probability, that the angel who guards the mother guards the child while in the womb. But at its birth, when it becomes separate from the mother, an angel guardian is appointed to it, as Jerome says,” Aquinas wrote in the Summa.
“The majority of the tradition does say guardian angels (are present) from birth,” Salzmann added.
How does their guardianship work? Do they protect against physical as well as spiritual dangers?
Like God, Kartje noted, guardian angels respect each person’s free will and would never force them to do something.
“God can use angels...through the power of influence,” he said, “by presenting a message or an invitation, because we're not robots or puppets.”
A Scriptural example of this can be seen in the Annunciation, Kartje said, where Mary is invited by the angel Gabriel to be the mother of Jesus.
“Gabriel doesn’t say to Mary, ‘I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,’” Kartje said. Mary had the freedom to choose to accept the offer, but the presence of the angel, “the sheer beauty and intimacy of the messenger, you could say assisted Mary in embracing the offer.”
Also in Scripture, Kartje said, angels inspire Joseph multiple times in dreams, such as inspiring him to take Mary as his wife after he considers divorcing her quietly. The angels don’t scare Joseph into action, Kartje noted, rather they encourage him to do God’s will.
Or when an angel visits Joseph in his dreams and tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, “the angel doesn't grab Joseph by the hand,” Kartje said. “Ultimately, (Joseph is) the one who acts upon it.”
Salzmann noted that patristic scholar Jean Cardinal Danielou wrote of three main duties of guardian angels.
“(Danielou) is trying to synthesize the teachings of the Church Fathers, and he writes of the angel of peace, the angel of penitence, and the angel of prayer,” Salzmann said. The angel of peace, Salzmann said, works to provide both external and internal peace for a person.
“St. Athanasius says the angel of peace ‘works softly and peaceably, awakening joy and exultation’ in our heart,” he said.
The angel of penitence is an idea the Church Fathers took from Scripture, Salzmann said, particularly from a blessing that Jacob gives his son Joseph in the book of Genesis.
“In the course of this blessing, (Jacob) just mentions in passing, ‘the angel who redeemed me from all evil’. So, that inspires the Church Fathers to say - using the Shepherd of Hermas and using Origen - that the angels direct and guide our souls and move us to repentance,” he said.
Origen went even so far as to say that guardian angels can punish people for wrongdoing, Salzmann added, as a father would punish his children.
“And then the third thing that they do is what the Church Fathers called the angel of prayer,” Salzmann said.
Drawing from Matthew 18:10, which says that the angels of the little ones “always look upon the face of my heavenly Father,” Origen concludes that guardian angels are great intercessors of prayer for those they guard.
“Origen says we have to suppose that the angels are the overseers and the ministers of God, and that they are present to one who is praying in order to ask with him for that which he prays. The angel...of each one, even of the little ones in the Church, are always seeing the face of the Father who is in heaven, beholding the divinity of our Creator, praying with us and cooperating with us as far as it's possible.”
As for whether guardian angels can provide physical as well as spiritual protection, Porter said that Church tradition would say that they can do both.
“Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas think angels are deeply involved in the administration and governance of the cosmos,” Porter said. “God works through angels to govern the cosmos. Thomas says that they play a “presidential role” - that is, they preside over and administer the cosmos, and Augustine says that each and every physical thing in the world has a spiritual power pointed over it.”
“We know that angels are capable of interacting with the material world,” Porter added. “We see this in Scripture.”
One example is in Genesis 18, when angels appear to Abraham and appear to be eating with Abraham and talking to him, as any other human would do.
“Again in the book of Tobit, the angel Raphael has all sorts of adventures in the flesh, in some sort of body he’s manipulating in the created order in such a way as to appear to be human,” Porter said. “I think there's no reason to say that angel angelic action is limited simply to the intellectual or spiritual realm, they can certainly act upon the physical world.”
The belief that angels can provide physical protection as well as spiritual protection is reflected in some blessings used by the Church, Salzmann added, such as the blessing for travelers, which invokes the protection of guardian angels for the journey.
What happens to our guardian angels after we die? Do they go on to guard other people?
“There is no crystal clear answer to that,” Kartje said.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that angels would never forsake a person they are guarding, Kartje said, but that guardianship seems unnecessary after death.
“Once you go to heaven, then that protection obviously is no longer needed,” he said. “If they’re in hell? There's no protection that the angels can offer them there. And also, in purgatory.”
While purgatory requires a cleansing kind of suffering, Kartje said, people who are in purgatory no longer experience temptation, and the suffering is a “necessary suffering” that angels would not protect against.
Porter said that he tends to think that angels are only ever assigned to one person, though he said there could be valid arguments made otherwise.
“We might think in terms of God's generosity,” Porter said. “God has given each of us a guardian angel, and it is that angel’s purpose in creation is to be for us, helping to guide our life, and bringing it to successful completion, and that angel will have accomplished its role when you're in heaven, rejoicing with it. That would be, in some sense, the success story of the guardian angel.”
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And finally, perhaps the most controversial question of them all: should you name your guardian angel?
In some Catholic circles, there is a debate that circulates every so often about whether one should name their guardian angel. Often some kind of prayer and reflection is done, and then it is thought that the person will be inspired with the name of their guardian angel on their hearts.
Articles abound on the internet with how-tos for naming guardian angels, as well as arguments for why it should not be done - most notably that the claim that it could open the door to unknowing interactions with a demon rather than an angel.
“It's something that my students ask me periodically about,” Porter said, “and I honestly don't know much about the practice, but I'll just say, it does seem sort of strange.”
There are three named angels in the bible, Porter said: Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael.
“Those are the ones we need to know,” he said. “I don’t think you need to know the name of your guardian angel, or even if it makes sense...it makes it seem as though your guardian angels is your pet.”
“Parents can name their children,” he added, “but you’re not in a position to be giving a name to an angel...it’s just not a fitting kind of practice.”
But while he discourages people from naming their guardian angels, he does encourage them to pray to their guardian angels and invoke their protection.
“It's good to ask for their intercession, it's good to ask them to care for you, and it's good to thank God for the spiritual goods that he grants to you through them,” he said.