The doctrine on angels is not fantasist. No, it’s reality. According to church tradition we all have an angel with us, who protects us and helps us understand things.— Pope Francis in his October 2 homily on the Memorial of the Guardian Angels.
This week the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael on Monday, and the memorial of the Guardian Angels on Thursday. But how strongly do Catholics believe in these beings?
Three years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI urged the faithful to call upon guardian angels — one for every human being, according to Christian belief — for help throughout their lives. In his homily on the Guardian Angels two days ago, Pope Francis reiterated his predecessor’s message.
“How is my relationship with my guardian angel?” the Holy Father said.
“Do I listen to him? Do I say good morning to him? Do I ask him to watch over me when I sleep? … No one journeys alone and no one should think that they are alone.”
But in truth, many of the faithful don’t acknowledge or feel the presence of angels, let alone converse with them.
While Scripture and tradition speak volumes about angels, with Jesus Christ Himself saying that children’s angels constantly behold God, the modern age frowns upon notions unproven by empirical observation. Even those who believe in God rarely speak of angels, perhaps to avoid being labeled superstitious, or because they have never seen or even sensed any angelic presence.
Priests too don’t talk very often about heavenly spirits. For readers regularly attending Mass, when did you last hear the celebrant discuss angels or devils? There used to be a prayer to St. Michael said after every Mass, decreed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 after seeing a vision of the Archangel battling devils. It was made optional in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council.
Angels in America
Still, according to a 2007 survey of more than 35,000 Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center, seven out of ten (68 percent, to be exact) believed “angels and devils are active in the world,” said the summary report.
This conviction seems to be mainly Christian: most Jews (73 percent), Buddhists (56 percent), Hindus (55 percent), and unaffiliated respondents (54 percent) do not share it.
A 2009 poll by survey giant Nielsen’s Harris subsidiary had similar results: 72 percent of American adults believed in angels, about the same as those whose faith included miracles (76 percent), heaven (75 percent), Jesus as God or Son of God (73 percent), the afterlife (71 percent), and Christ’s resurrection (70 percent).
Again, religion influenced belief. More Catholics held the above-mentioned doctrines than the national average: 94 percent believed in God, 86 percent in heaven, 90 percent in Jesus’s divinity, 83 percent in angels, 82 percent in life after death, and 87 percent in Christ rising from the dead.
However, most Catholics believed in evolution (51 percent vs. 45 percent for all respondents), while only a third of Protestants were convinced by the 19th Century theory of the British scientist Charles Darwin. Instead, Protestants held fast to creationism: 56 percent vs. 40 percent for all Americans.
As in the Pew poll, Jews saw things differently: only 36 percent believed in angels, and just one in five in creation, although both concepts are in Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah, which comprises the first five tomes of the Bible’s Old Testament.
Of course, for those seeking scientific evidence, prevailing notions in society hold zero weight sans empirical proof. After all, before their Renaissance, Europeans thought the sun and other heavenly bodies orbited the earth.
Until 19th Century French scientist Louis Pasteur persuasively proved that germs caused disease, people blamed evil spirits, nasty air, or bad luck. Widespread ignorance or error does not make false notions true.
Actions speak louder than words
One must also ask whether people who say they believe in religious or supernatural things actually act according to them. Surveys on religious faith should also find out if those who say they believe in angels actually speak with them, sense their presence and action, or otherwise behave as they purportedly believe.
Ditto with other doctrines like the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Eucharist, and even God’s existence. If a professed Catholic does not pray at all to Mary, Jesus or God, and shows no high regard for the consecrated host by kneeling before it and receiving it, does he really believe in these core tenets of his avowed faith?
A baptized believer who scrupulously follows feng shui in designing his home, but does not make space for a place of prayer, seems to believe in geomancy more than Christianity. Plainly, a faith not seen in a claimed believer’s life may be weak, if not false. Actions speak louder than words.
That may be one message in last Sunday’s Gospel reading where Jesus compared two sons, one who declined his father’s wish, but did it anyway; and another who said yes, but failed to follow. Avowed believers must show their faith in action, or else they are behaving like the second son.
On the other hand, going through the outward motions of one’s faith, from kneeling and praying to attending Mass and receiving communion, may also constitute ritual practice with no deep relationship the supernatural. Bowing before the altar and crossing oneself while passing a church must reflect an inner belief, or else they are empty gestures.
The Church, especially under Francis, goes further and admonishes the faithful to practice the tenets of Jesus Christ, especially love for one another, caring for the poor, and living righteous lives.
That’s why in June, Francis said of Catholics in criminal syndicates, many of whom attend Mass and contribute to the Church: “Those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the mafia, they are not with God, they are excommunicated.”
So where does all this leave the angels? Pretty much where God is. Both offer guidance, protection and aid to those who open their souls and lives to them.
Many people do: according to a 2008 survey by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, 55 percent of Americans believe “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel,” though only 37 percent among those earning over $150,000 a year.
But others don’t bother with matters divine or angelic, including many who dismiss as untrue anything unverified by science. And at life’s end, the truth will out.