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BY John M. Grondelski
Is it just me or does it not seem that, at a time when everybody is talking about angels, we Catholics have clammed up on the subject?
Protestants are talking about angels. Billy Graham's bestseller Angels: God's Secret Agents, one of the most popular of his many book titles, has sold well over 3 million copies.
TV has joined in the act. “Highway to Heaven” was a hit in the 1980s. “Touched by an Angel” won the same popularity in the 1990s and is still going strong.
Angels have even caught on in secular reading circles. Just take a walk through any popular bookstore and you'll probably see an entire shelf dedicated to angels — yet precious few Catholic works among the titles.
It simply seems as though angelology has fallen silent in Catholic circles. Well, as a Catholic and a theologian, I'll say it: I believe in angels.
And I'll be reflecting on that belief come March 26, Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. After all, the Annunciation reminds us that, when God was ready to send Christ to redeem the world, he called on an angel to set the plan in motion. (This year the Church observes the Annunciation on March 26 because the traditional date, the 25th, falls on a Lenten Sunday.)
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary,” St. Luke tells us. “And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’”
Thanks to his rightfully well-publicized role in salvation history, along with the fact that we know his name, Gabriel is an easy angel to remember. But he's also a reminder that angels are not only real — they are part of the communion of saints. Just as we Catholics have cultivated a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, it is fitting that we cultivate a devotion to the angels. As Vatican II reminds us, the road to heaven is not for lone rangers.
Salvation is never won alone; we are saved in community. We are saved in the Church.
Our culture puts a tremendous emphasis on individualism. Just think of our cultural icons. Horatio Alger “pulling himself up by his bootstraps.” The Marlboro Man, a solitary figure astride his horse with the Grand Tetons behind and endless sunsets ahead. Frank Sinatra crooning “I did it my way.”
We will never get to heaven our way. We'll get there Christ's way, or not at all. But Christ's way is not an easy way — we're going to need help to complete the journey.
That's where some of my favorite players in the salvation drama come in: guardian angels.
Their Father's Eyes
It is extraordinarily consoling to remember that God so loves us that he entrusts us to a companion for life's journey, one who sees the beatific vision and so keeps the proper perspective on where we are going. God doesn't just provide a passive spectator; he gives us an active team player.
Christ's way is not an easy way — we need help to complete the journey to heaven. That's where angels come in.
Of course, the idea of an angelic witness (like the idea of the communion of saints) can also be disturbing to those raised on notions of a “right to privacy.” Human beings act differently when they think no one sees them.
That's what John the Evangelist is talking about when he says that everyone who does evil things hates the light, but whoever lives the truth comes to the light (John 3:20-21).
When I was a graduate student in New York in the 1980s, I remember a particularly powerful Christian witness given by some fundamentalist Protestants. They had an office in one of the rundown tenements facing the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
At the time, the Times Square neighborhood around the bus terminal was a seedy collection of pornographic theaters, prostitution and strip shows. Those Protestants put a simple neon lamp in their window with just two words: “Jesus Sees.”
The masses of people who came and went every day could see that sign. Hopefully, it caused some of them to re-think what they had come there to do.
And that's why God gave us guardian angels: to see the challenges and pitfalls in our lives, to compel us to remember that our behavior needs to be kept “in the light.”
We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” which ought to be an impetus to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us, and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Is there a Christian “right to privacy?” Certainly. As Vatican II reminds us, conscience is the inner sanctum where every person stands alone before God.
Conscience is the private place where we determine ourselves, for good or for evil. But conscience is a mirror, not a loom. It reflects good and evil; it does not create them.
“Privacy” understood as some zone of “freedom” where human beings are “beyond good and evil,” where human beings are free of the gaze of God (and of his angels and his saints) is, however, an illusion. “Privacy” can never be an excuse for evading God.
A revival of devotion to our guardian angels would be helpful in rebuilding a sense of right and wrong, a sense of sin. It would remind us that we are not the measure of what is good and what is evil. There is an objective right and wrong. What we do is seen and must be accounted for.
But our guardian angels are not divine enforcers, ready to trap us at the least slip-up. They are there as signs of God's love. These beings, who have won their own salvation, who understand clearly the malice of evil, are humble enough to be with us. They remind us how precious we are to God.
The “angels” of the New Age bookshelves are a far cry from this. They do remind us that God has a personal care and solicitude for each and every one of us. But the New Age angel never chides, is never judgmental, and never tells us that what we are doing is wrong. He is, in fact, just our rationalizations writ large.
Against this kind of seriously deficient thought, Catholic angelology provides an important corrective. And it's not that angels are marginal to the faith. Angelic activity is discussed in various magisterial statements and in the liturgy itself.
It would eviscerate the commonplace meaning of those statements and the commonplace understanding of the liturgy if angelic references there were reduced to the merely symbolic. That's why writing off “angels” as merely projections of God's presence is erroneous.
The solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord should be a time for us to look not only to God and Mary, the main players in the Gospel event, but also to its top supporting player, Gabriel — and, with him, all the angels in the communion of saints. They never cease praying for us. Let us never cease reciprocating their friendship.
John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from London.