LOS ANGELES—At every Sunday Liturgy, Catholics profess their belief in the angelic world in the words of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God … maker of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen.” It's surely one of Christianity's most majestic truths, the teaching that the physical universe is filled with angels — from the Greek angelos, meaning “herald” or “messenger” — these mysterious and invisible ministers of God's grace.
“The Creator of the world,” writes the Church Father Athenagoras, “through the medium of his word, has apportioned and ordained the angels to occupy the elements, the heavens and the world, and whatever is in the world” — a teaching confirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. “All corporeal things are governed by the angels,” declares the Church doctor.
Angels, in other words, are everywhere. But not only as a reality of faith. For the past several years at least, angels have become an ubiquitous cultural phenomenon as well. “Angel mania,” they call it. And from the bookstore shelves to television sitcoms to cyberspace, you can't get away from it.
On the Internet, for example, you can logon to angel web sites that invite you to “please draw an angel card to see which angel is assisting you in your life right now;” or buy cassette tapes and compact discs of “angelic harmonies” created by an “angel” named Ann; or “surf” the Angel News Network; or consult “celestial webrings” that offer “professional” angel card readings for a mere 99 cents a minute.
Beginning in the 1970s with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's studies on so-called near-death experiences, which popularized the notion that people can, and should, develop relationships with “spirit or angelic guides,” New Age circles in Europe and the United States have been quick to exploit the growing fascination with angels and angelology.
For one thing, as the briefest perusal of the growing “angel” literature will show, Christians are more apt to be drawn into New Age movements through distortions of traditional teachings, like belief in guardian angels, than they would be by more typical New Age appeals to goddess-worship or the insights of Eastern religions. It's a fact which has not gone unnoticed by the Church.
A Sept. 19 editorial in the influential Rome-based Jesuit weekly Civilta Cattolica said that the angel craze has more to do with “human desperation than with Christianity,” and warned that the current popularity of angels runs the risk of “misleading Christians or even leading them away from the faith.”
Much modern angel lore, said the editorial, is related to New Age and the rise of neo-gnosticism and to its strictly individualistic search for meaning and spirituality.
“It is dangerous to penetrate the angelic world with esoteric or magical intentions because this is idolatry in the worst case, or stupidity in the case of superstitious naivete,” the editorial cautioned. “An angel is a sign of the only one who should be adored, God.” They are not beings who perform magic on behalf of those they protect.
The term “angel” as currently used in Catholic theology indicates a purely spiritual creature; an individual, personal being, who has by nature an intelligence more acute and a perfection surpassing all other visible creatures, who has been present since creation and who, throughout the history of salvation, serves as an agent of the accomplishment of the divine plan (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 328–337).
The Civilta Cattolica article echoed a recent pastoral letter issued by the bishops of Italy's Tuscany region which lamented the rise of widespread interest in magic and the occult there, fueled, in part, the bishops said, by fascination with angels.
But the Italian bishops also recognized that there are more than spiritual factors behind the craze.
“The growth of the phenomenon, at least in general terms, can be tied to existential problems,” such as the need to find meaning in life, to find liberation from suffering and fear, to find reassurance in the face and anxiety and uncertainty, and to find a firm point of reference, the bishops said.
Many Church commentators say that it is significant that angel mania has emerged, not as a byproduct of traditional societies, but in the heartland of the industrial world, particularly in the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland, Holland, and Italy.
It shows that people are thirsting for security and protection in a world that is often frightening, “cold,” and devoid of spiritual values, said Civilta Cattolica. “Angels have returned to technopolis,” it said.
Of course, an exaggerated interest in angels is at least as old as Christianity, and, one suspects, may have been as much a problem for the early Church as it is today.
While St. Paul recognizes the role of the angels in delivering the Jewish Law (Galatians 3:19) and in the Christian community (1 Corinthians 11:10, Galatians 4:14), he rebukes Christians for the “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18) and reminds them that the Christian dispensation is not subject to angels but to Christ (Hebrews 2:5–18).
It shows that people are thirsting for security and protection in a world that is often frightening, ‘cold,’ and devoid of spiritual values. ‘Angels have returned to technopolis.’
Father Basil Cole OP, co-author of an essay in the catalogue of the The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican, an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from the Vatican Museums now on a five-city U.S. tour, likewise sees the angel phenomenon as an expression of human need.
When asked the cause of the angel craze Father Cole replied, “Loneliness.” “The need to know that there's always somebody near by — a personal being, not an ‘it,’ not a force. Someone who will never leave you.”
Father Cole, who teaches moral and spiritual theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., agrees with the Civilta Cattolica editorial that the anonymity of modern urban life plays a part in the renewed focus on angels. But he also blames the “desacralization” of much post-Vatican II Catholic life for part of the problem.
“Taking away the sense of the sacred from the Liturgy, turning the Mass into a fun fest where we spend our time looking into each other's eyes instead of sensing, as we should, that we're in the court of heaven with the angels,” Father Cole told the Register, “that's created the paradoxical situation where people are prepared to find the sacred anywhere but in church.”
Because many Catholics don't seem to take spiritual realities like angels seriously anymore, he said, we can understand why people seek them out in some strange places.
“What the Church needs to do is to restore the sense of the Mass as an encounter with the ‘holy,’” Father Cole said. He also urged the revival of “the many wholesome private devotions that were abandoned after the [Vatican] Council.”
Among the most significant of these, says Father Cole, is “entrustment to our angels.”
The Dominican, who did special studies on the angels as a young theologian, told this story:
“I read an article in the 1970s about Dominican preachers who began their sermons with an unspoken prayer to the guardian angels of all their listeners, so that their words would have real effect.”
He decided to try it.
Armed with a prepared homily for a parish mission, the priest said his prayer to the angels of his congregants, only to find that the subsequent sermon he delivered was, as he put it, “not on my outline.”
Afterward, penitents lined up for the sacrament of reconciliation. “I'm here,” one after the other said, “because of that sermon.”
Since then, said Father Cole, “I've always sought the help of the angels — before class, before preaching. And I find that it generally improves the effectiveness of whatever I do.”
The theologian cautioned, however, that it's possible even for good Catholics to be misled in this area if they're not well-grounded in the faith. A lay Catholic spiritual movement, Opus Sanctorum Angelorum, founded in the late 1940s, largely on the basis of private revelations to reputed Austrian mystic Gabriele Bitterlich, to foster devotional collaboration with the angels, ran afoul of Church authorities, beginning in the 1970s, for allegedly indulging in quasi-gnostic practices such as seeking the names of individual angels and speculating on the nature of the celestial hierarchy.
In 1992, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a decree forbidding these and similar approaches to angelic devotion.
“God reveals to us what we need for our salvation,” Father Cole commented. “He doesn't want us to stray into the quest for unusual or secret knowledge — even with the best intentions and motives. It's unnecessary and it's dangerous.”
Revelation has given us three angelic names, he said — Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. “It's not the prerogative of the human person to know more,” he said.
It's the Gospel, the Civilta Cattolica article pointed out, that provides the answers people are looking for in their fascination with the possibility of unseen worlds.
And angels are part of that Gospel. “The Church believes in their powerful and mysterious assistance,” the article said. “From its beginning to its end, human life enjoys [the] protection and intercession [of the angels].”
But, most importantly, the article concludes, “in imitation of the angels, Christians are called by Baptism to an ever deeper contemplation and the appreciation of the divine beauty which shines from the face of Christ.”
As the Catechism succinctly puts it, echoing the words of Paul's Letter to the Colossians: “Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels…. They belong to him because they were created through and for him” (Colossians 1:16, CCC, 331).
The last glimpse the Bible affords of these glorious creatures shows them doing what they and we, together, the seen and the unseen, were uniquely created to do:
“Then I looked and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads upon myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:11–13).
Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.