Q. What is the church’s take on guardian angels? Are we all issued one of them? When did they first appear in Catholic teaching? My granddaughter asked me some of these questions after she was nearly killed in an accident, and I said her guardian angel must have been with her. I don’t remember learning much about them, except for the prayer we said many years ago in school: "Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here; ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen." (Ohio)
A. Perhaps one reason you have not heard a lot about guardian angels is that there just isn’t that much to say, apart from pointing out the evidence for this belief in Christian tradition.
It is explicit Catholic doctrine, based largely on evidence from the Bible, that angels, bodiless creatures of God who possess an intelligence and free will beyond that of human beings, really exist. That some of these angels are "guardians" of individual persons or groups is not defined Catholic dogma, but has been a continuous, almost instinctive part of the Christian way of thinking nearly from the beginning.
This belief in guardian angels is indeed one of the loveliest and most consoling truths in our tradition. The conviction that each human person is given an angel to guard her or him, to be one’s spiritual companion throughout life, is but an extension of our conviction that God has a personal, daily concern for our good and happiness.
Jesus, discussing little children, speaks of "their angels" who look upon the face of the Father in heaven (Mt 18:10). After St. Peter was arrested and imprisoned in Jerusalem, some Christians suddenly found him at their door. Luke tells us they could not believe he had escaped and thought they were seeing "his angel" (Acts 12:15).
Later on, at least from the second century, one theologian or father of the church after another speaks of this same belief. The famous Scripture commentator and spiritual writer Origen (born around 185), writes in his commentary on the Book of Numbers: "For each of us in the church of God, no matter how small, there is a good angel of the Lord who stands daily before the face of God to rule and move and govern, to correct our actions and intercede for us in our sufferings."
Origen’s limiting of guardian angels to those in the church is not shared by the greater part of Christian tradition. The more universal belief is represented by St. Jerome (died 420): "What a great dignity of souls, that each person has from birth an angel assigned as guardian."
Our word "angel" comes from the Greek word "angelos," messenger. This identifies them with how they usually relate to human beings, since both the Old Testament and the New Testament often describe how they communicate God’s word to people on earth. Thus, guardian angels are, in Christian insight, God’s supreme messengers, his envoys beside us throughout life
While the doctrine of angel guardians is not an article of faith, and acceptance of that belief is not an essential of Christian and Catholic life, in my view those who dismiss it are missing a rich and joyful treasure of our Catholic heritage.
The popular prayer you quote is several hundred years old. A feast honoring the guardian angels is celebrated on Oct. 2.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.