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Why Do Catholics Genuflect?


Angels are incorporeal beings—that is, they don’t have physical bodies. They are invisible. They are spirits.

What does the Catholic Church teach about angels?

Angels are incorporeal beings—that is, they don’t have physical bodies. They are invisible. They are spirits.

Angels are visitors from beyond this material universe and are not composed of energy or matter or radiant light or ectoplasm or any material substance. Further, “as purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.”[i]

How do we know they exist if they have no bodies? Well, we know many things that are not extended in space: laws of logic, the concept of the good, the idea of a triangle, the notion of “two.” Immaterial things aren’t unreal; they’re just intangible. So we know of angels through divine revelation, the consistent teaching of Christ’s Church, as well as the striking stories told by those who claim to have encountered them.

Throughout Sacred Scripture the existence of angels is taken for granted rather than expressly argued (see for example Dn 12:1; Tb 5:4-7; Is 6:2; Mt 1; Acts 5:19; Heb 2:9). In Greek and Hebrew, “angel” is a rather colorless word and simply means a human or heavenly “messenger,” rather than something magnificent such as “winged one” or “flaming breath” or “sparkly companion.”

While angels are immaterial and don’t reside in this world, they do visit these parts. They are task-oriented creatures. God sends them with a message from beyond this world, and when they deliver their messages they sometimes appear to the addressee in a manner that inspires awe. The invisible world has penetrated the visible, and a crisis occurs.

“Fear not” is often the greeting of an angel. We’re not moved to cuddle them like cocker spaniels but to fall back from them in shock. And why not? They are glorious aliens from another order of existence who worship in the presence of God and who cooperate with him in the governing of the cosmos.[ii]

At this point, I should try to correct a common misconception perpetuated in movies, pop spirituality, and books on alleged angelic encounters. Angels are not disembodied human souls. Upon death, human beings do not become angels. Human beings are a spirit/body compound. We have a soul, but upon death we await the resurrection of our bodies. Only then is our redemption complete.

On the other hand, angels, as pure spirits, cannot possess a body. To put it simply, human souls are meant for bodies; angels are not. We are different species. In fact, at the end of time, according to St. Paul, we will judge the angels (see 1 Cor 6:3).

[i] CCC, 330; see also Pius XII, Humani Generis (On Evolution), 26; Lk 20:36; Dan 10:9-12.

[ii] The Catholic Church also teaches that there are fallen angels, demons, led by a personal devil, Lucifer. See CCC, 391, 392, 414, 2851.

Why do Catholics believe in guardian angels?

On October 2 Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Guardian Angels because every individual has a guardian angel, and awareness of our guardian angel can be a comfort and aid in our spiritual growth. The Catechism quotes St. Basil when it teaches: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”[i]

This seems a common-sense implication from many passages of Scripture. For instance, “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (Ps 91:11-13).

Such angelic personal care shows up time and again. The Hebrew heroine Judith proclaims, “His angel has been my keeper both going hence and abiding there and returning from thence hither” (Jdt 13:20, Douay).

In the New Testament, the task of angels as “ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (Heb 1:14) is revealed even more clearly than in the Old Testament (see for exampleLuke 1-3; Acts 10:3; Eph 6:12; Rv 7:11ff).  

When Jesus urges us to develop the trust and unpretentiousness of little children and then warns those who would despoil the souls of these little ones, he concludes with what may seem to us a curious statement: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Each of these children had their own angel before God in heaven.

Christ’s original audience wouldn’t have found the reference puzzling. Jesus was drawing on the Hebrew revelation that angels are guardians of nations and individuals, adults as well as children, and they perform various assignments.

God casts each human person in a dramatic story of redemption. The future of the universe hinges on our choices. He has discharged guardian angels to assist us in our roles.

Referring to Christ’s words above, St. Jerome commented, “How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.” St. Thomas further taught that our guardian angels could act upon our senses and imagination, though not upon our will. He adds that they will also remain with us after our final union with God.

I suspect that many people dismiss guardian angels not because they’ve examined the data of Scripture or considered how eternity might penetrate time, but because of an adolescent prejudice: Guardian angels look like “imaginary friends” who are just projections of our own need for consolation in an unsafe world. But the fact that some spiritually stunted people find comfort in the notion is no argument against the actual existence of guardian angels.

It’s like saying that because a frightened child finds peace in the notion that the police are watching over him while he sleeps, then police don’t exist. Why shouldn’t other rational spirits share the same space as we do?

[i] CCC, 336.

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