Angels: Separating the Hype from the Reality

Interview with Organizer of World Youth Day 2002

ROME, DEC. 9, 2002 ( During a recent visit to Rome, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the chief organizer of World Youth Day in Toronto, spoke with ZENIT about the trends in Christian spirituality among people.

One of those trends touched on angels. (A second installment of this interview will appear Tuesday.)

ZENIT: Why do you think that there is such a great interest in angels today among young people? Do you think that young people really understand the meaning of angels in the Catholic Christian tradition?

Father Rosica: Over the past three years, as I moved around the world, and particularly throughout North America, to meet with young people who were preparing to attend World Youth Day 2002, I was struck by the sheer volume of artwork, depictions of angels that seem to occupy much space in the lives of young people.

On the one hand, I see much of the proliferation of angels as part of large consumer-advertising gimmicks. People wear angels as lapel pins. The angels cover our coffee mugs, greeting cards, T-shirts, wedding invitations, picture books, and, I fear, far too many other things.

Angel fans boast of Internet chat rooms, television programs, and famous stars who have returned in the form of angels. I also fear that the theme of angels is part of the New Age spirituality or fad so deeply embedded in our culture today.

We have good reason to be bothered by this blitz of angels. But I also think that their presence reveals a deep hunger and thirst for spirituality, especially in the lives of young people, who are searching and seeking for meaning and for closeness with God.

Q: When did we first start speaking of angels in the Catholic Christian tradition?

Father Rosica: Angels are found among the four Western “religions of the book”: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

While they were an element of Christian piety from the beginning, it was not until 325 that the Council of Nicaea made belief in angels a part of dogma. Soon after, articles were written about their comings and goings, and it wasn’t long into the fourth century that artists joined the fray and began to portray them with wings to distinguish them in paintings and sculpture from ordinary human beings.

The study of angels, angelology, took off in the early sixth century, when the theologian Dionysius the Areopagite first classified them. His celestial hierarchy would later be elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian Dominican scholar of the 13th century who was nicknamed the “dumb ox” by his classmates, but the “angelic doctor” by the Church, not because of his holy life, but rather because of his profound teaching about angels.

Those in our times who think Thomas was naive about angels, simply betray that they have never bothered to read him. Few of these enlightened ones could claim, even in their wildest moments, to greater breadth of mind than Thomas, yet they poke fun at ideas in a superior way and laugh at theological debates about how many angels [can stand on the head of a pin, as if they were] material, concrete beings.

They are spiritual realities that reveal themselves to women and men in moments of vision, and that also break in on human consciousness in dreams, flooding it with awareness and wonder and fear.

Q: What does the notion of angels mean for us? How can we communicate their significance to young people?

Father Rosica: The notion of angels is [to be] mysteriously in the presence of God on our behalf, and simultaneously with us on our behalf. What a tender gesture of our loving Creator! Guardian angels provide free, womb-to-tomb guidance — lighting and guarding, ruling and guiding … all the days of our lives.

Angels move our imaginations with good thoughts and impulses, and impel us toward goodness … through secret impulse, intuition, without the benefit of [our] actually seeing or hearing them. They pray with us and for us, and in transporting our prayers to God, they may alter them ever so slightly to make them more perfect. They protect us in times of danger, in the physical as well as in the spiritual life, because not all is sweetness and light here below.

The appearance of angels in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in our lives, is consistent with a minor actor in a major play: They have one line to deliver, or a task to perform; they do it, and exit promptly. It is God who always takes the credit for their interventions and successes.

Our Church ancestors also warn of us a whole army of rebel or fallen angels, led by Lucifer, who similarly employ our imaginations to tempt us away from God. And yet, the lines of the angels remain some of the most prophetic and powerful messages in the Scriptures.

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