From our childhood days, most of us can remember a daily prayer to our Guardian Angel. The prayer of my youth went: “O 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.”
Angels are a consistent feature of the Jewish and Christian understanding of our spirit-world. They have a high profile in Christian tradition, regularly referred to by Jesus Himself. Modern portrayals of angels in pictures and statuettes tend to take them less seriously, indeed a new angel-culture has become popular commercially which does not reflect the angels of Scripture and tradition.
Angels are to be found in the Bible from its opening pages. We find an angel guarding the gate of Eden in the book of Genesis. In the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations, it is the angel who announces the Day of Judgement. Jesus is strengthened by an angel in the garden of Gethsemane.
Angels appear in the Bible as messengers from God to His people. Only three angels are given specific names–Raphael, who accompanies Tobias on his travels and protects him, Gabriel who comes to Mary and asks her to be the mother of Jesus, and Michael, who is named in the Book of Revelations as the angel who leads the angelic forces against the devil. Angels are also referred to in the Bible under different groupings such as Cherubim, Seraphim, and Powers. There are nine groupings in all. In some places in the Bible, angels seem to represent God Himself. The visit of God to Abraham in Genesis 18: 1-2 is one such example.
Angels are taken for granted in the writings of Saint Paul. They are constantly referred to as part of the believer’s landscape. To the Christians at Rome, Paul writes: “for I am certain of this. Neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). To the Christians at Corinth he writes: “If I have all the eloquence of men and of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing” (1 Corinthians 13:1). To the Christians at Thessalonica he speaks of the end time: “At the trumpet of God, the voice of the Archangel will call out the command and the Lord himself will come down from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
The prayer of the Church is also very rich in the understanding of angels, and prayer is always an expression of the Church’s belief. In the Eucharist, we include angels in our vision of worship. At the very beginning of each Mass we ask the prayers of “all the angels and saints” for forgiveness of our sins. At the Preface to the Eucharist Prayer we join with the “choirs of angels in heaven” in their unending hymn of praise. In the first Eucharistic Prayer we pray, “We ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angels to your altar on high, in the sight of your divine majesty ..” The angels are part of our dialogue with God.
Devotion to the angels has been very rich in popular piety. Surely one of the most beautiful awareness’s is that God has given us a personal angel to guard us through life. Yes, we each have a personal friend at God’s throne – our Guardian Angel. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 18:10: “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.”
Saint Michael the Archangel is often venerated on mountains. One can think of Mont San Michel in Normandy; Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry; or St Michael’s Mount, a small tidal island in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, England. There has been a recent revival of devotion to the Archangel Michael, recalling the practice of reciting, in public, a prayer to Saint Michael after each Mass in the liturgy prior to Vatical II. Many of an older generation will remember it by heart:
“Blessed Michael the Archangel, defend us in the hour of darkness. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God restrain him we humbly pray and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell and with him all those wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (328 & 336) tells us:
“The existence of spiritual beings, that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition…. From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading them to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men and women united in God.”
Father Gerard Casey
© is a priest of the Diocese of Cloyne, Ireland. In addition to his role as a pastor in parish life, he has written weekly instructional essays on the Catholic faith for many years for his parishioners and taught religion to second level students as part of his pastoral ministry.
I was already about eight weeks along and we were going to Mass at a friend's house as part of a birthday party. We had not yet told anyone. Odd for me since I usually like people to know right away and want all the prayers. But for the first time ever, I was still in a bit of denial. I was still processing the fact that yes, this was real and yes, we were doing this again. I was not ready to share just yet. Plus, I was feeling pukey and it was better for me to just buck up and get through it than think about it too much. Mass was in the backyard. There were dozens of little kids and we brought our lawn chairs and the parish priest walked over to celebrate Mass for us. And despite my general pukiness, it was beautiful: This whole group of families praying and singing together on a chilly and sunny October afternoon. There was music and as we made our way through the blankets and cold grass to receive Him, it played: Fill my cup, let it overflow. And the words hit me hard. “Lord? That cup of mine? It's pretty full already, Lord. You see that, right? Haven't I shown you already that I'm terrible at this cup handling thing? And yet You're really going to keep going? Really, I'm okay. You can head on over to the next table, please. See that lady, there? She needs it more than I do and it looks from here like her cup is pretty empty. She should have my share. I'll set that cup out when I'm ready but I'm all set for now, thanks.” How often we hear that phrase "overflowing cup" and yet I had never really stopped to think what a dang mess that is. I mean, who wants their cup to overflow? I do not really mean that. I want mine just full enough, thank you. Ready when I want it, full when I want it, and certainly not empty, but NOT runnething over and all that, getting my hands and table all stained and messy. I want the blessings to be neat and perfectly timed and manageable, filling my cup just enough so that it does not make a mess and still brings joy. You can pour, Lord, but You should know better than to spill. Yet His method is so different. His table-waiting methods would never pass at even the most mediocre of restaurants. He chooses as He wills to pour until we feel we cannot on our own handle it anymore and the blessings come streaming down the table, until our hands and lips are stained with the blessings and we are changed and become more like Him, reveling in the good and beautiful. We learn how to love and trust with abandon, letting those blessings overflow to the people and world around us. He pours where He wills and sometimes it seems unfair and ridiculous, not pouring when we are desperately thirsty and overflowing our cup when we already cannot catch a breath. It all seems so very messy. At least from our perspective. And I am not sure that there is anyone who loathes and distrusts a mess more than I do. Why cannot this life, this whole plan, be a little more organized? Why cannot we each get the perfect amount in our cup, enough that we can handle it well and it all makes sense? God is perfect order. His plan is not haphazard or out of control. Yet, it often seems that way to us. I have begun to think of it like a mosaic. If I were all shrunken down and standing in the midst of a giant mosaic, what would I see when looking around? Fragments and random colors and lines of mortar gluing the jagged and crooked pieces together. It would seem a mess. Why would this color be next to this color? I do not see any pattern or order anywhere and this piece certainly should be here and not there. But from the eternal God point of view, high above our understanding and limited perspective, it all makes sense. What we thought was a mess was a million little pieces perfectly and intricately put together to create something beautiful. And someday I believe, I hope, we will see that mosaic in its fullness. So I did that afternoon what I do and I tried to let the words begin to penetrate my overwhelmed and fearful heart. And, of course, I cried. Because that is also what I do. “Lord, (deep breath) okay. Fill my cup and help me handle the overflow. I don't particularly like it, but this life is messy. Love is messy. Opening my heart to Your will is messy. Teach me how to see this perceived mess as beautiful, as blessing, as part of that perfectly amazing mosaic you have planned. This crazy, beautiful, messy life…it's Yours. Fill my cup, Lord. Let it overflow.” To let go of the control, to trust in His ways is not easy for an organized control freak like me. But one drop at a time, or perhaps one gushing spill at a time, He will help me get there.
I have had several recent conversations with friends and professional acquaintances on the subject of openly sharing our Catholic faith. I was a little surprised at how many of them expressed strong reluctance to being open about their beliefs. The reasons given included “We are not allowed to do that at work,” “I don’t want to offend anyone” and “I don’t like to discuss that outside of my parish.” There was a central theme running through their responses which has been the catalyst for a lot of my reflection and prayer over the last few days: Do we ever stop to consider how often our public actions and thinking involving our Catholic faith are influenced by a misguided concern for what others think of us? During the day, how many times do we have missed opportunities to stand up for Christ or share our faith? Is it the conversation we avoid with a troubled co-worker? Is it our refusal to publicly make the Sign of the Cross and say a blessing over our meals? Is it standing up to someone who is attacking the Church? How about the person who is quietly curious about the Catholic faith and is only waiting on an invitation to attend Mass with us? Too often a misplaced concern for the opinion of those around us keeps us from embracing our responsibilities. However, it is crystal clear that Jesus expects us to openly share our faith and acknowledge Him before others if we read the Gospel of Matthew 10:32-33, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” Christ was our greatest example on how to not be concerned about the respect of others. He always taught the truth, regardless of the audience or His surroundings. His enemies recognized this aspect of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 22:16, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.” Francis Fernandez, author of “In Conversation with God,” makes this observation (about sharing the truth): “Christ asks His disciples to imitate Him in this practice. Christians should foster and defend their well-earned professional, moral and social prestige, since it belongs to the essence of human dignity. The prestige is also an important component of our personal apostolate. Yet we should not forget that our conduct will meet with opposition from those who openly oppose Christian morality and those who practice a watered-down version of the Faith. It is possible that the Lord will ask of us the sacrifice of our good name, and even of life itself. With the help of His grace we will struggle to do His will. Everything we have belongs to the Lord.” He goes on to write, “In such difficult circumstances the Christian ought not to wonder which path is the most opportune to follow, but rather, which path is the most faithful to Christ. Certainly, our desire for popularity is the direct consequence of self-love. Our behavior will be the proving-ground of our deepest convictions. This firmness in the Faith is often an excellent testimony to the beliefs of the Christian. In some cases it can cause people to begin their return to the House of the Father.” I would suggest that not taking a stand for Christ and openly sharing our true beliefs may be one of the biggest obstacles for many of us to grow in our faith…and possibly for those around us who are watching our example. If you are a business person, in career transition, a stay at home mom, a student or a senior citizen, chances are that you have faced this struggle with worrying about what others think of you. It is a natural human tendency that affects me and everyone I know. We all want to be liked, respected and included. But, here is the catch…we cannot separate our spiritual selves from our physical being. The faith we profess is part of who. This prestige is also we are and cannot be hidden away. “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives… The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties towards his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes). Can we all agree that being “Stealth Catholics” is not the answer? If so, here are five thoughts on how to overcome our fear of what others may think of us when publicly sharing our faith: 1. Show me that in the policy manual. I have heard many times that expressing our faith in the workplace is “against company policy.” Have you actually seen a written policy addressing making the Sign of the Cross and praying at meals, praying quietly at your desk, going to Mass at lunch or wearing ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? I know there may be exceptions, but let me challenge all of us to consider the possibility that much of our fear may be based on a false perception of possible persecution and not reality. 2.“Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Please reflect on these words of wisdom often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. It rarely occurs to us to think about our own faith journeys, the example we set for others and the Christ-inspired joy we should radiate as the most effective ways to share our faith. Letting others see Jesus Christ at work in us is a powerful form of witness that will attract others who want what we have in our lives. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-14 and 16). 3. Start the conversation with a little sharing of our own. Transparency invites transparency! We cannot expect someone to open up to us unless we are willing to do the same. Our faith journey is a blessing, meant to be shared, and the witness we give may have a profound influence on someone. As we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” 4. Reality Check: Pursuing Heaven vs. Being Popular. Heaven is our ultimate destination and not this place called Earth. Will our critics help us get to Heaven? Will they stand up for us during tough times? No, they will pull us into a secular way of life which has little room for God and where materialism and popularity are the fashionable idols of the day. Francis Fernandez wrote that overcoming human respect is part of the virtue of fortitude. He describes the challenges a Christian may endure as “…rumors and calumnies, mockery, discrimination at work, the loss of economic opportunities or superficial friendships. In these uncomfortable circumstances it may be tempting to take the easy way out and ‘give in.’ By such means we could avoid rejection, misunderstanding and ridicule. We could become concerned at the thought of losing friends, of ‘closing doors’ which we will later be unable to re-open. This is the temptation to be influenced by human respect, hiding one’s true identity and forsaking our commitment to live as Disciples of Christ. 5. Be consistent and lead an Integrated Catholic Life. Do we take our faith with us to work, meals with friends, the kid’s soccer games and neighborhood swim meets? Or, do we only practice our Catholic faith at Mass on Sunday? It is easy to conform to secular expectations, but difficult to publicly show our love of Jesus, live out the Beatitudes, evangelize and lead a fully integrated life. I have always found inspiration on this topic from the wisdom of Saint John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, “Christifideles Laici”: “The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill His will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ.” We cannot do this alone and we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my own experience, this is a daily work in progress and it is never easy. But, we should all recognize that there are people looking at us to see our example. They want to learn from and be inspired by our courage, if we are only willing to take a stand for Christ. Think about how fortunate we are to live in a Christian country (although our religious liberties are under attack) where all we risk is a little disapproval or alienation from others. In the early Church, to be openly Christian was to risk a martyr’s death. Christians are being persecuted in Indonesia, the Middle East and other parts of the world even as you read this article. I know this is difficult, but a sacrifice on our part is required. The sacrifice is simply to love Christ more than the opinions of those around us. We should realize how little is being asked of us compared to what Jesus endured for us on the Cross. As I stated earlier, the desire to be liked, respected and popular is normal and I struggle with this as do many of you. But, let us pray for one another and continue to ask Jesus for courage, strength and the discernment to know and follow His will and not be concerned about the opinions of others. Besides, I do not see the merits of being the most popular person in hell. Do you?
Suppose you had a choice: your dream car with all the options and a summer home on the shore, or a life of daily toil spent with persons you truly love and who truly love you. Which would you choose? Think twice. The answer lies in what really makes you happy. If there is more to happiness and fulfillment than material comfort, where can we turn to find the truth about these things? While there is always a limit to the number of things you can accumulate, or cars you can fit on your driveway, there is no limit to the amount of happiness a human heart can receive—or give. The same is true for love. Ultimately, the human heart reaches out to the infinite and eternal love of God. The Second Vatican Council tells us that we should look to Jesus Christ to find the meaning of human fulfillment. “Christ…in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his very high calling” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). The Christian father must look to the God-man, Jesus Christ, for the meaning of human life and happiness. Turning to Christ we see a very different conception of happiness than that offered by our consumer culture. MISSION: REDEMPTION Christ’s role on earth can be depicted in terms of a mission. God the Father sends His only-begotten Son into the world to reconcile it to Himself. In other words, the mission of Jesus is nothing less than to save the souls of all people from all time. Christ achieves this mission through His roles as priest, prophet, and king. As the perfect priest, Christ offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of all humanity. As a prophet, He bears God’s message of reconciliation to the world, teaching about God’s love and mercy. As king, He rules the universe, exercising His authority through service and humility. The mission of the modern-day father, like that of Christ, is the salvation of souls. The difference between them is the fact that Christ’s mission is universal, concerned with the salvation of all mankind. The father’s mission is concerned primarily with the salvation of his own family. Despite the difference in scope, the father has the same methods at his disposal to achieve this mission of salvation. Through his share in Christ’s grace in the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, a father shares the grace of Christ’s death and resurrection with his children. He is also a priest in the sense that he brings his children to the sacraments, giving them a direct share in the grace of Christ. The father is a prophet—the bearer of God’s message—to his children by fulfilling his obligation to teach them the Catholic faith. Lastly, he performs Christ’s kingly function as the spiritual head of his family. This headship is always exercised in a Christian manner, rather than a worldly manner. A father’s obligation to lead his family in holiness is not a call to domination, but to service. A FATHER’S FULFILMENT Each week at Mass when reciting the Gloria we learn that Christ alone is the holy one. In living out the vocation of fatherhood, a man is called to imitate the holiness that led Christ to give His entire self for the love of His brothers and sisters. At its root, then, fatherhood is a call to holiness. The example of Christ shows that holiness consists in the radical gift of oneself for the sake of others. Fatherhood is the mission that allows a man to give of himself unreservedly. Thus, it is through fatherhood that most men will find their greatest happiness. To avoid fatherhood for the sake of that dream car, or that special summer home, is to cheat yourself out of one of life’s most rewarding experiences. By calling men to make a gift of themselves to others, God calls fathers to a life of remarkable holiness, indescribable happiness, and true fulfillment.
Have you ever seen a tightrope walker? The most important part of getting started is not balancing. Balance is important only after you start. In the beginning, the most important thing is to make sure the rope does not go slack. To cross the distance, the rope has to be held at both ends. There has got to be tension. That is a good image when we talk about a lot of questions, including this one: Why do I have to go to church? There are two things that we have to hold in tension, and by doing so, we can make it safely across to the other side. Regarding the question, here is the tension: we are sacred and social. We are sacred individuals, created in God’s image. We are also social individuals, and this is also because we are created in God’s image. On one side of the rope, we assert that we are each awesome and unique. We are loved personally by a personal God who is fully invested in us as if we are the only one He has ever created! This is why G.K. Chesterton pointed out that going to Church does not make one a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes one a car. Because God is relational, my worship of God must come from my heart. I must make a personal profession of faith in Him. Here is the other side of the rope: we are also created by a God who dwells in “community.” The mystery of the Holy Trinity reveals that God is one in nature, but three in persons. God is not alone, and so He creates individuals who are interdependent. The family is the first community we experience and the only way we enter into the world, understand ourselves, and gain insight into our destiny. Heaven is the communion of a perfected human family united to God’s Trinitarian life. If we ignore this social dimension, we misunderstand the point of our personal relationship with God—it is so that we can learn to love and be loved by others the way God desires. So, when answering the question “why should I go to church?”, we need to remember to hold both sides of the rope in tension. On one side, we need to understand that we are created as sacred individuals and on the other, that we are created as social individuals. Our response to the reality of God, our worship of Him, must therefore be both personal and public. If we can hold both sides of the rope in tension, we can start to walk across. A quick look into the Old Testament and the New shows us just how to do that. In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments affirm that God cares about what we do on the day of rest, the Sabbath. He does not suggest it, but demands that we honor it. He is not doing that for His sake any more than a doctor is when he demands that you take a few days off from school or work to get better. It is not for your doctor, it is for you. To stay spiritually alive and healthy, God demands that we honor the Sabbath weekly. Resting is directed at remembering what the right order of relationships are: God, others, self. Stepping away from daily business, we are free to do what God desires—to enter into rest and grow in intimacy with God and others. So one part of this balancing act is knowing that in the Old Testament God really does care about our time. In the New Testament, we see why God cares about the time we set aside for the Sabbath. The New Testament reveals what the Old Testament was preparing us for. The Passover meal in the Old Testament commemorated the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land. Jesus elevates this ritual in His Last Supper and now it communicates what it once only commemorated: new life, a life of freedom, the fullness of life itself. God’s life given to us in a sacramental action. Jesus becomes the very food for our own journey towards Heaven. Eucharist is a sacrament where we gather together, as the “new Israel” to offer thanksgiving to God (that is what Eucharist means), and participate in the very sacrifice of Jesus that sets us free from sin, separation, and death. At the Mass, it is Jesus giving Himself to us and our response of thanksgiving is what we give back to Him. So it would not make much sense to desire intimacy with God but ignore the very way that God wants to weekly (and daily!) invite us to share in His life. Two ends of the rope: personal intimacy and public participation in community. Sacred and social. So you see, when the Church reminds us that we have an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday’s, it is not ignoring our need for intimacy. Mass attendance assumes that we are honoring the Sabbath already by resting from unnecessary work and growing our relationships. If we only honor the Sabbath by just going to church, we miss the meaning of rest and relationships with others that God desires from us. But if all we do is rest and grow relationships, and not go to church, we miss the very place where we get to intimately receive and respond to the new life Jesus is offering us. We need both ends of the rope to be held taught because whichever side gets loosened, the result is the same: You do not make it across to the other side. So instead of loosening one side of the rope or the other, let us keep the tension and get started on the journey together by asking Jesus to help us with our balance as we honor the Sabbath, and grow in intimacy with Him and others!
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