Today let’s take up a thorny question that I am often asked – can people in Purgatory communicate with us? In other words, are ghosts real according to the Catholic Church?
Personally, I have never seen or encountered anything supernatural, so I am not speaking from any personal experience. But I have known many people who are ordinary, rational folks who claim to have seen ghosts, shadows, presences… are they souls of the dead who have come back to us?
There is no formal teaching in the Catechism regarding the existence of ghosts or the paranormal as such. Some, such as the Vatican’s top exorcist Fr. Gabriel Amorth, think that ghosts are either
a) An evil spirit masquerading as a human soul, or
b) By God’s permission, a soul in Purgatory is begging for prayers.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the two. In either case, prayer, offering Masses, and possibly an exorcism is necessary. If a place is “haunted” (most exorcists would use the word “infested”), then the first recourse would be to have a Mass said for the soul of the deceased (especially if we know who they are). Contacting a priest to bless the house or even say Mass in the house can be helpful.
There are references to ghosts in Scripture. King Saul conjures up the ghost of the prophet Samuel through the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 – and neither God nor Samuel are very pleased about it! The Apostles thought that Jesus was a ghost, both when walking on the sea and also after the Resurrection, so they were clearly familiar with the idea! When a person has an apparition of a saint (for example, St. Joan of Arc saw St. Michael and St. Catherine during her youth), it is akin to seeing a ghost, insofar as it is an encounter with a spirit from the afterlife. So, to see a ghost is not outside the realm of the Catholic cosmology. If God allows a ghostly or supernatural vision, it is for the greater good of all involved.
The Church does, however, clearly forbid us from trying to contact “the other side” through divination (mediums, fortune-tellers, Ouija boards, etc). There are several reasons for this prohibition. First, it goes against the First Commandment to seek to have knowledge that we are not meant to have, such as where a loved one is spending their eternity (remember that the first sin of our first parents was the desire to possess illicit knowledge by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). Some knowledge is meant for God alone – we must respond by trustful surrender to His providence.
Second, fortune-tellers and mediums are not neutral – they (often-unwittingly) use the Evil One for their “gift”. Only God knows the future with absolute certitude, but Satan is a very, very good guesser and can often inform us of the future through mediums. Even mediums who claim to be “spiritual” or who only practice “white magic” are deceived – God does not reveal secret knowledge on demand.
Finally, if a medium “channels” a spirit from the afterlife, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it truly is the person they are claiming to be – it could likely be a demon speaking through the medium.
So, although ghosts may be real (I do not know if they’re real or not), and although the existence of ghosts are not opposed to our Catholic Faith, we are not to go and seek them out. Terrible things can result!
Finally, there is an absolutely wild story about what can go terribly wrong when you try to contact someone in the afterlife – from the life of a saint! One of St. John Bosco’s closest friends during his seminary days was a fellow seminarian named Louis Comollo. The two of them shared a fervent desire for holiness, and one day after discussing the joys of Heaven, they made a pact that whoever would die first would come back and tell the living friend whether they were saved or not. Tragically, while still in seminary, Louis died of illness at the young age of 22.
A couple nights later, John Bosco was in his dormitory which he shared with dozens of other seminarians. Suddenly, close to midnight, the sound of a tremendous wind and thunder echoed through the hallway. The whole dormitory shook and men actually fell out of their beds through the force of it. They huddled together in fear, when out of the rumble came clearly the words in Comollo’s voice: “Bosco, I am saved!” Three times he said this clearly – it was heard by every man in the seminary. When the voice and the noise finally faded, St. John Bosco said it was the most terrifying moment of his life. John Bosco was so afraid that he literally became sick, and was ill to the point of death, but later recovered. He cautioned everyone never to make the same pact on this earth!
So, as we continue through this month of the Holy Souls, we acknowledge that our Catholic Faith is open to the idea of ghosts, but that if they appear, they do so with the express will of God and for the greater good of souls. We are never to seek out communication with them! Rather, we entrust all souls of the deceased to God’s mercy through prayer and offering Masses for them.