It’s finally Spring in our corner of the woods, and we’ve begun the laborious task of raking, bagging, and lugging the bedraggled remains of Winter from our front yard.
So it was that I, cleaning the remains of Winter’s storms from our front lawn, found myself in casual conversation with a neighbor who is “spiritual but not religious”–and so it was that I heard about The Ghost.
My neighbor believed The Ghost to be the restless spirit of a man who’d lived in his house long ago. “I first saw him hunched at the foot of the bed, grinning widely,” the neighbor explained. “When I spoke to him, he left–making his exit through the wall.”
Outwardly, I smiled at my enthusiastic neighbor and nodded politely. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes in mockery. A ghost? Yeah, right.
* * * * *
But in today’s Gospel reading from Luke 24, the apostles fear that Jesus is a ghost!
Remember: They’d just heard two of the disciples tell the story of how they’d encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” the disciples asked one another, thinking of their conversation with Lord as He’d explained the Scriptures to them. Then, in the breaking of the bread, they recognized Him.
Today’s reading recounts the story of Jesus’ first appearance to the Apostles in the Upper Room. “Peace be with you,” he said. But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. To prove that it was He, the Lord showed them the wounds in His hands and side; and to show that He was not a ghost, He ate a piece of fish.
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What does the Catholic Church really teach about ghosts? Not that much, actually.
Well, the Church most definitely believes in the supernatural. The third person of the Trinity is sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost.
But at the same time, the Church cautions against veering into the occult–seeking to influence events through magic or mystical powers.
As for “ghosts,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t actually teach anything about them. However, the Bible does teach that God has permitted angelic spirits (both good and evil) to appear to men. In the book of Tobit, God sent the angel Raphael, disguised as a man, to heal Tobit. to protect Tobias and to free Sarah from the demon Asmodeus.
Likewise, God has sometimes permitted human souls–both good and evil–to appear to men. In 1 Samuel, for example, the dead Samuel appeared to the witch of Endor.
* * * * *
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, while acknowledging that the Catholic Church does not teach specifically about “ghosts” or spirits, speculates that there are three different kinds of ghosts:
We can distinguish three kinds of ghosts, I believe. First, the most familiar kind: the sad ones, the wispy ones. They seem to be working out some unfinished earthly business, or suffering some purgatorial purification until released from their earthly, business. These ghosts would seem to be the ones who just barely made it to Purgatory, who feel little or no joy yet and who need to learn many painful lessons about their past lives on earth.
Second, there are malicious and deceptive spirits and since they are deceptive, they hardly ever appear malicious. These are probably the ones who respond to conjurings at séances. They probably come from Hell. Even the chance of that happening should be sufficient to terrify away all temptation to necromancy..
Third, there are the bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love. They seem to come from Heaven. Unlike the purgatorial ghosts who come back primarily for their own sakes, these bright spirits come back for the sake of us the living, to tell us all is well. They are aped by evil spirits who say the same, who speak “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. But deception works only one way: the fake can deceive by appearing genuine, but the genuine never deceives by appearing fake. Heavenly spirits always convince us that they are genuinely good. Even the bright spirits appear ghostlike to us because a ghost of any type is one whose substance does not belong in or come from this world. In Heaven these spirits are not ghosts but real, solid, and substantial because they are at home there. “One can’t be a ghost in one’s own country.”
Tim Townsend, writing in U.S. Catholic, recounts the story of a ghost which is alleged to visit Mundelein Seminary. Father Lawrence Hennessey, a systematic theology professor at Mundelein, explained about the “manifestations” which have occurred on campus over the decades:
“…[I]n the 1960s when Father John Nicola, an adviser on the movie The Exorcist, was researching his influential book Diabolical Possession and Exorcism, he experienced such “manifestations”—the ink in his pen would suddenly drop to nothing, for instance.
The campus has seen more recent paranormal activity, Hennessey says, including within the last decade during a basketball tournament called the Mundelein Seminary Shootout. Each year, the school hosts teams from about 10 other Midwestern colleges and major seminaries.
One year a visiting player reported waking up in the middle of the night to see a lamp in his room “shaking violently,” Hennessey says. Others saw lights go on and off without explanation. An exorcist from the archdiocese was brought in to bless the rooms, and the activity ceased.
Hennessey says he has witnessed strange things at Mundelein himself. One night soon after he arrived at the seminary two decades ago, he recalls seeing “a luminous presence” standing on a pier on St. Mary’s Lake.
“It was beckoning towards me, but I never went down,” he says. “I still don’t go down there. It was not a graceful presence. This was creepy.”
Father Steve Grunow, Associate Director at Word on Fire Ministries, acknowledged that there are incursions of the supernatural into the realm of our experience, and this would almost have to be off-putting or frightening. It’s important, he explains, to interpret these experiences in light of what Christ reveals about his own authority and power in regards to the supernatural.
“Christ redeemed the supernatural,” Father Grunow explains,
“…and made it a bearer of his life and presence, a redemption that we participate in and receive in the Sacraments. Those supernatural powers that defied him were defeated. We should be very cautious of supernatural powers, but at the same time, we know that Christ has full authority over natural and supernatural.”
“Just so you know there are a lot more truly heavenly things going on at Mundelein than hauntings. My opinion is that the theological density of the place throws folks off a bit, an experience they associate with feeling “haunted”. But the seminary is a place where the Blessed Sacrament is omni-present (reserved in multiple places). I just don’t think that anything ghostly could really get much of a foothold there. I could be wrong about that, but if there were any spirits on campus, I think that heavenly powers would move them along rather quickly.
Stories about hauntings are captivating to people, but they can distract from the true nature of the supernatural that is revealed, fulfilled and perfected in Christ. I think at times people forget that it is Christ that brings the supernatural realm into proper order, and that anything that would oppose him in that realm is defeated, and anything that might languish in being lost, he would find. The Paschal Mystery is about all this, but sometimes we can get so caught up in “hauntings” that we forget that Christ has dealt with these things.”
Are there ghosts? Do they enter our space, affect our lives, carry messages?
I don’t know. If God wills, all things are possible.