Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
One of the most famous figures of all English literature is the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Three times he appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He demands that his son settle accounts with his uncle who murdered the dead king. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III, ghosts also appear. From the 3rd century B.C. Epic of Gilgamesh through Homer, Virgin, Ovid, Shakespeare and Dickens, ghosts have been populating the pages of literature, appearing in films and, more recently, starring in their own TV shows, such as Ghost Hunters.
Are ghosts merely fictional? Do they really exist? First Lady Grace Coolidge said that she saw Abraham Lincoln’s ghost looking out the window of the Oval Office. Many others have, likewise, reported sightings of the ghost of our 16th President at the White House. Among those claiming to have seen a spectral Lincoln are Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and President Reagan’s daughter Maureen.
Within the Old Testament, there is the famous incident of the ghost of the prophet Samuel. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul is facing a fierce battle with the Philistines. He wants to know the outcome; and, so he consults the Witch of Endor. She conjures up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel who predicts Saul’s imminent defeat and death. Some commentators say that Samuel came because God allowed him to come and speak on God’s behalf (cf. Sir 46:20). Other commentators consider this incident a demonic apparition. In either case, they accept the apparition.
The New Testament gives evidence that the disciples of Jesus believed in the reality of ghosts. After the miracle of the loaves and fish, “when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear” (Mt 14:26). When the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, “they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have’” (Lk 24:37-39).
The word “ghost” simply means “spirit.” It refers to the spirit of a deceased person who has made himself or herself present to the living. According to polls taken in the last 10 years, almost 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. In fact, almost 30 percent of Americans say they have been in touch with someone who has died.
Stories about contact with the dead continue to fascinate us. They provoke the imagination. They manifest our awareness that there is more to reality than the physical world which we empirically experience. These reports of the spirits of those who have died clearly suggest personal survival after death.
In her wisdom, the Church rightly condemns consulting mediums to be in touch with the dead. In fact, “all forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116)
As Catholics, we hold that, at death, we face an immediate judgment of our lives. If we are in the state of perfect charity, we go to heaven. If we die in the state of mortal sin (God forbid!), we suffer the eternal estrangement from God in hell. And, those of us who die in the state of grace, but not in perfect charity, undergo a purification of love before we come into the presence of God. In a word, death is not the end of our personal existence. Nor does the Grim Reaper sever our relationships with each other.
The Church exists as the communion of those who are already in heaven, the dead undergoing purification and the living on earth. “According to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 955). Thus, those on earth can converse in prayer with the saints in heaven as well as with the souls in purgatory, asking their help and intercession. The saints, for their part, can intercede for the living and the dead. And the souls in purgatory, likewise, can pray and intercede for us, the living. Since this is so, should we be surprised if, at times, there is, with God’s will, some conscious contact with those who have gone before us?
Accounts circulate of saints who have appeared after their death. Lourdes, Fatima, Banneux, Akita and Betania: these are a few of the approved apparitions of our Blessed Mother. Others saints have appeared as well. St. Therese of Lisieux appeared to the Vietnamese mystic Brother Van. She also appeared to the Servant of God Maria Esperanza de Bianchini of Betania.
There are many accounts of Padre Pio’s experiences with those who had died. On one occasion, he saw a man in a black mantle. The man identified himself as Pietro Di Mauro. He had died in a fire on Sept. 18, 1908 in the very convent where Padre Pio was then living. Pietro told Padre Pio, “I have come from Purgatory. God has granted me to come here and ask you to say Mass for me tomorrow morning.” After Padre Pio checked out the records in the town and found that Di Mauro’s account was true, he offered Mass for him.
On another occasion, Padre Pio told Cleonice Morcaldi of San Giovanni Rotondo that her mother had gone to heaven. Her mother had died one month before. Padre told her, “This morning your mother has gone to heaven, I have seen her while I was celebrating Holy Mass.”
As St. Paul teaches, all of us, living and dead, belong to the Lord (Rm 12:8). Christ has conquered death. The great love that God has for us in Christ, Crucified and Risen, does not separate us from each other at the moment when we pass from this world. Thus, the love we bear for those who have gone before us does not end in the grave nor does their love or their concern for our well-being and salvation.
In the end, all tales of ominous specters appearing from beyond the grave pale before the Gospel narrative of the Resurrection of Jesus. Christ has conquered death itself. His tomb is empty. Raised from the dead and exalted as Lord, he now joins the living and the dead in the one communion of saints!