What are Catholics to make of supernatural phenomena? and ghosts in particular?
There is little question that the Catholic Church believes in the reality of the spiritual realm — St. Paul in Ephesians speaks of “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” But it is a realm inhabited by angels, demons, and of course, Satan himself. (And, if you’re an enlightened “post-Vatican II” Catholic like Fr. Richard McBrien, you can scoff at the very mention of the latter).
As far as ghosts are concerned, the prevailing tendency among Catholics is to look askance at the concept of “lost souls”, trapped in this life and waiting to cross over. There is scarce mention of “ghosts” in the Catechism and judging by the absence of clear, definitive teaching — the Church has refrained from adopting a firm position on their existence.
According to Gary Jansen, a contemporary Catholic from Rockville Centre, Long Island, ghosts simply didn’t exist. For him, “heaven, hell, angels were basic tenents of my Catholic faith, but never basic tenents of my life. . . . these topics were never discused during my twelve years of attending parochial school.” While his devout Catholic mother would mention strange occurrences, he prided himself on his rationality.
Until, that is, when he had an unsettling encounter in his son’s bedroom in 2007. Holy Ghosts: Or How a (Not-So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night is an account of one Catholic’s real-life haunting:
As I reached into his dresser drawer, I felt something very strange behind me. Startled, I quickly turned around, but there was nothing there. I shrugged it off, grabbed the socks and, as I was walking to the doorway, experienced an odd phenomenon-sort of like an electrical hand rubbing the length of my back. I stopped and stood transfixed. “What the hell is that?” I said to myself. The pressure then seemed to break apart and, for a brief moment, I felt like I had a million little bugs crawling all over my back. Within seconds, however, the sensation was gone.
Thus begins a series of strange and disturbing encounters over the course of a year culminating in Jansen’s conviction that his house is, indeed, haunted. Along the way, he investigates their connection to a tragedy that occured in his hometown, confronts painful memories of his childhood, and — with the help of “paranourmal investigator” Mary Ann Winkowski (inspiration for the television series The Ghost Whisperer), discovers the identities of the spirits occupying his home.
That Jansen is a Catholic adds a unique twist to the story. In the publishing business, he had authored two religious books including The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved and Exercising Your Soul: Fifteen Minutes a Day to a Spiritual Life, reflecting a rediscovery of his Catholic roots and faith after a period of agnosticism. Faced by his unsettling predicament, he is understandably motivated to plumb his library, in the attempt to discern how a Catholic might respond. And on the subject of ghosts, he finds some rather suprising affirmation of their existence in the works of recognizable orthodox figures as Peter Kreeft and Fr. John Hardon, SJ, who in his Modern Catholic Dictionary defines “ghost” as:
… a disembodied spirit. Christianity believes that God may, and sometimes does, permit a departed soul to appear in some visible form to people on earth. Allowing for legend and illusion, there is enough authentic evidence, for example in the lives of the saints, to indicate that such apparitions occur. Their purpose may be to teach or warn, or request some favor of the living” (p. 229).
A point of criticism I had — and that I anticipate many orthodox Catholics readers will probably have — is Jansen’s ultimate method of resolving the haunting: seeking out the counsel of Mary Ann Winkowski. Winkowski is a “cradle Catholic” with a not-so-ordinary occupation: she lays claim to “communicating with earthbound spirits … and helping these entities cross over into the White Light.”.
This is something that Jansen appears wholly unapologetic about. Fellow Catholic bloggers Tom Kreitzberg Disputations) and Jeff Miller (Curt Jester) both had the same reaction, the latter noting:
While the author in the acknowledgements mentions a priest he had become friends with, what is missing is his actually going to the Church for advice about these hauntings. There is no mention of his discussing this with any priests, but this might have been left out. If so it is a curious omission. I just found strange the curios tension with him going to good and orthodox sources for research and then after some thought going with a ghost whisperer recommended by a friend.
Despite these reservations, I found Holy Ghosts: Or How a (Not-So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night to be a rollicking “Catholic ghost story” — spooky enough to send chills down my spine even on my morning subway commute. Appropriate reading (and topic of discussion) as we head into the month of October. =)