Do Ghosts Really Exist?

Q: Dear Father Kerper: It seems like there is a lot of evidence that there are ghosts that haunt people’s homes. Do ghosts really exist?

Thanks very much for your question about the reality of ghosts. Some people, of course, would brush it off as a silly thing to ask, but it actually leads us to consider anew two key Christian beliefs: first, that every human person is a communion of body (matter) and soul (spirit); and second, that human life continues forever after bodily death, first as a bodiless soul, and eventually as a resurrected human being with body and soul reunited. To put your question differently: can these bodiless souls – ghosts – appear and intervene in our lives?

We have to clarify the term “ghost.” I am not speaking here about menacing spirits that terrorize movie characters. This English word “ghost” comes from the German word “geist,” which broadly means “spirit,” including non-personal things like the “spirit of the age” and so on. In English, “ghost” specifically means the soul of a dead person that becomes discernible through our eyes, ears, nose (some ghosts smell!) or skin.

In theory, billions of ghosts potentially exist because billions of human beings have “lost” their bodies through death. Strictly speaking, these disembodied souls are not ghosts because they have never become discernible to any living people. Only those few souls whose presence is seen or felt by others are truly ghosts. And their existence is plausible. But here we must proceed with great caution.

Let’s look at Sacred Scripture. The Book of Deuteronomy condemns anyone “who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead” (cf. Deuteronomy 18:11). And two passages in the Book of Leviticus warn against using “mediums” to contact the souls of the dead (cf. Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6, 27). These legal prohibitions demonstrate that at least some people believed in ghosts. If they didn’t, why prohibit attempted contacts?

The Old Testament also has a few ghost stories. The most famous one is in I Samuel 28:8-20. Here the inspired writer tells how King Saul met with the ghost of the prophet Samuel. In 2 Maccabees 15:1:16, you can read about the encounter between Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish patriot, and the ghost of Onias, the dead high priest.

These Old Testament laws and stories affirm that the people of Israel believed that human souls survive after death and can have contact with the living, at least occasionally.

Now, let’s see what theology contributes to the matter. To be frank, theologians haven’t written much about ghosts. But some have, notably Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

According to Saint Thomas, the souls of the dead, who are in heaven, can indeed manifest themselves to the living on their own initiative. Such appearances, however, are not “hauntings” meant to terrify or tease people. Rather, these saintly apparitions occur only to bring comfort and encouragement, never fear. And remember “saint” means anyone who dwells with God, not just those officially declared “saints” by the Church. In light of this, it is theoretically possible for loved ones, like deceased grandparents or children (even babies), to become sensibly discernible to us. While such occurrences may be rare, there is no reason to rule them out. In a sense, these spirits are “ghosts” but they are benign, even loving.

Now, we move to the matter of malicious ghosts, the nasty type which pop up in horror movies and novels. Saint Thomas clearly states that the souls of the dead, who are not in heaven, can never appear to the living without God’s consent. But why would God ever allow ghosts to “haunt” people?

Saint Thomas gives two reasons: first, as a warning; and second, to seek spiritual assistance from the living in the form of prayer or good deeds to advance the dead person toward fulfillment in God. The ghosts or “non-saints” may annoy people but they can never harm them.

Of course, one can read somewhat credible stories about destructive “hauntings,” but Saint Thomas always insisted that these “ghosts” were definitely not the souls of dead people, but something else, most likely demons masquerading as ghosts.

This brief exploration about ghosts leads us to a very positive point: The spiritual bonds between the living and dead, especially those who love one another, are deep, unbreakable, and mysterious because they are rooted in the Body of Christ, which embraces the living and dead. We have nothing to fear, for God governs all things – including “ghosts” – with wisdom and love.

 

Editor’s note: This article and photography originally produced for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, September/October 2009 issue. To read more Parable articles, visit www.catholicnh.org.

Fr. Michael Kerper

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Father Michael Kerper is the pastor of Saint Patrick Parish in Nashua.

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  • CommittedtotheTruth

    With all due respect to Father Michael, demons can indeed do harm to people. They have been known to push people down stairs among other things.
    Adam Blai, a Church decreed Religious Demonologist (currently employed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh), has some very good information at http://www.religiousdemonology.com. Mr. Blai trains priests in exorcisms, assists at exorcisms, determines cases based on psychological evaluations, demonic infestations, etc. “The Demons of Brownsville Road” by Bob Cramner, is a true story about a haunting of a house in Pittsburgh, which has been verified by the Diocese.
    People can get themselves into trouble by trying to contact a spirit, which is forbidden by The Church. The many TV shows on the paranormal that are on today has given rise to an increase of cases of demonic activity. If someone thinks a spirit is trying to engage them, they should NEVER respond! If they think it is a loved one, having a mass said for them and praying for them is the appropriate response. The spirit world is very legalistic. God keeps them on a very tight leash. Someone in Purgatory could indeed be asking for help…but for prayers only. If a spirit tries to engage someone in conversation, it is definitely a demon. Then it is time to get help from Holy Mother Church. Sadly, not all priests are educated about the reality of demons. Indeed, they may not even believe. Finding a priest trained in exorcisms can be daunting. (Although an exorcism is only needed in extreme cases of possession, an exorcist priest can give advice as to how to proceed.)
    Above all, we must remember that God is in control! Regular mass attendance, participation in the sacraments, and loving Him with all our heart, mind and soul is the key to happiness.

  • JMC

    Your point that spirits of the dead, even those who are not saints, can never harm you, is well made. Some readers might be thinking of poltergeists, however, and the harm they can cause, as documented in cases where someone in a household has been “dabbling” in the occult. An important distinction must be made here. A poltergeist is not a ghost in the sense of someone who has died. A poltergeist is a demon, plain and simple. A poltergeist has never had a body of its own, but has always existed as pure spirit. It is one of those fallen angels who followed Lucifer in defying God.
    .
    The reason we are forbidden to consult the spirits of the dead is that, if we actually do get an answer, it is not the spirit of a dead loved one speaking to us; it is a demon in disguise. Mediums actually open themselves to temporary possession, and that may turn out not to be so temporary after all. Anyone consulting a medium, by doing so, opens himself to that same possession. Anyone attending a séance also opens himself to it. That’s why we are strictly forbidden to attend them, even as observers. I know someone is going to bring up the fact that, in the past, the Vatican has sent investigators to séances; in such cases, the investigator undergoes special rites of protection and carries blessed objects on his person while at the séance. (It is notable that, when those investigators are present, even undercover, it affects the “quality” of the contact.)
    .
    With all that, it’s no wonder the Bible has such prohibitions. It’s a truly wise man who obeys them.

  • JMC

    Every word is true, but the key word here is demons, not ghosts. There’s a big difference. See my post below. ;D

  • Steve Gee

    Good article and good comments. Adding in my “two cents” I’d like to say that I am often asked to bless houses as a deacon and have had more than a few homeowners inform me that they’d had experiences that frightened them and that was why they wanted their homes blessed.

    I personally have never encountered anything of a “spiritual” nature while blessing these homes but go prepared. I’ve gone to Diocesan sponsored presentations pertaining to such matters and read books on the subject. Unfortunately what I’ve found is that home blessings seem to be called for after events occur rather than when families first move in to a home. One of the first things I’ve learned is to ask is how often do you attend mass and the sacraments? More often than not those that are having “experiences” haven’t been practicing their faith and/or have been involved in occult activities of some sort either directly or indirectly.

    I think the Church fails to emphasize enough that there is a war between the forces of good and evil raging around us. Whether we are aware of it or not or whether we wish to believe it or not. As to the why these events occur and what they are, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure on this side of life. To those that have had the experiences, it’s real enough and they really don’t care to have them again. Personally I don’t care to have any such encounters and if I ever do I will call in the experts, which I am not.

    I personally feel that there are elements of this struggle that can and do manifest themselves from both sides of the conflict, in our lives. Our history is full of such instances. We just don’t talk about them enough and of course the advancement of our sciences say you can never rule out physical or psychological causes for them.

    Why ghosts, or spirits or paranormal events happen though isn’t any real secret as far as I’m concerned, our immortal souls are the prize and for whatever reason God allows this stuff to occur.

  • Bob McCall

    It should be noted that Jesus Himself implied that He believed in ghosts. Post-resurrection when he appeared to Thomas, he stated: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” I don’t believe He would have made this statement, if He did not recognize the existence of ghosts/spirits.

  • John Keating

    I am not the best Catholic. In fact, I have a hard time going to Mass. I also don’t believe in ghosts. However, my apartment has been having some odd things happen. Nothing has tried to hurt me, but I see shadows and hear people talking. It’s not so bad that I’m in constant fear but I’m definitely walking on egg shells. What on Earth should I do? Can a house blessing help?

  • John Keating

    Deacon Steve. See my comment above for more context, but I hope I can ask you a question. Sorry to do it in the comments, but I’m kind of embarassed.

    Can I call a parish to get a house blessing if ghosts are possibly in my apartment? Can they bless apartments or just houses? Is there a cost? I know, it is a few stupid questions, but I’m really not sure what to do. I don’t fear for my life, but nobody ever said, “Oh, I wanna live with ghosts!”

    Oh, and to clarify, I am not mentally ill. I do see a doctor and had them test me, just in case. Other than my anxiety, which is actually moderate, I don’t have too much going on.

    Thanks for your help in advance.

    oh, and editor and other authors: I’d love to read a post here about that, if you’d be so kind.

  • jdumon

    John, tell this to a priest. Certainly he will direct you to an exorcist priest. He will assess the problem in your home. But an exorcism isn’t always performed. For example he will say a mass in your home or in a church with the intention to free this suffering soul who is begging help.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    @jdumon:disqus answered it, but I want to second the the good answer. Most priests will not bat an eye when you call and they can be quite helpful.

    I had friends with a similar situation and our local priest came into the house the next day to hear confession and bless the home. The issue persisted and the good priest ended up saying a Mass for the tenant and home and all the souls who may have passed away. It helped immensely. So, please don’t be shy to seek out help.

  • John

    Hi John Keating,

    I second what Michael and jdumon said. The entire quote below is from a 2007 conference given by Fr. Robert McManus, SJ, to a group of priests training to be exorcists. Judging from his answer, perhaps try to get someone from your diocese who could ascertain a) what kind of spirits you’re dealing with and b) what they want? If some sort of reparation needs to be made, perhaps arranging for a Mass to be said in that location? God bless you, I hope the problem gets resolved soon.
    ———–

    Ghosts are human souls attached to place, but they are attached to place for an entirely different reason, and with a different set of consequences, and a different remedy needed from you, as priests, than demons are.You know the difference by one simple thing: is there destruction going on in the place or not? And by destruction I mean human lives are being destroyed, furniture is being destroyed, the place is on fire, there’s disease and pillage and everything else. Stuff’s being destroyed. If there is destruction present, it is most likely demonic. If there is not destruction present, then the presence may be that of a ghost.

    Ghosts are the souls of humans who, attached to, by trauma or guilt, an act that occred in a certain place, have been unable to let go of that until reparation for that act is offered them through human assistance. Reparation for the act is offered through human assistance. This is about sin. It’s not about, “I always wanted to be a ghost and scare Grandma back,” you know? The eternal Halloween party. It’s none of that, ok?. It’s about connectedness to sin and the need for reparation.

    I’ll give you an example. I knew about this case. A priest accepted huge numbers of stipends. Never said the masses for them. Beware, Fathers. Get those masses said. I don’t know what he was thinking, but for years he simply piled those babies up in a drawer in the rectory. Kind of the “I’ll get to them.” Never got to them.

    Reparation. A solemn obligation by you as priests to say those masses. He’s dead, God rest him. Within days of his death, there’s noise all over the rectory. Poltergeist, noisy ghost. People are kind of spooked, you know. They call the bishop, they call the exorcist. And by communicating through knockings — “Are you Fr. so and so?” — Two knocks. “Is there something you want us to do for you?” – two knocks. “Show us where in the room…” They discover this desk full of stipends, ok? Rockhead, ok? Stipends are passed out to 20 or 30 priests and within a week they’re all taken care of, the knocking stops, it’s over. Reparation addressed to the unresolved sin is the nature of a ghostly possession. There is no ghostly possession that cannot be resolved with human assistance on some basis. Very often, those who commit suicide and seem to revisit the place of their suicide need Mass celebrated in the place, and very often that is the remedy. Mass offered for the repose of their soul in that place, for them alone, with the faithful present. Mass is this infinite reparation for all that has happened. Seems to do a lot. That’s an entirely different world from demonic possession.

  • RDPaul

    The article is decent except for the claim ghost refers uniquely to humans after death. If as you correctly point out ghost means spirit then it could mean any spirit, including the Holy Ghost or a demon.

  • RDPaul

    Not believing in Ghosts does not protect you from them just like not believing in God does not save you from judgement.

    Usually you need to do something to allow ghosts, who are not in my opinion human souls but in fact demonic souls, into your life. Is there someone in your house engaging in the occult–particularly a child “playing” with witchcraft such as ouiji boards, seances, or the charlie charlie “game”?

    Consulting a priest and asking for a home blessing is a good first step. Be aware not all priests firmly believe in the spiritual world behind the physical…if your priest turns you away do not be discouraged, find a good priest who has some knowledge of spiritual combat. If you want to share your diocese I might know a priest to recommend.

  • RDPaul

    No there is no cost–some people cgoose to make a gift to the prest or aN offering to tge Church bUT it is absolutely forbidden to charge for the spiritual goods of the Church!! It’s the sin of Simony.

    Yes you can just call and ask, be aware that some priests a materialists and do not believe in spiritual combat. You want to find one who does if you need anything more than a just a home blessing. When you ask for a home blessing you might hold back about telling him why until you feel the priest out.

  • Steve Gee

    RDPaul is correct, we don’t charge for what we do, it is forbidden. People sometime offer a stipend to the minister that’s called out just as they do for a marriage or funeral service but it’s never solicited. I do it because it’s my duty and because as RDPaul said, some clergy don’t want to get involved in this sort of thing either because they don’t have the time or they look down on the practice as being superstitious or they simply don’t want to get involved in that sort of thing. It used to be a common practice but nowadays its considered “old school” and superstitious.
    I would suggest you start by returning to the Church and the sacraments on a regular basis though and getting a prayer routine in your daily life. You don’t have to have a cleric bless your apartment unless you feel it would be more effective. Simply go to your parish and get some holy water from the Baptismal Font and sprinkle it throughout your apartment and if you’ve been having problems see if that doesn’t correct the problem. Stop and think about it. When you abandon God and the sacraments, and the use of sacramentals such as crucifixes, holy water, sacred pictures, scapulars, and etc., these all bring us graces. Without practicing our faith, you leave a void for other things to enter and they will.
    Satan and his forces are crafty and his forces are everywhere and he can and will use any opportunity to lead us astray. His most powerful and effective weapon that is in use today has been to make us believe he doesn’t exist and you even have priests who consider him a myth.
    So we have to fortify ourselves with the weapons of faith. I always recommend the Rosary as a daily routine for families when I bless their homes, whether they have anything going on or not. United in prayer, especially with the rosary, you are using a very powerful weapon that Satan fears. Exorcists of the Church will tell you the same thing. But again, close the door to evil by practicing your faith. And Yes, you can have apartment blessed too. Hope this helps.

  • Dawn Walker

    I was looking to see if someone mentioned this. It is the first thing that came to my mind, Jesus-Himself! +JMJ+

  • John

    Hmm….sort of. The Greek in the verse you reference (Lk 24:39) is “πνεῦμα” (transliteration is “pneuma”) which translates more accurately to “spirit” than “ghost”. Consider that it’s also used in verses such as Mt 10:20 (“For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”) and Mt 26:41 (“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”).

  • Colleen Mahan

    Demons are mentioned towards the end.

  • janeasinner

    I do wish he had said more on the those evil ‘spirits’ that masquerade as ‘ghosts’. This is a very dangerous state of being. I always ask my Guardian Angel and St. Michael to defend me in the day of battle against said demons. Jesus is the Truth, the Way and the Light. I follow Him.

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