A Catholic Ghost Story

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. =)


29 Responses to A Catholic Ghost Story

  1. kyle kanos says:

    I know there is no official teaching on ghosts, but doesn’t Luke 16:27-28 indicate that spirits (ghosts) can come to earth??

  2. Elaine Krewer says:

    I was taught that all, or nearly all, ghosts were really demons attempting to deceive the faithful, since departed spirits would be either in hell, purgatory or heaven and would have no reason to come back. In that sense, I had the impression that good Catholics and other Christians did not “believe in ghosts”, and the only proper way to respond to an alleged ghost was to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. However, the brand of Catholic practice I grew up with was charismatic/Pentecostal and heavily influenced by Protestantism, so perhaps this is not really a “Catholic” idea?

  3. Jay Anderson says:

    Thanks for the review, Chris. I haven’t yet read my copy of Holy Ghosts, but I’m definitely going to do so after reading this. The next couple of months seem like a perfect time to crack open such reading.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I am curious. There would also seem to be the possibility of demonic forces here. From the things I have read on exorcism, there seems to be no doubt that the Church believes that hauntings may be the work of demons, as well as benign ghosts. Saints have been known to appear to people that knew them, or in places with which they were familiar (abbeys, etc). But, random encounters with spirits?

  5. RL says:

    Similar to Elaine, I consider most ghost claims to be either misunderstood experiences, fraudulant, or demons at work. Anyone who has read about exorcisms will understand that they can interact with matter if allowed. I don’t doubt that God can and does allow (send?) some deceased to convey a message (after all that is what Marian apparitions are).

    However I don’t believe it has to be a recognized saint. I recall reading a really cool book called Hell – And how to avoid it. One story was about two young fellas who went to a house of ill repute. The one guy left without doing anything, went to bed and said his customary three Hail Mary’s. He had essentially lost his faith but retained that practice from his youth.

    As I recall his friend came to his room in the middle of the night all burnt and smoking. Told him that when he left the the whore house he was assaulted and murdered. That his body was still in the street, but demons came and dragged his soul away. He said by special priviledge of the Blessed Virgin he was sent to him in order that he might be moved to convert and that it was all due to the nightly three Hail Mary’s. It was true about the guy getting killed and the young man went to the local monastery the next morning and related the story to the superior and joined the monastery.

    I believe those kind of ghost stories. Very skeptical about the idea that human souls go bump in the night.

  6. Pauli says:

    Speaking of subway commutes. The space-time continuum is more like a subway than anything close to perfect. But that shouldn’t make us laugh at the scientists; you do have to follow the rules posted in the ticket box if you have a body. Be consoled that the others have even stricter rules–in some ways.

    If you stop whatever it is your doing when you first think of them and say a prayer for them right away, they’re more likely to leave you alone. Otherwise… but you can’t blame them. You’d do the same thing. Hell, yeah, it’s scary, but they’ll be praying your ass out next.

  7. c matt says:

    Well, Moses and Elijah made a cameo at the transfiguration. And Marian apparitions as noted above. It’s God’s universe, I suppose He can allow whatever He wants. As others caution, I would be very wary of anything immaterial trying to communicate with me. Just saying.

  8. Daniel Latinus says:

    I believe the Jesuit Herbert Thurston wrote a book dealing with paranormal phenomena.

    Another book dealing with ghosts in a Catholic Context is Muldoon: A True Chicago Ghost Story: Tales from a Forgotten Rectory. It tells the story of the haunting of a rectory in a Chicago parish.


    Some researchers suggest that poltergeists are the result of some kind of “psychic energy” generated by persons in a state of extreme emotional turmoil. The pastor of the parish in Muldoon was a self-serving man engaging in a number of irregular activities, and his actions contributed to the closing of his parish. I put down the book wondering if the strange events recounted there were the result of the priest’s own guilt over the things he was doing.

  9. Howard says:

    1. So far as I know, I have never seen a ghost. (According to folklore, sometimes they are not recognized as such, as with angels.) However, a friend told me that in her parish, the pastor took a stipend to say Mass for a departed soul, but he himself died suddenly, and the new priest was unaware of the arrangement. The first morning the new pastor was “on the job”, he was surprised to find the parish safe with its door standing wide open, since he thought he had closed it the night before. Nothing seemed to be missing. He made sure to close it that night, but the same thing continued to happen. Eventually he decided to look closely at all the contents and found the Mass request. He said the Mass, after which the door to the safe remained closed.

  10. Howard says:

    2. Remember, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are not places like Omaha; the idea of LOCATION pertains to a body, not a spirit. Thus the guardian angels always see the face of the Father (also not a corporeal reference, of course). Likewise, Marlowe has Mephistopheles say, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. / Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, / Am not tormented with ten thousand hells / In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”

    3. From what I have read, exorcists are split on the question of whether possessing spirits are all demons or if they also include the souls of the damned. Some spirits claim to be souls of the damned, but are they lying? At least one exorcist I have read thinks not, on the basis of what he was able to make them admit. (This pertained to someone who was possessed by many unclean spirits.)

    4. For an interesting work of fiction on more “mundane” hauntings, see A MIRROR OF SHALOTT by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, http://www.archive.org/stream/mirrorofshalottb00bensuoft/mirrorofshalottb00bensuoft_djvu.txt.

  11. Eduardo says:

    For a fascinating discussion of many apparitions of souls in purgatory, read _Hungry Souls_, by Dr. Gerard van den Aardweg. Makes you realize how important it is to pray for the poor souls.

  12. Tim Shipe says:

    And that is the salient point- the point is to continue praying in the dark -as it were- for all the people we know who have died, and for general intercessions for “all the poor souls in purgatory” also asking them for their prayers- this is an act of faith which requires special visitations from any spiritual agents. Add to this prayers for protection from the evil spirits- and then one can allow their curiousity to roam a bit- but only after the good work of prayer is accomplished lest we get sidetracked by idle speculation that goes no where and does no one any good- like being thrilled by a hollywood horror flick

  13. Tim Shipe says:

    Should have said- “which requires no special visitations from any spiritual agents” sorry

  14. Howard says:

    “Well, first, I would say this. It seems perfectly clear that these other stories aren’t sent to help our faith, or anything like that. I don’t believe that for one instant. We have got all we need in the Catholic Church, and the moral witness, and the rest. But what I don’t understand in your position is this: What earthly right have you got to think that they’re sent just for your benefit?”
    — Monsignor Maxwell, A MIRROR OF SHALOTT

    At least read the first chapter, which contains a very reasonable discussion of exactly the same issues that are being discussed here. The tales in the subsequent chapters are placed in a fictional setting, but they have a real ring of truth about them; I suspect they are fictionalized versions of stories Monsignor Benson heard first-hand.

  15. Gabriel Austin says:

    You might almost be certain that if that silly man Fr. McBrien disparages the idea of demons, that demons do exist.

  16. mts1 says:

    The main thing is to always remember that nothing lies beyond the control of our Savior Jesus of Nazareth. Never quiz or address the ghost. Always pray to Jesus, or ask for Mary’s or a saint’s intercession on your behalf to the Lord. If it should happen that a spirit has a message to convey, he or she will do so right away without your prodding. They don’t come to beat around the bush. If a ghost has a benevolent intent, it never has to be conjured or asked to appear. God will permit it’s coming.

    Likewise, you go around playing with a ouija or incantation, you’ll get something that’s been lazing around, looking for someone to bedevil.

    As far as benevolent spirits who visit the living, look up the origin of why a set of Gregorian Masses lasts 30 days (a soul appeared after the 30th Mass said for him and told the person his soul was saved from Purgatory and is now in Heaven). I had a friend whose uncle died. He had a dream of that uncle, standing with a boy and a girl in white robes, and the uncle told him to tell his mother “we are all in heaven now.” When he did, this floored his mother, since her sister in law (the friend’s aunt and wife of the deceased uncle) had lost a boy and girl stillborn, but my friend was never told about this, and it was a family secret.

  17. Thank you everyone, for commenting. Just a few quick reactions/thoughts:

    Regarding the question of whether “ghosts” exist, I find Fr. Hardon’s explanation plausible. I agree that some instances may be attributed to the genuinely demonic, but I wouldn’t categorically state such of every “genuine” instance of supernatural phenomena.

    Personally, I approach the topic of ghosts and supernatural phenomena along the same lines that I regard UFO’s and/or “life on other planets” — I’m an agnostic. We live in a mind-boggedly large universe — realms visible and invisible; material and immaterial, of which humanity is only a minute speck. Our positive knowledge towards the spiritual is confined only to what is divinely revealed, and apart from which there’s a slew of phenomena that lies beyond the realm of rational / scientific explanation. So I can’t categorically rule out the existence of ghosts; nor am I particularly inclined to actively seek them out.

    The Church’s counsel is that we should refrain from actively seeking out encounters with the spiritual realm (hence refraining from ouja boards, etc.). Given the often-underestimated power of the demonic and the very real potential for such phenomena to have (but not necessarily so) a specifically demonic origin, this strikes me as perfectly sound, practical advice.

    The same for Tim Shipe’s admonition to “pray for the poor souls in purgatory”, which we should do with regularity (and I know myself, not nearly enough).

  18. Suz says:

    My mother recalls a series of manifestations in her childhood home, some benign, some spooky, and one violent, this last compelling her mother to seek speedy assistance from the Church. I don’t know if an exorcism was performed, but a Mass definitely took place in the house, and that was that for the ghostly stuff.

    So, um. “Who you gonna call?” A priest.

  19. Liam says:

    I might buy the proposition that God permits ‘ghosts’ to communicate to teach or warn, or request some favor of the living if the ‘ghosts’ (a) didn’t scare the snot out of the living (a very uncharitable thing to do)and if the communications weren’t largely confined to banging pots and pans, making the room temperature drop, flinging doors open, etc., all of which doesn’t seem to be the best way of requesting some particular favour of the living.
    Perhaps confinement to earth for a time is a punishment of Purgatory. Who knows?
    Mark 6:49 recounts how the disciples of Jesus took him for a ghost when He walked on the lake. When Jesus reassured them, He did not correct them by saying there were no such things as ghosts (a perfect time to disabuse them of that idea).
    If I’m not mistaken the Bible records that when angels appear to men they often times say “Fear Not!” by way of reassurance. So I don’t really know what to make of supposed ghosts and their terrifying antics.

  20. Elaine Krewer says:

    “Perhaps confinement to earth for a time is a punishment of Purgatory. Who knows?”

    Here’s a well known central Illinois ghost story that has a significant Catholic connection:


    It was also dramatized on the Discovery Channel in 2005, although some details were changed and the location was not the same since the real Lake Club had burned down years before (the nightclub used in the film was in Norfolk, Va.)

    The prayers said by the priest in this case were not “exorcism” prayers as one might use to cast out a demon (which would have required formal permission of the local bishop) but prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased person, and they did, apparently, have an immediate effect.

  21. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    , I have have come to experience indifference and utter disbelief from Catholic clergy when relating a personal ghostly experience as a five year old child that occured over at least three specific incidents, which later became clarified during a deep meditative experience seventeen years later. The profound out of physical sensations meditation recalled and revealed in great detail, the incidents and related events, as an intuitive revelaion of what I had completely forgotten about for seventeen years and seemed totally incongruous with the reason I was attempting the meditative effort. And yet it all came so precisely to explained the forgotten past events with what was going on at the age of 22 years old. Because the Catholic faith has little teaching on ghost much more experience on the subject, and clergy are taught that Catholic funerals as a sacrament prevent any such wanderings of the deceased individuals soul, they dogmatically avoid any discussion to the contrary on average. Although my expereince and story is rather lengthy, it is quite clear and understandable as to how and why the resulting circumstances evolved and led to the revelatory meditative enlightenment. This would cause many Catholic clergy to have to question and some rather dogmatic beliefs to be reconsidered and the Church clergy don’t like having to revise personal faith dogma anymore than absolutely necessary. For us who have had personal revelation, faith is a luxury for those who believe but have not seen. These experiences by no means marginalize the teachings of Christ or the scriptures but rather clarify and strengthen them. But it does leave those of eclasiastic authority in fear of losing validity of what they have been trained to believe, teach and uphold as personal faith dogma. Their faith is often the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. We who have had such metaphysical experience, although far less knowlegeable or trained in Church and scriptural dogma, have seen and having seen know somethings beyond faith. It does’t lessen our Catholic faith but stengthens it through transcendental knowlege and being at one with Wisdom in our personal experience.

  22. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    A voice crying in the wilderness.

  23. Donna V says:

    Didn’t C.S. Lewis in (if I remember correctly) “The Great Divorce” describe ghosts as souls who could not bear to leave earth and their past lives? I think it provided Lewis with a chance to get in a little dig at his fellow authors, who were described as disproportionally represented among the ghostly population. The writer/ghosts took to hanging around libraries and bookstores, obsessively checking to make sure their books were still on the shelves and that their literary reputations were still intact. Lewis represented ghosts as more pathetic than frightening, spirits far more concerned with the petty things of this earth than with eternal life.

    Given his view of ghosts, I doubt any undergrads are running into the spirit of C. S. Lewis in Oxford pubs or library stacks:-)

  24. Donna says:

    Just a warning from the Catholic Culture website on one of the links:

    “Ohio Spiritual Warfare Center

    OSWC is self-described as “a free service devoted to educating the faithful on matters of spiritual warfare and the dangers of the occult, the new age, including information and help with ghosts, demons, poltergeists, hauntings, apparitions, oppression, possession, demonic infestation and the spiritual warfare issues of our current age.” ….

    ….Until July 2009 WHOIS had this site registered under John Paul Ignatius …. as part of the St. Michael’s Call site. It is now registered to Joe Meineke. John Paul Ignatius is apparently Richard Lee Collett Jr., a sex offender convicted as recently as 2005. Please see our review of St. Michael’s Call for more information.

    …(It) has no official standing in the Diocese of Columbus, the founder is of questionable character and Mr. Meineke’s qualifications and training are unknown. For these reasons we recommend that you be wary about contributing money, seeking personal advice, or joining in this apostolate. “

  25. Thanks for the tip! (Link removed)

  26. Elaine Krewer says:

    “Lewis represented ghosts as more pathetic than frightening”

    In “Great Divorce” Lewis distinguished between Ghosts, the souls in hell or purgatory, and Spirits, the souls in heaven. Ghosts were, literally, mere shadows of their former selves and could hardly bear even to walk or touch anything in Heaven, while Spirits were vibrant, solid beings.

  27. Rebecca says:

    I suggest that you guys read HUNGRY SOULS….it is a awesome book about purgatory!! it contains pictures of burnt articles touched by souls from purgatory!!

  28. Mike Walsh says:

    I cannot validate the author’s experience or the authenticity of his account. But a trip to Mary Ann Winkowski’s site is a good introduction to much that is wrong with the modern do-it-yourself spirituality, however much she may lay claim to a Catholic identity.

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