Praying for the Dead: Catholicism and Ghosts


Image Courtesy of Lonely Planet

By Kristijan Jakominich

This is an independently submitted op-ed for our Quill section. Views and statements made in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of  The Tower.

As we pass into November, a month the Church dedicates to praying for the dead, one might ask: What does the Church teach about ghosts? Are they real? Are they demons? 

By ghosts, I mean the disembodied spirits that appear to people and sometimes affect things in the material realm, such as throwing books around a room. I don’t necessarily mean the big hauntings you see in movies like The Conjuring, though those can come to mind in some specific cases. The Catechism doesn’t explicitly say anything about ghosts and the like. The existence of ghosts has been a big source of disagreement over the centuries between theologians, dating back even to the Church Fathers.

As in many questions, then, St. Thomas is a reliable source on Church doctrine. In response to St. Augustine’s claim that ghosts don’t exist, he writes: “…according to the disposition of divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men. . . . It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living.”

What is this to mean? Apparitions of spirits occur only at the behest of Divine Providence, and always for the betterment of the souls to whom they appear. This can include angelic and heavenly figures, the souls in Purgatory, and the souls of demons and the damned. Let us then look at each of these.

Heavenly apparitions are nothing new to most Catholics. The Divine Mercy apparitions, Our Lady of Fatima, and many other apparitions are sources of much of the devotional life of the Church and shape our faith lives in various ways. Of course, these require careful theological discernment to determine their validity, and there are dozens of false apparitions that are either fake or demonic in origin. These deserve their own discussion.  

The souls in Purgatory that appear are, properly speaking, closest to what we may call ghosts. When these souls appear, it is almost always as a favorable sign from Heaven that this soul needs prayers to leave Purgatory. It is traditional practice that forty Masses are said for such people. In these cases, they may also carry warnings for certain sinners to change their lives. St. Padre Pio received many of these ghosts, and figures such as Pope Innocent III and Benito Mussolini (yes, that one) have been seen as such figures needing prayers. If you’re shocked by the latter, remember that God’s mercy is always greater than any sin we could ever commit.  The entire purpose of Purgatory is to purify souls before entering Heaven and to pay the temporal price for their sins. 

The damned always appear as a warning. Again, this is recorded several times. St. Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order, was shaken to the core when a professor and priest at a local college, widely renowned as a holy and wise man, leapt up at his funeral Mass and declared to the congregation that he had been damned for his sins. There are other stories such as this, but they are apocryphal. Interestingly, there are cases of damned human souls coming up in exorcisms. Figures such as Adolf Hitler (again, that one) have been recorded as appearing in exorcisms. The culprit of dozens of possession cases over the centuries, has been Judas Iscariot—or demons claiming to be him.

Demons, of course, appear in exorcisms, but frankly relying on them for any knowledge (something some exorcists try to do, to well-deserved criticism) is quite foolish. Demons are liars, with Satan being the father of lies. Whatever they say that is truthful is forced out of them by God. 

What is to be done with this information, then? Most importantly, pray for the souls in Purgatory. There are many souls that go forgotten and unnoticed, and suffer without any relief for many centuries. These souls need our prayers to enter Heaven, and it is God’s will that we pray for them. The ones that appear are a small minority; there are likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions of souls there that need our help.

If you ever encounter any of the supernatural things listed above, immediately contact a priest or your diocese. Each diocese has an exorcist, so if it is a malevolent spirit, they will handle it. It is also helpful for a soul in Purgatory, as they can offer the Mass for them. If it is a Heavenly apparition, the diocese will most certainly want to know about it and investigate it. Of course, most of us will likely not encounter any of these, but it is still useful to know.

All Information and Quotations are courtesy of Catholic Answers.

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