With Halloween just around the corner on October 31, it seems appropriate to take a break from the serious topics I’ve been discussing to talk about something lighter.
According to various surveys, eighty-two percent of adult Americans believe in God and in an afterlife. One recent survey found that more Britons believe in ghosts than believe in God. Other surveys find that from thirty-three to seventy percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The main reason people state for believing in ghosts is that they’ve either had an experience with one themselves, or know someone who has.
The closest I think I’ve ever come to seeing a ghost is in a photograph I took at dusk of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. The Castillo is one of the oldest structures in the United States, dating back to the Spanish occupation of Florida after Columbus “discovered” America. When that exposure came back developed, there were four transparent soldiers in red and white uniforms, one with a drum, marching beside the Castillo. The photo is not a double exposure, and I hadn’t seen any transparent soldiers marching in the camera viewfinder when I took the picture.
One of our daughters lived for a time in rural Georgia in an old farmhouse. At various times, she, her husband and both of their children saw the ghost of a young boy. Sometimes the boy would be looking through farmhouse windows from outside. Sometimes the ghost would appear in the house, looking into a bedroom or another room. These apparitions occurred so often that it would be difficult to term them hallucinations.
So, is it possible that some souls linger here on earth for a time, unable to find their way to the afterlife where they belong? And are ghosts, which are recognized in almost all major cultures across time, evidence that a part of us—our spirit or soul—lives on after death, in a form that is devoid of matter, but in appearance resembles the body we had in life?
The Catholic Church has its own take on ghosts. The Church believes that ghosts, or spirits, do exist. There are times when spirits appear to our benefit, but we are warned against attempting to contact these spirits—especially the spirits of departed loved ones—through occult means such as séances.
As for children going out on Halloween to “trick or treat,” dressed up as ghosts, zombies, vampires and the like, the Church has no objections. Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, "if English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.”
Catholicism holds that we must not attempt to conjure or control spirits. But that doesn’t mean we’re forbidden from asking one or another of the saints to intercede for us. When our Siamese cat Sadie escaped the house in pursuit of a neighborhood cat she dislikes, I asked for the intercession of Saint Anthony, the patron of lost items. There’s a little prayer Catholics say, “St. Anthony, please look around, something lost has to be found.” I said it multiple times, and after three days of searching, we successfully found the cat, who had gone into hiding. Did St. Anthony intervene? I’ll probably never know that, but I’m grateful the cat was found before harm came to her.
Getting back to the discussion of ghosts … “Ghost” is simply another word for spirit. (Geist means “spirit” in German.) There are three kinds of spirit: the human spirit which, combined with body, make up a human being; the defined spirit that has no body, such as angels; and the infinite Spirit, or God, of whom the third person is the Holy Ghost.
When someone asks about ghosts, he or she usually has in mind the first kind, a human spirit or soul that may be incorporated in a body, or may have departed the body.
Not just Catholicism, but Christianity in general, 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, in the lives of the saints for example, to indicate that such apparitions occur. The purpose of the ghost may be to teach or warn, or request some favor of the living.
The history of Halloween’s evolution from a pagan to a Christian observance is an interesting one. Antecedents can be traced to the Roman observances of Pomona (goddess of fruits and seeds) and Parentalia (festival of the dead), and the Celtic observance of Samhain (summer’s end). For more information on Halloween, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween