Do ghosts really exist?
Yes, ghosts do exist, but the Church has never given any binding teaching about them. We should not confuse them with angels or demons. Angels are an entirely different species from human beings, and demons are fallen angels. Ghosts are deceased human beings, and let me say from the outset, we should never try to communicate with or contact the dead in any way because it is sinful and can also be dangerous. Ghosts are real people who once lived on this earth, but with death having separated them from their body, they are now spirits. The reason it is sinful to try and contact the dead is because it can leave us open to diabolical influence and deception. This is why the Church teaches that the use of Ouija boards, consulting mediums or going to séances and such like are sinful. We leave ourselves wide open to evil since we could be summoning up a damned soul or even a demon.
There are three kinds of ghosts, and they come from each of the three places of the afterlife: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. God sometimes permits a soul from Purgatory to appear, usually to ask for prayers to get them to Heaven. These are probably souls who barely made it to Purgatory and so they need a lot of help from us in terms of prayers and Masses. St Padre Pio (1887-1968) had many souls appear to him to ask his help in releasing them from Purgatory. Then there are the damned souls. As extraordinary as it might sound, there are many instances in Church history where God has allowed a damned soul to appear to a living person to warn them, so as to get them back on the right track. Blessed Richard of St Ann (died 1622) reported the apparition of a damned soul who before his conversion had been his companion in debauchery, but had suddenly died after both young men had visited a prostitute. God permitted the damned soul to appear to Richard that same night to warn him to repent, lest he, too, be damned. Then there are the souls in Heaven who might appear to family members to let them know they are okay and that they are saved. But damned souls can sometimes deceive us and appear as a good spirit, perhaps to try and get us to continue in some sin, whereas a good spirit will never appear as an evil one. So if a good ghost appears to us, it’s a gift of God, but we must never seek them out, because we could be easily deceived by evil forces.
There are instances in the Bible where ghosts or spirits appear to the living. In the Old Testament, Saul gets the Witch of Endor to summon up the ghost of Samuel for evil ends (1 Samuel 28). Then in the New Testament, Moses who had died centuries earlier, appeared with JESUS on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). And then in Luke (24:36-43), the resurrected Christ appears to the disciples and they think He is a ghost. Now JESUS here didn’t tell them ghosts don’t exist, but simply said He wasn’t a ghost. If they didn’t exist, He would have said, “Ghosts don’t exist.” So here is an affirmation by JESUS that ghosts do indeed exist.
Finally, there is a vast difference between praying to a saint and summoning up the dead. When the Church canonises a saint, she is formally telling us that a particular person is now in Heaven, and so in that sense they are alive, and it is therefore good to pray to them and ask for their intercession. So when the Bible tells us not to communicate with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:11), it’s referring to the damned, who spiritually speaking are dead. They are dead in mortal sin for all eternity, whereas as praying to the saints is not communicating with the dead, because they are alive in Christ.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC