Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
Can souls of our departed love ones return to earth to appear to us? I recently lost my 45 year old wife and have been praying for a sign that she’s in Heaven and okay. I’m thinking that Heaven is outside of space and time so would be difficult to “crossover” back to earth. What do you think? What does our church say about this?
First of all, please accept my condolences on your terrible loss. May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. In answer to your question, yes, it is possible—and has on rare occasion happened—that God permits the dead to be manifest to the living. We have an example of that in the New Testament, when the long-dead Moses is seen on the Mount of Transfiguration by Peter, James, and John. And throughout the history of the Church there have been similar queer incidents, as for instance the time that St. Thomas Aquinas was heard speaking to somebody in his cell and was reluctant to discuss it till his superior put him under obedience and compelled him to explain. According to Thomas, St. Peter appeared to him to help him with something he was working on.
More prosaically, lots of people have been given various gifts of consolation and signs. A member of my wife’s family, who was gravely ill, awoke from a dream to tell his wife that “the baby” (a little girl who had died some years before) had come to him in the dream and said she’d be back for him on Tuesday.
He died on Tuesday.
My mother, worried that she had not done the right thing in leaving the funeral home to dispose of my father’s ashes, was in the bedroom folding clothes and fretting and finally said aloud, “Pat, I hope I did the right thing.” Right on cue, the music box he had given her began to play. She was instantly at peace.
So yeah, such things can happen. And, as far as I know, it’s fine to ask such questions of God—so long as you leave such matters in the hands of God. What the Tradition profoundly discourages is any attempt to contact the dead ourselves by means of séance, psychics, mediums and so forth. Warnings against necromancy are rife in the Tradition, and are there for our good. God can, of course, do as he pleases. But to try to force his hand and demand a sign is an indication of a lack of faith and, more dangerous still, can expose us to demonic deception. For of course the devil, like a roaring lion, prowls about seeking whom he may devour. And a grieving person, fired with an overpowering insistence that God *must* give them a sign rather than a willingness to trust that He loves the one we lost far more than we do is a perfect pigeon for the devil to wound and even spiritually kill, most effectively by providing lying signs that lead us away from God and toward séances, psychics, and the attempt to traffic in spirits.
The wise course, if you are worried about your wife, is to take her and your love for her to God and to make a firm act of faith in the love God has for your wife. Heaven is, after all, the union of God the Lover with the Beloved for whom he died and rose. The love you have for her is just a faint shadow of the love he has for her. Therefore you can trust that God is infinitely more eager to be joined to her in the eternal joy of heaven than you are. Really trusting in that love, you can ask—without demanding--that he give you some consolation or help in the spirit of the man who told Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” But then after that, really leave the matter in God’s hands as best you can and get on with the business of life—with regular prayer and sacraments, with the process of your grief, with the responsibilities you have to work and family and so forth. Don’t let it dominate you.
The watchword here is Jesus’ counsel: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and everything else you need will be added as well. If God pleases, he can certainly send you the sign you seek. But it may well be that God has something better for you—and for her--than you can currently imagine. Bottom line: Trust him.
One last thing: If you have questions or doubts about some sort of sins in her life that worry you, remember that precisely what the Church has always insisted is that death is not the end of the story—or of your relationship--and that you can help her with your prayers. So bring her very consciously to every Mass and implore the Lord for her and for her purification in Purgatory. We on earth have something the dead no longer have: bodies. With them we can offer sacrifices on their behalf in union with the Body and Blood Jesus offered on the cross and which he offers to us in the Eucharist. Such prayers are enormously powerful according to our Tradition and they are a reminder that we are not helpless. We can also, yes, obtain indulgences on their behalf. Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean you are buying salvation. For an explanation of indulgences, go here. They are a gift of grace that can help us and others. Make use of them.
Finally, one last point. It may be that when you really interrogate the matter you can’t think of any real reason why her salvation is in doubt and it’s just a general and vague fear coming from nowhere in particular and never offering you anything to focus on. As a general rule, such broadcasts on what C.S. Lewis called the “odious inner radio” come not from the Spirit, but from the Enemy. The goal, as ever with Satan, is to do one thing: distract you from following Jesus. He will use anything that comes to hand to do that and anxiety is one of his favorite tools. If you do find that the whole thing boils down to a sort of vague floating anxiety with no specific substance, ask St. Michael, your guardian angel, and your wife’s guardian angel to rebuke the devil in the name of Christ (the St. Michael Prayer is handy here) and then ask the Holy Spirit to fill your heart with his peace in place of the anxiety, show you what the next practical thing is that you need to do, and go do it.