R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.
Do Catholics believe in ghosts? Absolutely! Ghosts, defined as disembodied, human spirits (as opposed to angels), are one of the ways we know about purgatory (though it is also revealed by God). Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, coming out of the great thirteenth century, became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. You can think of it as an earlier version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. We tend to think of a legend as something fictitious, but legenda simply meant something to be read. Some do accuse Voragine, however, of indulging in things we would consider legendary (which may have contributed to the modern meaning of the word).
In terms of Catholic ghosts, we recognize that we have contact with those in the Communion of Saints. Not only do saints appear to us occasionally, we also have visitations of those in purgatory. I have heard a few friends recount such experiences, especially in dreams. These encounters with souls in purgatory generally entail a request for prayers.
For the entry for All Souls Day in the Golden Legend, we see a long list of such encounters with the ghosts or spirits of purgatory. Below is a selection of them (though click on the link to volume six of the Golden Legend for the complete entry; I altered some of the language to make it more readable).
Overall, these stories should remind us that we are still connected to our friends and family who have died. We really can help them and should remember them every day in prayer and should have Masses said for them.
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Here follows the Commemoration of All Souls (found in volume 6)
The memory of the departing of all Christian souls is established to be solemnized in the church on this day, to the end that they may have general aid and comfort . . . as it is showed in the foresaid revelation.
And Peter Damian said that in Sicily, in the isle of Vulcan, S. Odille heard the voices and the howlings of devils, which complained strongly because the souls of the dead were taken away from their hands by alms and by prayers, and therefore he ordained that the feast and remembrance of them that be departed out of this world should be made and held in all monasteries the day after the feast of All Hallows, the which thing was approved after of all holy Church….
There was a master which was chancellor at Paris named Silo, which had a scholar sick, and he prayed him that after his death he should come again to him and say to him of his estate. And he promised him so to do, and after died. And a while after he appeared to him clad in a cope written full of arguments fallacious, and sophisms, and was of parchment, and within all full of flame of fire. And the chancellor demanded him what he was. And he told to him: I am such one that am come again to thee. And the chancellor demanded him of his estate, and he said: This cope weighs on me more than a mill-stone or a tower, and it is given me for to bear, for the glory that I had in my sophisms and sophistical arguments, that is to say, deceivable and fallacious. The skins be light, but the flame of fire within torments and burns me. And when the master judged the pain to be light, the dead scholar said to him, that he should put forth his hand and feel the lightness of his pain. And he put forth his hand, and that other let fall a drop of his sweat on it, and the drop pierced through his hand sooner than an arrow could be shot through, whereby he felt a marvelous torment. And the dead man said: I am all in such pain. And then the chancellor was all afraid of the cruel and terrible pain that he had felt, and concluded to forsake the world, and entered into religion with great devotion….
Sometimes souls are punished in the places where they have sinned, as appears by an example that S. Gregory recites in the fourth book of his Dialogues, and says that there was a priest which used gladly a bath, and when he came in to the bath he found a man whom he knew always ready to serve him. And it happened on a day, that for his diligent service and his reward, the priest gave to him a holy loaf. And he weeping, answered: Father, why do you give me this thing? I may not eat it for it is holy. I was sometime lord of this place, but after my death, I was deputed to serve here for my sins, but I pray thee that thou wilt offer this bread unto Almighty God for my sins, and know thou for certain that thy prayer shall be heard, and when then thou shalt come to wash, thou shalt not find me. And then this priest offered a week entire sacrifice to God for him, and when he came again he found him not….
As touching to that that the prayers of friends profit to them, it appears by example of Paschasius, of whom Gregory tells in the fourth book of his Dialogues, and says that there was a man of great holiness and virtue, and two were chosen for to have been popes, but nevertheless at the last the church accorded unto one of them, and this Paschasius always by error suffered [was bother by] that other, and abode in this error unto the death. And when he was dead the bier was covered with a cloth named a dalmatic, and one that was vexed with a devil was brought thither and touched the cloth, and immediately he was made whole. And a long time after, as S. Germain, bishop of Capua, went to wash him in a bath for his health, he found Paschasius deacon there. And when he saw him he was afraid, and enquired diligently what thing so great had placed so holy a man there. And he said to him that he was there for none other cause but for that he held and sustained more than was right in the cause aforesaid, and said: I require thee that thou pray our Lord for me. And know that thou shalt be heard, for when thou shalt come again, thou shalt not find me here. And then the bishop prayed for him, and when he came again he found him not.
And Peter, abbot of Cluny, says that there was a priest that sung every day a Requiem Mass for all Christian souls, and for this he was accused to the bishop, and was suspended therefore of his office. And as the bishop went on a day of great solemnity in the churchyard, all the dead arose up against him, saying: This bishop giveth to us no Mass, and yet he hath taken away our priest from us, now he shall be certain that unless he amends he shall die. And then the bishop absolved the priest, and sang himself gladly for them that were passed out of this world. And so it appears that the prayers of living people be profitable to them that be departed…..
It happened that a legate of the pope requested a noble knight, that he would make war in the service of the church and ride to the Albigensians, and he would therefore give pardon to his father which was dead. And the knight rode forth, and abode there a whole Lent, and that done his father appeared to him more clear than the day, and thanked him for his deliverance….
It is read that when a knight lay in his bed with his wife, and the moon shone right clear which entered in by the crevices, he marveled much why man who is reasonable obeyed not to his Maker, when the creatures not reasonable obeyed him. And then he began to speak evil of a knight which was dead, and had been familiar with him; and then this knight, to whom they so talked, entered into the chamber and said to him: Friend, have none evil suspicion of any man, but pardon me if I have trespassed to thee. And when he had demanded him of his state, he answered: I am tormented of diverse torments and pains, and especially because I defiled the churchyard and hurt a man therein, and despoiled him of his mantle which he wore, which mantle I bear on me and is heavier than a mountain. And then he prayed the knight that he would pray for him. And then he demanded if he would that such a priest should pray for him, or such one, and the dead man wagged his head, and answered not, as he would not have him. Then he asked of him if he would that such a hermit should pray for him, and then the dead man answered: Would God that he would pray for me. And the living knight promised that he should pray for him, and then the dead man said: And I say to thee that this day two years thou shalt die, and so vanished away. And this knight changed his life into better and at the day slept in our Lord.