It’s “spooky season,” which means the return of the Sanderson Sisters, haunted houses, and scary movies. Whether it’s witches, blood and gore, demonic possession, or ghosts, this time of year reminds us of our fascination with things otherworldly, supernatural, and a bit macabre. Did you know that the Catholic Church has its own share of creepy, eerie, and mysterious things that go bump in the night? Here’s a round-up of the spookiest Catholic beliefs.
Relics: Family Heirlooms from the Saints
The head of Catherine of Siena. The hand of Francis Xavier. The heart of Jean Vianney. What do these items have in common? They’re all relics of Catholic saints and, yes, you can see them on display.
Relics are the bones, body parts, clothing, or personal possessions of saints that are revered by the Church and often associated with miracles. Like heirlooms passed on by families, relics are a way to preserve the memories of fellow Christians. These tangible objects remind us of the bodily existence of the saint and a way to connect with his or her example – kind of like how you might hold onto your grandma's favorite apron.
The reverence we offer these relics is called veneration, and it’s not worship. Rather, it’s “the honoring, cherishing, respecting, and devotion of heart given to the saints [as] an expression of our friendship and love for the saints.” Relics help us remember the real connection between us here on earth and the saints in heaven who continue to pray for us.
During the earliest days of the Church, persecuted Christians in Rome had to meet in the catacombs (burial sites of early Christians) to celebrate Mass. Being surrounded by these tombs led to the veneration of relics. This practice developed into taking relics from saints beginning as early as 156 AD, when it was said that after the martyrdom of a bishop in Turkey, Christians “took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place” so as to gather together to “celebrate his martyrdom.”
By the 12th century, relics were a common practice in Christianity and a source of pilgrimages. It is still common practice today to place a relic of a saint in the altar (or underneath it) to recall those early Masses in the catacombs.
There’s even a precedent for relics in the Bible, such as Moses taking of Joseph’s bones after the Exodus and a woman being cured of a hemorrhage by touching Jesus’ cloak.
One especially spooky relic is the blood of St. Gennaro (a third century bishop) in Naples, Italy. His blood is contained in a vial and displayed three times each year. The relic of dried blood typically rests on one side of the container, but on these special days it is miraculously restored to its liquid state and covers the entire glass.
The Incorruptibles: Bodies Preserved from Decay After Death
Incorruptibles are saints whose bodies have been miraculously preserved from normal decay after death. While this is the general definition, the Church “does not have a cut-and-dried definition of what condition a holy person’s body must be found in to be declared incorrupt, and it does not necessarily require that the body remains permanently in the same condition in which it is found.”
While what “counts” as incorruptible can vary, all examples are miraculous since they cannot be explained by any means of preservation or by natural processes. Signs that a body is incorrupt include “retain[ing] lifelike flexibility, color, and freshness” for many years after death. Some examples of saints that are found in some state of incorruptibility are St. Rita of Cascia, St. Zita, St. Bernadette, St. John Bosco, and St. Catherine Laboure.
The Church acknowledges any scientific or medical explanations for this phenomenon, especially when previously declared incorruptibles are shown to have received preservative methods. Therefore, this is not used as a miracle in the process of declaring someone a saint, nor is it something that the Church will officially declare of any body found to be incorrupt. However, the existence of these bodies can teach us something: They may be viewed as a confirmation of the person’s existence in heaven and they can remind us of the resurrection of the bodies at the end of time. Ultimately, they can provide hope in the miraculous and in eternal life.
Bleeding Communion Hosts
In the Catholic faith, the Eucharist is believed to be the body and blood of Jesus, a teaching that can be hard to accept for a variety of reasons, including that the Eucharist still appears as bread and wine. Doubt in the Eucharist has been present since its inception, and has raised many objections and questions. Sometimes, these doubts and questions have been answered miraculously.
Eucharistic miracles are instances in which the Eucharist no longer appears as bread and wine, but as human flesh and blood to reveal its true nature as Jesus’ body and blood. The Vatican International Exhibition showcases 100+ eucharistic miracles that have taken place all over the world.
The first of these miracles took place in 750 AD in Lanciano, Italy when a doubtful priest celebrating Mass found that the bread and wine had turned into flesh and blood on the altar. This exact flesh and blood remains preserved today at the Church of San Francesco.
In the 13th century, a Portuguese woman consulted a witch to help her deal with her unfaithful husband. The cost of this help was a stolen consecrated host from Mass. After stealing a host, the woman found that it started to bleed. She repented and gave the host back to her priest and that host continues to bleed today at the Church of the Holy Miracle in Santarem, Portugal.
Eucharistic miracles have been reported in the 20th and 21st centuries in Venezuela (1991), Argentina (1996, investigated by Jorge Bergolio, now Pope Francis), India (2001), Mexico (2006), and Poland (2008 and 2013).
These miracles have undergone extensive scientific study, beginning with Lanciano in 1970. These studies found common features in miracles that span geography and time: the blood is human and AB type, the blood is fresh and contains white blood cells as if the heart were still beating, and the flesh is human tissue of the left ventricle of an inflamed heart. Each of these features has not been explained nor been able to be replicated by any available scientific techniques to date.
Exorcisms: They Aren’t Just in the Movies
Since the 1973 release of The Exorcist, a popular trope of scary movies is a possessed person in need of an exorcism. This phenomenon provides great visuals and scary imagery, but it can be easy to forget that demonic possession is real.
Exorcisms are “when the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion… Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church.”
Exorcisms may only be performed by a priest with the permission of the bishop, and they are rooted in the authority of Jesus, who performed exorcisms in the Gospels. There is one exorcist per diocese who is especially trained to perform exorcisms, and whose identity is known only to the bishop.
True demonic possession is pretty rare and the Church is careful not to immediately declare a supernatural cause for disturbing behavior. To determine whether an exorcism is needed, the person must first be interviewed by medical professionals to rule out any neurological or psychological explanations for the person’s behavior and experiences, according to USCCB protocol.
As is often depicted in movies, signs of possession may in fact include hatred of holy things, knowledge of languages not studied by the subject, predictions of future events, strange noises, flying objects, violent attacks, and severe personality changes. These signs are intermittent, with moments of lucidity in between. The possessed may have no idea in their lucid moments what is happening during these manifestations of possession, and the Church does not hold the subject personally responsible for what happens during this time.
Demonic possession doesn’t happen suddenly, and it’s typically the third and final step of a progression that begins with temptation and then oppression/obsession. This progression usually stems from involvement in the occult, such as seeking mediums and using Ouija boards. What begins as fun and games can be, in fact, opening up to evil forces. Protecting against evil and possession is actually rather ordinary: prayer, Mass, the sacraments, and generally maintaining a relationship with God can all protect us.
The Rite of Exorcism includes prayers, blessings, and calling on the help of Mary and the saints, all in the name of Jesus, who is the one that truly expels the demon. The rite is continued until the demon is cast out, which could be hours, weeks, or even years. Exorcisms are part of the healing ministry of the Church, meaning that the goal is both to remove the demonic influence and to provide healing for the one possessed.
Memento Mori: Remembering Our Death
The Catholic Church is very comfortable with the topic of death, which can be off-putting in a culture that is so uncomfortable with the topic. Some communities still proclaim, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” when placing ashes on people’s foreheads during Ash Wednesday. We dedicate the entire month of November to remembering the dead, and many portraits of saints include a skull as a symbol of memento mori, “remembering your death.”
While this practice was popularized during the medieval period, it has its roots in the Bible:
“In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.”
“So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Memento mori means a few things. First, it’s a reminder that we all do in fact die. It’s a call to remember our mortality. However, it is also a call to remember that our earthly life is not our only life. Second, this phrase reminds us to contemplate our death and the offer of eternal life beyond death because our earthly lives, choices, and actions determine the course of that eternal life.
The focus on the end of life can motivate our daily living, inspiring us to choose to live well. The Catechism reminds us that “death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment.” Sr. Theresa Aletheia, a former atheist now known as the “death nun,” is on a quest to renew this practice (and you can find more from her on Twitter).