I am frequently asked the question that I put to Father Dr François Brune some years ago. Thus, I decided to offer his articulate and well-informed explanation to my readers. Nobody better than François Brune to speak about this complex issue. Hope you enjoy!
It is a question that very rightly worries the Catholics. The majority of priests are persuaded that all these attempts at communication with the Beyond are condemned by the Church. They know these phenomena well through the lives of the saints, but saints are quite rare in this world. Therefore, the majority of priests think about these issues in the following way: this man or this woman who records the voices of the dead seems honest and sincere but, helas, they are not Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Theresa of Avila. Therefore, the voices they record cannot come from God. And if they don’t come from God then they must come from demons. Protestants are even more intransigent than Catholics in these matters. In general, they are more attached to the Old Testament than are Catholics. They will always quote the ancient texts of the Old Testament: ‘you will have no contact with those that communicate with the dead, you will not be in touch with those who give themselves to these practices, etc., etc.’. Regularly some pious souls will send me letters in which they have copied out all those references from the Old Testament, as if I didn’t know them!
But in the Old Testament it is also said: ‘you will make no images’. The most orthodox of Muslims do not make any image even secular. Protestants tolerate secular art but, against Luther’s advice, they have totally renounced sacred art. Catholics and Orthodox Christians do create sacred art, but the Orthodox Church follows very strict rules. Icons avoid all sensuality. They are not really a figurative art but, in the beautiful words of their theologians, a ’transfigurative art’. Catholics have ignored the prohibitions of the Old Testament. They make religious painting and sometimes even too naturalistic and rather sensual paintings, unfortunately somewhat divorced from what sacred art should be!
However, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are right in producing religious writing, since with the incarnation of God in Christ something has profoundly changed. One cannot remain with the Old Testament for ever. The only text in the New Testament that speaks explicitly of communications with the dead is in the first epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (12,10). The Apostle enumerates the diversity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, science, faith, the power to heal, to perform miracles, to make prophecies, to speak in tongues, but also the ‘discernment of the spirits’. I do know that often the translators try to avoid this text by interpreting it. According to them it only means the discernment of spiritual gifts, of charisma, etc. But the Greek language had words to express these things. The term used by Saint Paul is very clear. It means the spirits of the dead. This is indeed one of the roles that spiritual directors could perform: to help the faithful to distinguish among the ‘spirits’ and all paranormal phenomena, those that can be useful for our spiritual evolution and those that can be harmful.
On the 17th of September 1952, an event took place that marked a turning point in the Catholic Church. In the Experimental Physics Laboratory of the Catholic University of Milan, Father Dr. Gemelli, a medical doctor and nuclear physicist and Father Pellegrino Ernetti, a Benedictine from the famous Abbey of Saint Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, were working with early wire recorders in the days before magnetic tape. They were trying to filter out the harmonics from Gregorian chants in order to obtain a purer sound. The wire broke frequently. They had each time to join the wire firmly yet delicately in order not to alter the recording of the sound. Ever since the death of his father, Father Gemelli, whenever faced by difficulties or challenges, had the habit of calling for his father’s help. On the 17th of September the wire broke once again. Father Gemelli cried out as usual ‘Ah father, help me!’ When they again started the machine they heard instead of the Gregorian chants they expected to hear, the voice of Father Gemelli’s father saying ‘But of course I’ll help you! I’m always with you.’ Following this incident, Fathers Gemelli and Ernetti had an audience with Pope Pius XII. It’s interesting to note that the response of the Pope was extremely positive. He immediately understood the implications of such a discovery which he considered could perhaps mean the beginning ‘of a new scientific study to confirm the faith in the Afterlife’. However, Father Ernetti’s researches went into another direction, not less inspiring but far from the communications with the dead.
In spite of its importance this declaration by Pope Pius XII did not constitute an official statement by the Catholic Church in favour of Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC. In addition it seems to me that such a statement will never be made. The Church can only speak of the moral or spiritual problems related to the communications with the dead in general. It is up to scientists and technicians to pass judgement on the reality or otherwise of these communications. It is they who can examine if there are other possible explanations to these paranormal phenomena. Indeed it seems that the latter cannot always be explained only by contacts with our dear deceased ones.
But on the general issue of the communications with the dead, it seems that there has for some time been an evolution in Church circles. The conservative tendency, hostile to any communication with the Beyond, still exists and is alert to defend ‘good’ doctrines. But another trend is discernible. In November 1996, the Franciscan, Father Gino Concetti, a theologian in Rome and regular collaborator with the Osservatore Romano, made an important declaration to the large Italian press agency ANSA. All the big Italian newspapers quoted the declaration, La Stampa, La Repubblica, Il Messagero, Gente, etc. According to these articles published by the press, Father Concetti recognised not only the possibility of communicating with our dead, but also the legitimacy of such attempts at communication, provided they were made for a scientific purpose or for the benefit of grieving people. He insisted at the same time on the necessary attitude of reservation and carefulness that it is important constantly to bear in mind. However, certain of the statements attributed to him in those articles were excessive, and certainly did not come from him. On the subject of ITC for example, he was quoted as saying that it would be even better if it were the priests who attempted the communications. It was as if he was telling every priest: ‘go at once to your tape recorders!’
Hostility towards these apparent sentiments manifested itself immediately. Throughout the world Father Concetti received demands for explanations and for him to confirm or deny the remarks that had been attributed to him. He then wrote to newspapers in order to set the record straight, informing readers that contrary to popular belief the alleged statements were not taken from an article published in the Osservatore Romano, but from a brief declaration made to the Italian press agency ANSA. He added that the journalists had misrepresented his words, although he did not specify in which way they had done so. I will therefore clarify what appears to me to be the most accurate version by quoting from a letter by him, of which I have a photocopy. For Father Concetti everything appears to start with the ‘Communion of Saints’, by which he means the communion between the living and the deceased, be they canonised or not. The ‘Communion of Saints’ means for Father Concetti not only those who have been officially pronounced ‘saints’ by the Church, but all the deceased who do not place themselves beyond the reach of God’s love. The theological principle here is that: Where there is communion there is equally communication. But communication does not always take place in a uniform and identical way. Rather, it depends upon the individuals concerned. A spiritual communication between the living and the deceased is thus different from communication among the living. I personally firmly believe that this communication between living and deceased exists. The liturgy states that life is transformed, not defeated by death. Therefore the communion (of saints) is not permanently interrupted. The relatives and friends who are dead continue to love and help us. However, we are not always aware of the manner in which they do so.
It is clear that what Father Concetti says in this letter contains very firm, positive elements, but they do not go far enough. The terms employed by him, according to ‘Gente’, were far more explicit. It does not seem possible to me that they were totally invented by the journalists or even ‘manipulated’ by the board of directors of the newspaper, as he claims in order to defend himself. The article concerned is too long to reproduce here. I will therefore limit myself to some of the precise points attributed to Father Concetti by ‘Gente’: ‘the Church has decided no longer to forbid conversations with the dead provided they have serious intentions, whether scientific or religious’. Whether he was correctly quoted in this or not, the words attributed to him correctly represent the reality of the situation. I have taken part in three of the programmes entitled ‘Mistery’ broadcasted by the Italian TV channel RAI UNO. I remember that in the course of the second programme another priest was also on the panel. It was confirmed to me afterwards that he had been specifically sent by the Vatican not to oppose me but solely to ensure that the formal position of the Church was made clear. During the programme he asked me insistently and on several occasions to emphasise in my books and in my lectures that I had no warrant from the Church to study and to disseminate information on these phenomena, although he recognised that as a Catholic and even as a priest I had a perfect right to interest myself and research into them and to make the results known.
Thus I do not think that in essentials the statement of Father Concetti was greatly misrepresented by the article in ‘Gente’. In addition, other theologians immediately took the same position, even though it seemed they did so with greater reserve. Richard Neuhaus, an American priest, affirmed in the catholic newspaper ‘Avvenire’ that in his view ‘contacts with the deceased are not impossible’. However, according to the magazine ‘Vita e Mistero’, the theologian was only referring to spontaneous cases.
There is however a gradual evolution of thinking within the Church, thanks certainly to the indefatigable work done in Italy for the past ten years by the ‘Il Movimento della Speranza’ association. The association has either directly organized or supported throughout Italy numerous conferences designed to bring reassurance to all those devastated by the death of a loved one, most frequently parents who have lost children. Every time at these conferences I find myself together with other priests invited like myself to give talks, while at the same time mediums are available to these parents elsewhere in the hotel. These things are formally advertised without any official reaction from the Church, either approving or disapproving. At the end of these meetings, mass is celebrated for all those who wish it, and the great majority of those present take communion. Each year in France the ‘Infinitude’ association organise a meeting in the environs of the basilica of Montligeon, dedicated by its founder to prayers for the departed. The accent of the gathering is more upon spirituality than upon ITC research, but the latter is discussed as well, although of course without public demonstrations and always stressing technical aspects, including the dangers which must always be born in mind, and emphasising above all the profound implications of these discoveries for spiritual development.
I think we cannot ask the Church to become more actively involved. This would be too much for many of the faithful and might leave them open to exploitation by charlatans and to the risk of possession by the souls of the departed. But conversely, I think that it would be very important that priests are well informed of the developments of all these phenomena. Instead of rejecting them all en masse, as illusions or as the work of the devil, they will then be able to help the faithful make the necessary distinction between the spirits, and not become dependent upon these communications but outgrow them little by little in their evolution towards God.
*translation from the original in French by Anabela Cardoso