The useful book that answers questions about the faith you were too scared to ask

Pope Francis pours water over the head of a baby as he celebrates the baptism of 23 babies in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican (CNS)

I have been reading a useful and informative book: A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask by Fr Michael Kerper, a parish priest in New Hampshire. Some of the questions can easily be answered by anyone of my generation who was taught the Catechism, such as “What’s the difference between mortal and venial sins?”, “What is the Act of Contrition?” and “Is damnation real?”

Others are less easy of definition, such as “Whatever happened to Limbo?” This elicits the author’s sensible statement: “As much as we want to know precisely what happens to non-baptised persons – children and good people – the simple truth is that God’s revelation doesn’t tell us. In the past, Limbo became the favoured opinion because many in the Church stressed the necessity of Baptism. Today, however, many theologians, including Pope Benedict XVI, see that opinion as explaining too much, thereby foreclosing possibilities known to God alone.”

The corollary to this, “Can I baptise someone?” provides an answer that reminds us, “A Catholic should…refrain from baptising someone else’s child, even a grandchild, and should not feel guilty about it. Such a situation calls for patient sensitivity towards the rights of the parents who have chosen not to baptise their child.”

I am reminded of the situation in formerly Communist Russia after the Revolution, when practising your religion could mean death; many grandparents, who looked after grandchildren when their parents worked long hours or had disappeared into the Gulag, and who had retained their own secret practice of the Orthodox faith, probably did baptise their grandchildren. Indeed, former President Gorbachev is on record as saying he was baptised by his grandfather in the Volga River as a young child; he believed it sowed the seeds of his later friendship and rapport with Pope John Paul II.

Another question that interested me was “Do ghosts really exist?” Fr Kerper rephrases it as “Can bodiless souls – ghosts – appear and intervene in our lives?” He explains that of the billions of human beings who have “lost” their bodies through death, “only those few souls whose presence is felt or seen by others are truly ghosts.” He believes their existence is “plausible” but that we also have to be very cautious about this phenomenon.

After citing Scriptural instances of ghost stories, he refers to St Thomas Aquinas who believed that saintly apparitions sometimes occur “to bring comfort and encouragement” to the living. St Thomas also stated that the souls of the dead who are not in heaven “can never appear to the living without God’s consent.” Why would God allow this? St Thomas suggests two reasons: to warn and to seek spiritual assistance, such as prayer. On the question of credible stories of destructive “hauntings”, St Thomas insisted that these were most likely “demons masquerading as ghosts.”

Fr Kerper reassures us that “the spiritual bonds between the living and the dead, especially those who love one another, are deep, unbreakable, and mysterious because they are rooted in the Body of Christ.”