The lives of the saints abound with miraculous and supernatural events. St. Francis experienced stigmata and St. Thérèse of Lisieux battled it out with demons; St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, and even St. Ignatius were known to levitate inches, and sometimes several feet, off the floor during prayer.
St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Padre Pio experienced bilocation, or being in two places at once. St. John of Egypt was a clairvoyant. St. John of the Cross, St. Bernadette, St. Jerome, and St. Clare of Assisi all experienced apparitions and visions of Jesus, Mary, or prophecied future events.
And even one saint had an encounter with a ghost.
On April 2, 1839, a young Catholic seminarian named John Bosco sat in a church mourning the death of his dear friend Louis Comollo. Six years earlier, the two had met during Bosco’s last year in secondary school in Piedmont, a mostly mountainous province in northern Italy.
They attended the seminary together in Chieri, an important textile town about 11 kilometers from Turin that had once been under the thumb of Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th century.
They had an enduring friendship and the two complemented each other’s dispositions. Comollo had always been quiet, frail, and devout; Bosco, on the other hand, while a sensitive and serious young man in his own right, was also funny, loving, and sociable.
Bosco grew up in poverty, but from the age of 9 believed he was on a mission from God. He had his first prophetic dream at that age, when a vision, possibly of Jesus, told him that it was with charity and gentleness that he must bring people together. The dreams would continue for the rest of his life.
Though devoted to God, he was not without his doubts, and the death of his friend was a painful blow to the young student, whose father had died when he was 2 years old.
While they were attending school together, both Bosco and Comollo were captivated by the stories of the saints, and one day they made a pact.
After reading about the exploits of the likes of St. John the prophet, St. Francis the servant, and St. Anthony the desert hermit tormented by devils, they agreed that whoever was the first to die would bring back word of life on the other side to the surviving friend.
That agreement resounded in Bosco’s ears like the church bells that rang through the town that morning of Comollo’s funeral. He sat in the church and looked around for a sign from his friend — a light, a vision, a sudden movement, anything. He listened intently to the words of the funeral rite and to the sounds around him. Nothing.
But Bosco was patient and vowed to keep vigil of the agreement. The words of that old dream he had years ago surely passed through his mind: “What seems so impossible you must achieve by being obedient.” He would be obedient and patient. He would wait as long as he had to for a sign.
It seems Bosco didn’t have to wait long. The next night, he was in his dormitory, a large open room that housed 20 other seminarians, preparing to go to sleep. It had been a long couple of days and the death of Comollo was still burning inside of him.
He lay in his bed, and as his roommates drifted off to sleep, Bosco prayed. He was praying to hear from his friend, to have word from heaven, to confirm for him that he was on the right path and that his dreams weren’t deceptions of the mind, but direct messages from the Almighty.
He lay in bed and waited when a sign, which he documented in one of the many books he wrote during his lifetime, came to pass:
On the stroke of midnight, a deep rumble was heard at the end of the corridor. The rumble became deeper and louder as it drew nearer. It was like the sound of a large cart, or a railway train, or even artillery fire. I do not know how to describe the sound adequately except to say that it was such a mixture of throbbing and rather violent sounds as to leave the hearer utterly terrified and too frightened for words.
As the rumble drew nearer, it made the ceiling, walls, and floor of the hallway vibrate like sheets of metal struck by the hand of some mighty giant. Yet the sound approached so that it was very difficult to pinpoint how close it was, the way one is uncertain where a locomotive is on the track from the jet of steam. All the seminarians in the dormitory woke up, but no one spoke.
I was frozen with fear. The noise came nearer and nearer and grew more frightening. It reached the dormitory; of itself the door slammed open. The roar grew louder, but there was nothing to see except a ghostly multicolored light that seemed to control the sound. Suddenly there was silence, the light intensified, and Comollo’s voice was distinctly heard: “Bosco, Bosco, Bosco — I am saved.”
At that moment the dormitory grew even brighter. The noise erupted again, much longer and louder than before. It was like thunder, so violent that the house seemed about to collapse; then suddenly it stopped and the light vanished.
Was it a dream? The wishful thinking of a young man in mourning? Or had Bosco’s friend come back from the dead for one last goodbye and to affirm that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies?
God only knows. What we do know is that Bosco — who would go on to found the Society of St. Francis de Sales in 1859 and was canonized a saint in 1934 by Pope Pius XI — had received the sign he had been praying for.
Gary Jansen is the author of “Holy Ghosts, Or How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in the Things that Go Bump in the Night.”
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