All Saints and All Souls

All Saints – 1st  November

On 1st November the Church throughout the world celebrates the Feast of All Saints. This one day of the year is set aside to honour all those people who are said to have lived the Christian life fully and are believed to be in God’s presence.

In its early years the Church gave special honour to the martyrs – those Christians who died for their Christian faith and gave public witness to it, especially during certain state-sponsored persecutions of Christians. Each martyr was assigned a day of remembrance in the Church’s liturgical calendar, when Mass would be celebrated in his or her honour. The number of martyrs grew until, in time, there were more martyrs than there were days in the year, so one day was set aside for a remembrance of all martyrs. In some places this feast was celebrated in Easter Week, to identify the martyrs’ achievement with Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

In the 7th century, Christians who were judged to have the lived the Gospel as fully as humanly possible were added to the list of martyrs, to be venerated as ‘saints’, i.e. holy people. These were presented to their fellow Christians as models of how to live the Christian life.

By our baptism we have become their companions, and we are linked to them in what is called the communion of saints, or company of the saints. So the Church encourages us to ask them to present our prayers to God on our behalf, because they are considered to be in God’s presence, and their prayers for us are presumed to be more effective than ours alone would be. The religious practice of asking the saints to speak to God for us became widespread in the Middle Ages, and since then has extended into our own era.

The ‘cult’ of the saints has had a great influence on Church art, music, poetry, architecture (especially where a church is named after a local saint), and on the development of church liturgy and religious literary works. The people’s devotion to a particular saint often got an added impulse when miracles, attributed to the saint’s prayers, were approved as authentic by the Church.

In the 8th century Pope Gregory III dedicated an oratory in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints of the Church. In time a feast of all the saints was celebrated in England and Ireland on 1st November, and this eventually became the date for the celebration throughout the Church.

All  Souls  Day -  2nd November

On the day after All Saints Day, we have All Souls Day, when we commemorate our dead - those who “have gone before us marked with the sign of faith”, as we say at Mass in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer. In the Church’s early years there was a general remembrance of the dead in every Eucharistic liturgy (as there still is today). The prayer in those earlier times was a petition to God for the departed person to share in the victory of the Risen Christ.

The practice of praying for a particular departed person developed first in monastic communities, where prayers would be offered on the anniversaries of deceased monks. This developed further into prayers on set days ‘for all the faithful’, and the day set aside for these was usually in Easter Week, to link the liturgy for the dead with Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

It seems that the observance of All Souls Day, as we now know it, derives from the instruction of St Odilo, abbot of the Cluny Monastery in France, who fixed 2nd November as the memorial day to pray for the deceased monks of all the monasteries in his care. From about the year 1000 this practice was extended to include all the ‘faithful departed’, and became an official part of the Roman rite of the Church.

During the First World War (1914-1918) Pope Benedict XV, a leading peace advocate, was so appalled by the ‘useless slaughter’ of that war that he introduced a practice which allowed priests to say three Masses on All Souls Day, so that they could keep up with the requests for Masses to be said for the war dead especially.

Now, on 2nd November, Christians around the world remember deceased family members, relatives and friends; visit their graves and place flowers on them; have Masses said for them, and ask God to bring them into the fulness of life in heaven.

Paul J. Duffy SJ