The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls: A Journey to the Other Side

Fleur Dorrell explores why we celebrate the feast days of All Saints and All Souls and how our Church developed the practice of honouring the Saints and praying for the dead in the liturgical calendar.

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The Bible reserves holiness to God, Yahweh is called the Holy One. This is an awesome holiness, an other-ness, before which men and women can only show respect and even fear as detailed in Genesis 15:12; 28:10-19; Exodus 3:1-6; I Samuel 6:13-21 and 2 Samuel 6:1-10. But God communicates his holiness to a people Israel as we read in Isaiah 12:6; 29:19-23; 30:11-15; 31:1-3. They then become a sign to the nations, in their daily lives, in their lived faith and cult. They reveal an alternative life to the nations around them as mentioned in Leviticus 19:1-37; 21:1-2 and in Revelation 4:1-11.

Christ in Heaven with Four Saints and a Donor by Domenico Ghirlandaio. 1492. Volterra City Museum and Art Gallery, Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To realise this holiness, to which God calls them, the chosen people at first only have the legal and practical means of an external purification. Yet they see the need of a more interior conversion, they seek a purification of heart to allow them a greater intimacy with the holiness, and therefore, life of God as described in Isaiah 6:1-7; Psalm 14; Ezekiel 36:17-32 and 1 Peter 1:14-18. They hope for a holiness that will be communicated directly by God. This hope is realised in Christ who radiates the holiness and sanctity of God which rests on him as we see in John 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Galatians 5:16-25 and in Romans 8:9-14. And Jesus comes to sanctify all of humanity.

Jesus Christ as ‘Lord’ communicates his sanctity and holiness to the Church through his teaching and through the sacraments.  These are the means of his divine-human life of healing and reconciliation continuing in the world through the Church. We are told this in Matthew 13:24-30; 25:2; Colossians 1:22 and 2 Corinthians 1:12. This teaching was so strong in the early Christian community of the first centuries that they called themselves “the Saints” described in 2 Corinthians 11:12; Romans 15: 26-31 and Ephesians 3:5-8; 4:12; and they called the Church “the communion of the Saints”. This title, which we still use in the Creed, had its origin in the celebration of the Eucharist where the holy ones, the Saints, participated in “Holy things”. So Christian holiness was seen as participating in the shared life of God made present in the Church’s acts, above all in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

When we are baptised, a saint’s name is given to us to act as our patron (or we choose one if baptised as an adult). When we are confirmed, again we select a saint’s name for whom that saint will become a role model and inspiration in our lifelong faith. From birth to death we are in the company of the saints. Therefore, the Catholic devotional practice of asking our departed brothers and sisters in Christ – the saints – for their intercession dates from the earliest days of Christianity, and is shared by Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, other Eastern Christians, and some Anglican churches. All Saints’ Day was given a fixed date on the first Sunday after Pentecost (and it is still observed on that day in the Eastern Church). In the Western Church it was moved to 13th May to coincide with the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome as Sta Maria ad Martyres in AD 609.

Pope Gregory IV then moved it to 1st November when on that day he dedicated a chapel in St Peter’s to ‘All the Saints’ and extended the feast to include confessors and martyrs. In November there were better food supplies after the harvest for the crowds who came to attend so it made more practical sense to encourage this devotion during this month. All Saints’ Day gave a further opportunity to worshippers to compensate for any lack of respect they had given to saints during the year; and since there were already so many saints it seemed more sensible to honour them all together and on one day.

As Scripture shows us, those already in heaven are aware of the prayers of those still on earth. We see this in Revelation 5:8 where John depicts the saints in heaven offering our prayers to God under the form of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” So if the saints in heaven are offering our prayers to God, then they must be aware of our prayers. We believe in both honouring and celebrating the communion of saints in heaven on this special day since they are united to Christ, and their presence in heaven enables the whole Church on earth to follow in their holiness.

I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. (Saint Therese of Lisieux)

Just as Christian communion and fellowship among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ both now and forever. We therefore, can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the world.

Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you more effectively than during my life. (Saint Dominic, dying, to his brothers.)

However, holiness was not the fruit or reward of human effort or heroism, but rather the gift of divine love and the free response of human hearts to the divine initiative. The great Italian mediaeval poet Dante understood this well when he structured his wonderful vision of hell, purgatory and heaven around an enduring love. Initially this was very human, of a man for a woman, Dante for Beatrice. But in seeking the depth of that love he opened up to the source of all love, and finally found himself drawn into the very presence of God. The Church in celebrating the Feast of All Saints celebrates its own vocation to be open in mind and heart to the reconciling love of God in Christ. And from within that love to offer sustenance and support to all who need it in the power of the Spirit who enables all holiness.

All Souls’ Day or the Day of the Dead by William-Adolphe Bourguereau, 1859. Musee de Beaux-Arts, Bourdeaux. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second Vespers of All Saints’ Day was followed immediately by the beginning of the feast of All Souls’ Day – that is those who were prayed for succeeding those who were prayed to on the 2nd November. Although celebrated one day later, this feast has a different focus. It is a day of intense prayer for all those who have died and gone before us but whose state is not as clear as that of our “Saints”. In life we live in hope that tomorrow will be better than today, that we might be more loving and loved, more comfortable in our circumstances, more happy and in better health. But there is always a background awareness that our time is limited, sooner or later we will die. We know this but don’t necessarily take it to heart until specific circumstances force us to. All Souls’ Day is thus dedicated to all those who have died and not yet reached heaven. This is such an important day that the Catholic Church grants an indulgence for a visit to a church on this day. This indulgence is a powerful way to show your love for a friend or family member who has recently died.

The Catholic Church teaches that the purification of the souls in purgatory can be helped by the prayers of the believers on earth. This teaching is based also on the practice of prayer and charity for the dead mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:42–46.  In the West there is plenty of evidence of the custom of praying for the dead in the inscriptions of the catacombs with their constant prayers for the peace of the souls of the departed and in the early liturgies, which frequently contain commemorations of the dead. Tertullian, Cyprian and other early Western Fathers witness to the regular practice of praying for the dead among the early Christians. The theological basis for this feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on leaving the body at death, are not totally cleansed from sins, or completely atoned for past sins, and therefore, are not quite yet ready to meet God. These souls enter the state or place of Purgatory. The faithful on earth are encouraged to help them on their journey from Purgatory to Heaven by offering prayers, almsgiving and by attending Mass for them on this day.

So in faith we hold onto the example of Christ who faced death with the same generosity with which he faced life, and the promise of his resurrection affirms the deep hope we all have that this life is not the end. The Scriptures speak to us of a place prepared for us from the beginning of time cf. Psalm 26; Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-7. We are led to hope for a continuing journey into the life and love of God. But death is a real end of our earthly project. It enables us and others to look back over the totality of our lives and see what they have been like, what effects we have had and what are the ripples that still go out through time and place affecting others.

But beyond death we come into the intimate presence of the loving Creator and become aware perhaps for the first time of the depth of the love that brought us into being and held us in life. And we see the nature of our response. Who of us can trust that we come to that encounter, finished, mature in faith and love, fully reconciled and open to life with God and the saints? How many of us suspect we might find ourselves before such love and ashamed of all in our lives, thoughts, acts, habits, that are not of Christ? In that moment we will be judged as much by ourselves as by the Lord of life. All is offered to us but are we ready and able to open to receive all?

It is for this moment of profound crisis that the feast of All Souls exists. Our prayers and those of the Saints before us surround and support those who need to open up the areas of their minds and hearts that have been closed by selfishness and sin so that they can proceed into the life promised and prepared from all eternity. Just as here on earth we surround and support those we love threatened by the darkness of sickness, addiction, despair and loneliness, so our prayers accompany and enable those who have gone before us to open up to the divine mercy and forgiveness that is offered freely. We all have a capacity to say a total no to love and mercy but this feast says we will never face that moment of test unaccompanied and unsupported. May it be so.

One particular component of our liturgy at this time is the ‘Dies Irae’ which means the ‘day of wrath or anger’. It is a 13th-century Latin hymn poem which describes the Day of Judgement, the last trumpet summoning souls before the throne of God, where the saved will be delivered, and the unsaved cast into eternal flames. The hymn is best known from its use as a sequence in the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. It is based on the book of Zephaniah 1:14-18 which comes towards the end of the Old Testament.

The Great Day of the Lord

14 The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
    the warrior cries aloud there.
15 That day will be a day of wrath,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.
17 I will bring such distress upon people
    that they shall walk like the blind;
    because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
    and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
    will be able to save them
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
    the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

The ‘Dies Irae’ is the subject of numerous musical compositions by several composers including Berlioz, Lizst, Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns and Mussorgsky. ‘Dies Irae’ in its original form can be found anywhere on the silver screen from The Lion King to The Shining, from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars – Episode IV, A New Hope to It’s a Wonderful Life. It also features in the soundtrack of Mad Max, Django Unchained, Black Mirror and The Simpsons.

Saint Lawrence Liberates Souls from Purgatory by Lorenzo di Niccolò, Italian, Florentine, documented 1393-1412. Brooklyn Museum, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the best and most complete understanding of our journey to the other side we return to Dante’s Divine Comedy which still triumphs all other works. There is no other body of literature that compares with his universal vision. He embraces heaven and earth in such poetic detail, eternity and time with a prescience that is dazzling. He reveals the divine mysteries and human events through so many recognisable figures, saints and sinners; he draws on sacred doctrine and teachings from the light of rational thought, the fruits of his personal experience and the collective wisdom of history. The Divine Comedy is practical, illuminating and transformative. It seeks not only to be beautiful and morally inspiring poetry, but to enable a radical change in human hearts. Dante leads us from chaos to wisdom, from sin to holiness, from poverty to joy, and from the terrifying reality of hell to the beatific vision of heaven where the saints await us in glory.