Here’s How the Church Asks Us to Celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days
As October nears its end, closing the month of the Rosary and many great feast days, the western world stocks its shelves for one of the biggest secularized holidays of the year, Halloween. Rather than a culmination, All Hallows Eve (or Halloween in old English), is merely the commencement of two significant November Holy Days, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These days are of such high importance that Holy Mother Church has made All Saints Day a Solemnity, named November the month for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and attached a plenary indulgence for its commemoration. Before delving into the details of these Holy Days and the attached indulgences, let us gain some context surrounding the belief, background, and living out of these beautiful celebrations of those who have gone before us in faith.
The Communion of Saints
The Saints are those holy men and women who have gone before us and entered into eternal life. They now spend their eternity beholding God and are powerful intercessors for us. Knowing that we do not call upon the saints as often as we should or with as much fervor as they deserve, the Church instituted a day “to honor all known and unknown saints and to supply for any deficiencies in the faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts throughout the year.” (1) She also raised All Saints Day to the ranks of Solemnity which makes it a Holy Day of Obligation and mandatory for the faithful to celebrate it, particularly by participating in the Mass.
The History of All Saints Day
All Saints Day traces its roots back to the first century when the early Christians began honoring the date of the death of their martyrs. They would travel to the spot of martyrdom and remember that person and their witness of faith. As the number of martyrs grew, towns would come together to celebrate their martyrs and share relics with one another. Eventually the number of martyrs became so great that Rome intervened and declared a joint feast was needed to ensure that all martyrs, especially those unknown, were venerated. Other saints were then added to this high feast as the canonization process developed and the date of November 1st was chosen.
How can we celebrate it?
Since All Saints Day is a Solemnity, is a celebration of the highest order, inside and outside the liturgy. We not only have the obligation, but the privilege, to go to Mass on this day. It is fitting to give time and glory to God for the transformation He wrought in the sinners who we now call saints. Our Lord has generously given the grace needed to every person from every walk of life so that they may fight the good fight of faith and enjoy His eternal glory in Heaven. Second, the feast reminds the Church Militant (the faithful on earth) to imitate the saints’ heroic lives of virtue. There is a multitude of saints, and therefore, one for every time and season. There is a saint who has suffered every kind of wound and struggled with every sin. We should look to them for help in this life and especially to imitate those saints whom we feel particularly close to in our state of life. Let us beg these powerful intercessors to teach us our special path of sanctification and reverse the same sinfulness they overcame through His grace. Third, this Solemnity is a remedy to repair for the deficiency of the faithful (us) for not utilizing this great gift of God, this multitude of encouraging examples. So celebrate the day! Make a festive meal and special dessert and determine which saints you will celebrate throughout the year. It is our duty to honor and invoke our personal patron saints and designate patron saints over our family.
All Souls Day
As the Church Militant, we have the grave obligation to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. This is why the Romans calendar has intentionally placed All Souls Day directly after All Saints Day. After we have celebrated all the holy men and women in Heaven, asking them to pray for us, we then spend the next day praying for all the souls in Purgatory. These souls have no way to escape their purifying sufferings as they await their entry into Eternal Life. So it is our duty to pray for them and offer sacrifices as we see in Maccabees 12:42-45,
"Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin."
The early Christians would write the names of the faithful departed on liturgical diptychs, an ornate notebook that had many uses in antiquity. The names would be read aloud either at the ambo or the altar or simply placed on the altar during the Mass. The Mass would then be offered for those souls. Then in the 6th century, monasteries started formally commemorating their dead at Pentecost. It continued to grow and entire countries adopted this practice. The date November 2 was then selected in the calendar.
How can we commemorate All Souls Day?
The Catechism says that, “from the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” (2) We must resolve to offer Masses for the dead and more frequently visit their tomb. Let us be a culture that lives out the corporal work of mercy to bury the dead and the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the departed.
We must pray for the dead
Instead of assuming the deceased have gone straight to Heaven, we should pray for their souls. A good example is seen Father Paul Scalia’s homily at his father Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia’s funeral mass. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/02/funeral-homily-for-justice-antonin-scalia. Father Scalia emphasizes that his father was a good man and devout Catholic, but ultimately his faith was imperfect. Before the congregation, he reminds the faithful that our duty now is to pray for him. “We are here then, to lend our prayers to that perfecting, to that final work of God’s grace, in freeing Dad from every encumbrance of sin.” What a solemn reminder amidst a time when most only want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased person.
The Plenary Indulgence
This commemoration is so important that the Church has offered two plenary indulgences available for All Souls Day.
The First: A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted each and every day from November 1 to November 8, who devoutly visit a cemetery and there pray, if only mentally, for the departed.
The Second: A plenary indulgence is granted the faithful who, on All Souls’ Day (or according to the judgment of the bishop, on the Sunday preceding or following it, or on the solemnity of All Saints), devoutly visits a church or an oratory and recites an Our Father and the Creed.
The requirements for obtaining a plenary indulgence:
Do the work while in the state of grace
Have no attachment to sin (even venial) - i.e., it is sufficient that the Christian makes an act of the will to love God and despise sin
Receive Sacramental confession within 20 days of the work (several plenary indulgences may be earned per reception),
Receive Holy Communion (one plenary indulgence may be earned per reception)
Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (one Our Father and Hail Mary is sufficient)
Here are the most recent guidelines on the gift of the indulgence, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/tribunals/apost_penit/documents/rc_trib_appen_pro_20000129_indulgence_en.html.
As the month of the Rosary comes to an end, let us prepare and enter into November with a great fervor. May we celebrate and invoke the multitude of saints and pray for the souls of the faithful departed.
All Holy Men and Women, Saints, and Angels, pray for us.
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them, may their souls and the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Mershman, Francis. "All Saints' Day." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 16 Oct. 2019
Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1032