How to Celebrate the Saints and All Souls This Month
All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day in History
The feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1, honors all of the souls who are in heaven, even those who are not canonized. This feast has its origins in the early church when the Christians celebrated the anniversaries of the martyrdoms of fellow Christians. The number of martyrs became so large during the heavy persecution under the emperor Diocletian that a single day was assigned to celebrate them all. Feast days were later added for holy departed souls who were not martyrs. In the early eighth century, Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to all saints. The feast day for this dedication was November 1, and it was extended to the whole church by Gregory IV in the ninth century.
The feast of All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2, and its purpose is to pray for the souls of the faithful departed who are still in Purgatory. Commemoration of the dead was a practice that existed in various forms from the earliest times in Christianity, and in the sixth century, the Benedictines commemorated the souls of their departed fellows on a specific day. The monasteries of St. Odilo of Cluny commemorated the souls of all the faithful departed every year beginning around the beginning of the second millennium. Around the same time, this feast also began to be celebrated outside the monasteries.
Salvation—Our Ultimate Goal
The joy of heaven, specifically the Beatific Vision, is the ultimate goal and reason for being of every Christian. Indeed, God desires the salvation of all men. Attaining salvation is a long and arduous journey, however, and can only be accomplished by a life lived in faithfulness to God’s law and in the recognition that all things must be ordered towards Him. This is a difficult undertaking and is in fact impossible to men acting merely by their own willpower and natural virtues. Many are called, but few are chosen, and it is only by the assistance of God’s grace that we can hope to reach heaven. Thus, the feast of All Saints’ Day is not only a celebration of the personal excellences and merits of the holy men and women in the history of the Church, but also an act of worship honoring God’s abundant mercy in elevating their souls to a participation in His own holiness and life. This feast also gives us the opportunity to ask God for the grace of salvation for ourselves through the merits and intercession of all the saints.
The feast of All Souls, which immediately follows All Saints’ Day, strikes a much different tone. On All Souls’ Day, we pray for the souls of the faithful departed who are suffering in Purgatory much in the same way that we pray for a deceased loved one at a funeral mass. We pray that God may forgive them their sins that they may thereby attain the joys of heaven. Nothing imperfect can enter heaven, and therefore if a soul has any venial sin or remnants of past sins it must be first purified by the fires of Purgatory. As difficult as the various trials of daily life may be, the suffering of Purgatory is more intense than the suffering of this life. Therefore, we should try to atone for our sins through prayer, penance, and almsgiving during this life in order that we may bypass the suffering of Purgatory. However, many souls do not attain in this life the perfection necessary to immediately enter heaven. We should therefore have compassion for their suffering and seek to relieve it by offering the merits of the Mass and our prayers for their sake.
The juxtaposition of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day serves to remind us that if we are to attain the glory of heaven like the saints who have gone before us, we must first give an account of our life to Our Lord who judges every soul at death. He will judge us by a standard that is strict and that demands a radical conversion of heart away from the things of this world and toward Him. We have no hope that we or our departed brothers and sisters will pass this test without the assistance of God’s grace and the prayers of the Communion of Saints. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a perfect prayer and supremely efficacious in procuring the mercy of God for ourselves and for the souls in Purgatory, and is therefore eminently appropriate to celebrate on All Souls’ Day. We should also seek the intercession of all the saints whose feast we celebrate the previous day for the relief of the souls in Purgatory. Another opportunity offered to us by the Church in conjunction with these feasts is the ability to gain a plenary indulgence that applies only to the souls in Purgatory. A plenary indulgence is the remission of all of the temporal punishment due to sin that would need to be cleansed by the fires of Purgatory. We may gain a plenary indulgence on All Souls’ Day by visiting a parish church or public oratory and reciting an Our Father and a Creed. On each day from November 1 to 8 we may gain a plenary indulgence by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead. Only one plenary indulgence can be gained each day, and the ordinary conditions must also be met: we must be in the state of grace by the time the required work is completed, we must be detached from sin, receive Communion for each indulgence, receive the sacrament of Confession within a week prior to or following the work, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
Our World in Need of Salvation
These feasts are especially important in our time when the world is so full of sin and evils of every kind. Sexual sins, crimes against life, and crimes of injustice are rampant, and Christians around the world are persecuted. There are many things surrounding us that pull us away from the path of sanctity and so many souls are on the road to hell. We must now, more than ever, hold before our mind’s eye the prize of heaven and pray to God that He will give us the grace necessary to win that prize. We must pray for this grace for ourselves and for the whole world, for if we do not, many souls will be lost. Today more than ever there is also a greater need for penance and mortification, a practice which has declined drastically in modern times. By willingly accepting and even inflicting suffering upon ourselves and uniting it to Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we can gain grace for ourselves and for the world that is so in need of grace. Salvation is of ultimate significance to all men; the troubles and pleasures of this life are passing. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day remind us of this reality, and so this year we should take this opportunity to come to the aid of our suffering world that is so desperately in need of salvation.