In the Catholic tradition, November is traditionally a month of remembrance of the dead. The month begins with the Solemnity of All Saints on 1 November and the Commemoration of the All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day), on 2 November. While no longer holy days of obligation in Australia, the Church has consistently encouraged prayers for the faithful departed and, during November, a list of the names of the dead is usually placed in the church so that the community can remember them in prayer.

The origins of All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day commemorates all the saints in heaven. The feast dates back to the early Church, when communities would gather and celebrate the anniversary of the martyr’s death. During the persecution under the emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each saint, so the Church established a common feast day for all the martyrs.

The first mention of this feast came during the pontificate of Pope Gregory III (731-741). On 1 November, 732, Pope Gregory consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St Peter dedicated to honour all the saints.

The choice of day may have been also intended to co-opt the Ancient Roman ‘Feast of the Lamures,’ on which Romans used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. A century later, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration on 1 November to the universal Church.

The feast took on such importance in the life of the Church that from the beginning it was celebrated with a vigil and, from the time of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), with an octave.

The liturgical celebration on the day before the feast became known as hallowed evening or Hallowe’en. All Saints Day represents the desire of the faithful to commemorate all saints, ‘great multitude which no man could number’ (Revelation 7:9), especially those who have no proper feast day of their own.

All Saints’ Day is a time to consider the example saints offer us and to reflect on how we can imitate their lives. As Pope Benedict XVI said, All Saints’ Day calls us ‘to see the Church… as Christ wanted it, that is, as the communion of saints.’

All Souls’ Day

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

(Order of Christian Funerals)

All Souls’ Day follows All Saints Day on 2 November and is also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead. It is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died.

Believers remember, pray and offer Mass for the souls in Purgatory, that they may be purified and attain the Beatific Vision. All Souls Day originally was celebrated in the Easter season, around Pentecost Sunday.

Believers pray for the souls which, on departing from the body are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, and are not yet able to be granted the Beatific Vision of with God in Heaven. The idea is that the living faithful can help them with prayers, almsgiving and especially the Sacrifice of the Mass.

By the tenth century, the celebration had been moved from Pentecost to October. Sometime between 998 and 1030, St Odilo of Cluny ordered the commemoration of the faithful departed on 2 November in all of the monasteries of his Benedictine congregation.

From there, it spread among the other congregations of the Benedictines and among the Carthusians over the next two centuries. Soon afterwards, the commemoration of all the Holy Souls in Purgatory spread to the entire Church from the diocese of Liege under Bishop Notger in the ninth century.

The day is dedicated to prayer and remembrance, with requiem Masses held. A plenary indulgence may be gained for the dead on All Souls' Day, by visiting a Church and praying the Lord's Prayer and the Creed. There are three conditions to gaining a plenary indulgence: sacramental confession, eucharistic communion and prayer for the pope's intentions.

Many people also visit and sometimes decorate the graves of deceased loved ones on All Souls' Day and throughout the month of November.

Feature image: All Saints (Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP)