The Solemnity of All Saints holds a special place in my heart; it is the day on which I was born. Without giving my age away, I will say that when I was growing up, it was still a Holy Day of Obligation in Australia. With me dressed in my school uniform, my family would attend Mass in the early morning. For me it was a time to give thanks for another birthday, in the company of All the Saints–it’s always felt like a special day.
In my teenage years, it was suppressed by the Australian Bishops with approval of the Holy See and it was no longer a Holy Day of Obligation.
The number of Holy Days of Obligation were reduced to assist Catholics in meeting their work obligations, as part of the requirements of Holy Days of Obligation are to refrain from commercial pursuits; we still see this to some degree with many businesses closed on Christmas Day. I remember the suppression well, because I was disappointed when my parents didn’t attend Mass once it was no longer obligatory and I made the decision to rise early and walk to the Church on my own, in my school uniform. It has been important to me ever since to celebrate with All the Saints at Mass on 1 November.
There are ‘saints’ that we have rubbed shoulders with, ordinary people like our relatives who lived out the Gospel in their lives simply and with great witness and who remain unknown to the wider world. All Saints Day encompasses all those who have entered heaven, however, the day particularly focuses upon those ‘Saints’ who are recognized in the Canon of the Saints.
The earliest recorded celebration of All Saints Day is 13 May, 609 CE, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs. The early Church was an often persecuted Church and there were many martyrs to be remembered and petitioned, for their blood had sown the seeds of the early Church. Various invaders had looted the catacombs, so Boniface ordered that the remaining bones be gathered and reinterred beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple which had been previously dedicated to the gods, but by then was consecrated as a Christian Church.
In the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the day to 1 November. It was common practice for the Catholic Church across cultures and regions to ‘absorb’ pagan feast days with a Christian feast.
The Celtic pagan festival of Samhain focused on the spirit world and the Feast of All Saints focused upon those who had died and entered heaven; so the transfer of the date to 1 November effectively replaced the festival of Samhain. It was difficult to successfully eradicate pagan traditions, so the Church used Feast Days (in a lot of cases) to coexist with these traditions until Christianity could take root. Halloween takes its name from the eve of All Hallows (the eve of All Saints). Pope Gregory IV made All Saints Day a Holy Day of Obligation in the ninth century.
This year All Saints Day falls on a Sunday and as a Solemnity (the highest rank of all the feast days) it replaces the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The First Reading from Sunday’s liturgy is from the Book of Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14.
I, John, saw another angel rising where the sun rises, carrying the seal of the living God; he called in a powerful voice to the four angels whose duty was to devastate land and sea, ‘Wait before you do any damage on land or at sea or to the trees, until we have put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of God.’ Then I heard how many were sealed: a hundred and forty-four thousand, out of all the tribes of Israel.
After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands. They shouted aloud, ‘Victory to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels who were standing in a circle round the throne, surrounding the elders and the four animals, prostrated themselves before the throne, and touched the ground with their foreheads, worshipping God with these words, ‘Amen. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen.’
One of the elders then spoke and asked me, ‘Do you know who these people are, dressed in white robes, and where they have come from?’ I answered him, ‘You can tell me, my Lord.’ Then he said, ‘These are the people who have been through the great persecution, and they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb.’
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
It is easy to see why the Church has chosen this reading for the Feast Day; it is filled with adjectives that transport to another realm. There is no place in heaven for racism or social classes; all are welcome. God is victorious, not power and money. All those who have been persecuted, suffer no longer. The Gospel of Matthew proclaims the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12) Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill. There he sat down and was joined by his disciples. Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them:
‘How happy are the poor in spirit:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy the gentle:
they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right:
they shall be satisfied.
Happy the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Happy the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers:
they shall be called sons of God.
Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.’
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a reminder that earth is a temporary place, where if we follow the path of Christ, we will be united with Him and all the Saints in heaven. Living on earth can be a real struggle at times and COVID-19 has reminded everyone of this in various ways. This Gospel and this Solemnity remind us that we are made for eternal union with God and one another.
It might sound tempting to pray or sing the Litany of the Saints on this Solemnity, but All Saints Day is really a day that we celebrate the Saints, not an occasion where we call upon them in prayer. The Litany of the Saints is usually reserved for special occasions, like a baptism or a religious profession, as the conclusion of the prayer allows for particular petitions. The Solemnity of All Saints helps us to remember that we do not travel this world alone; there are tremendous figures who have walked the path before us and who are only too willing to walk the Christian path with us; they call us to keep our focus heavenward.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021