Proper Dignity to Saints and Souls

There is a common conflation that occurs in churches that spring from the sixteenth century: the collapse of any distinction between the solemnity of All Saints and commemoration that follows, All Souls’ Day. It is common to hear the invitation for people to list names of departed loved one who will be remembered at the liturgy on All Saints’ Day (or Sunday). Sometimes this springs from theological reservation, cultivated in reformation objections to indulgences and masses for the dead (while All Saints’ Day remained in the Church of England, All Souls’ disappears from the calendar until the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century). But just as often, this conflation springs from simply confusion. The distinction between these two days, I want to suggest, is not only proper as it concerns the calendar. The distinction is actually pastorally tender and truly life-giving.

The distinction in the Western calendar has its historical origin in the great monastic house of Cluny in the tenth century, whose abbot, Odilo (Odo), directed its observance on the day after All Saints’ Day, November 2. “If anyone else follows the example of our faith-inspired innovation,” he wrote, “may he share in the good prayers of all.” The offering of the eucharistic sacrifice for departed Christians is much older tradition, of course, going back at least to the fourth century, and probably much earlier. Isidore of Seville (b. 636) ordered the monks under his care to offer the Mysteries for all the departed on the day after Pentecost. But it not until the thirteenth century that the commemoration of All Souls on November 2 is accepted in Rome, after having become wildly popular in France, Germany, and England.

The solemn celebration of All Saints appeared much earlier. It appears to have originated first in the East, where it was celebrated in some places on May 13 (Ephraim speaks of this date) and in other places on the Sunday after Pentecost, where it is still celebrated today (Pentecost in the East is a celebration of the Most Holy Trinity Sunday). The commemoration we know on November 1 arises out of the dedication of the pagan Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs on May 13, 609, by Pope Boniface IV. Adolf Adams writes: “On this day of consecration the pope had 28 wagonloads of martyrs’ bones brought to the church from the catacombs. The antiphons of the old rite for the dedication of a church may refer to that triumphant act of translation; one of them, for example, reads: ‘Rise up, saints of God, from your dwellings; sanctify this place and bless the people!’” The date of November 1 may have its source in the dedication of a chapel in St. Peter’s by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, as it was being celebrated on that date in England and Ireland by the middle of that same century.

But what of this conflation? The issue seems to me one that is first not dogmatic, but pastoral. To put it differently, the more fruitful avenue in the context of preaching and parochial practice is not to press into the difficult questions of the precise difference between the state of the soul of the saint venerated by the Church and the soul of our departed friend or relative. Rather, it is much more helpful if we ask about the purpose of each commemoration.

All Saints’ Day is called a solemnity in the current Catholic liturgical documents and is one of the seven “Principal Feasts” in the current Episcopal prayer book (along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday; the term is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer). The list of solemnities in much longer in the General Roman calendar, but they remain celebrations of the triumph of Christ, even if by extension in the commemoration of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptists, and Sts. Peter and Paul. All Saints is first a feast of triumph: the triumph of divine love and power in the frames of dust-bound mortal creatures. The feast begins as a celebration first of the triumph of the Martyrs and of the Blessed Virgin, for in them we see distilled most wondrously “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16) that has been fused with a creature of earth. All Saints’ Day is a true festival, a shout of victory for the Lamb, who though slain, stands alive, his victorious standard hung high overall death, all destruction, and all dominions.

All Saints Day is a feast of communion. It celebrates the great exposition of this fact in the later part of 1 Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Cor 12:26). And what better way to honor the martyrs and other holy ones than by joining with them in the work toward which their entire lives have stretched? We join with them in the work that is most truly a rest from all other sorts of strivings and labors. The work of worship is the most perfect sort of requiem for which we could long because it is made possible by grace, because of the One who first loved us. To join in offering the Eucharistic sacrifice that is not just our duty but our joy, is to allow the Son pray the doxology of his life in us, such that as he ever offers himself in absolute totality to the Father, our meager offering of ourselves and the symbols of creation and all divine gift is joined to that perfect self-offering. We honor the saints by joining with them in their adoration of Christ.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Rome’s Prima Porta cemetery Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-ALL-SOULS Nov. 2, 2016.

The human impetus toward All Souls’ Day is of a different character. Christian burial and All Souls’ Day specifically begin from a different place, a place of loss and even of grief: a place of tears. In the midst of the experience of death, can more consolation be found than in the sharing of the Body and Blood of the one who not only destroyed death but also wept at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus? The Church is right to give expression to the sense of loss that each of us have known in the death of someone near to us in the peculiar shape of the requiem Mass (recall that the sometimes-maligned sequence hymn, Dies Irae, has its origin, not in requiems, but first in Advent’s anticipation of that final Day when the Son returns to judge the quick and the dead). While it is not the only reason for the practice, it would be strange to discount the fact that the desire to pray for those whom we love but see no longer is genuine love. For a Christian, concern for another moves very quickly to prayer. Hence the corporal work of mercy to bury the dead has its corollary in the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead.

But All Souls’ Day is more than psychological refuge. It is a reminder that the communion of the whole state of Christ’s Church is consequential. How exactly God works out the exquisite relatings between our prayers, the will of God, and the lives of human creatures is beyond us. However, that cannot let us step back from the fact that prayer is not simply an expression of trust in God, a mental crutch. Just as we are reminded on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels that God has “ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order,” so too has God ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the interplay between the merciful action of God and the prayers of the faithful. Remember the promise in Hebrews: apart from us, the departed are not to made perfect (Heb 11:39-40). It is not that God needs our prayers to do anything. Rather, God has chosen to allow us to share in the living and in the dying, in the corruption and in the purification of those around us.

We do a disservice to Aunt Margaret and Grandpa Ovid when we elevate them to the General Roman Calendar when we know right well that neither was a saint in the popular sense of the term. Neither do we honor the saints properly when we demote them to simply one the faithful dead. The conflation too introduces a sort of psychological tension that is not easy to resolve. The festive character of All Saints rightly has its due with all pomp and solemn grandeur of great liturgical feasts. So too, All Souls’ should have it solemn due, where the faithful can lift all their departed loved ones into the merciful presence embrace of Crucified One who lives, asking in hope that he will bring them to the glory intended for each us: a vision clear and unencumbered by sin, incorporated in that Body who praising will resound unto all the ages. “O higher than the cherubim; more glorious than the seraphim; lead their praises. Alleluia!”


  1. But, according to the teaching of the Church (Catechism #946 – quoted in the PTB post “Liturgy Lines: Who Are the Saints?”), Aunt Margaret and Grandpa Ovid are ALSO saints.

    I understand the distinction, and the importance of that distinction, between the two days as liturgical entities on the ecclesial calendar, but we must simultaneously not lose the NT teaching/usage of the term “saint,” nor the reality that the whole Church is the communion of saints (again, CCC #946).

    1. Totally agree, Alan. I don’t argue at all to drop the Scriptural language. But the Church also uses the term ‘saint’ in two related but distinct ways. One follows the Pauline usage as you indicated; the other, nodding to Paul, uses it to distinguish those who have lived particularly exemplary lives from me and my Aunt Margaret. I appreciate your engagement!

  2. The Solemnity of All Saints honors saints both known and unknown, canonized and not canonized; and the unknown and the non-canonized are a MUCH bigger number than the known and canonized; two of those may be Aunt Margaret and Grandpa Ovid. Perhaps using the notion of the souls in purgatory (yes I still believe in purgatory!!) may be a way to distinguish what the two days are about. And I think purgatory is more like The Five People You Meet in Heaven than the fiery flames so often mentioned in private revelations.

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