January 24, 2021

The Feast of All Saints

saints_and_martyrsWe’ve finally arrived at the end of October when Hallowe’en is upon us, though it seems to have morphed into a month-long festival – the same way that Christmas gets earlier and earlier in the year, now Hallowe’en seems to be the next candidate for increasing commercialization.

Leaving all that behind, thankfully, with the attendant fuss over “pagan practices” from both Christians and Neo-Pagans who really should know better (Hallowe’en in its American incarnation, which has been exported globally to places that never observed it before and to the originating lands of the entire thing, is a completely different beast to its origins as either a pre-Christian festival of the British Isles or the incorporation of it into the Christian liturgical calendar).

Which brings us nicely to the day that is the really important one of the Hallowe’en season – not the Eve or Vigil of the feast itself on the last day of October, but the Feast and Holy Day of Obligation that it prepares us for on 1st November: the Feast of All Hallows, or All Saints.  Speaking for the Roman Catholic tradition (I’m not going to address the practices of other Western Christian denominations and I will leave our Orthodox brothers and sisters to talk about the feasts of their own tradition), it is a Holy Day of Obligation and a Feast.

Here comes the “As you know, Bob” bit.

As you know, Bob, a Holy Day of Obligation is a day on which we are bound to attend Mass and to refrain from servile works.  In other words, a day like Sunday.  Not every national church celebrates the same Holy Days; for example, in Ireland 17th March (you may have heard of that date somewhere or other) is a holy day of obligation but not elsewhere, and in the United States, the feast of Corpus Christi is not observed.  The conference of bishops in a country can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday, if given the permission of the Vatican to do so.  Observing Holy Days of Obligation on the nearest Sunday is becoming increasingly common nowadays because people can’t take time off from work to attend Mass (and avoid servile labour) and with the general decline in Mass-going or observance of their faith by many lukewarm, fallen-away, as good as lapsed, or ‘cultural’ Catholics, as well as the ordinary lumpen mass of the rest of us.

As you also know, Bob, a Feast is a day of particular importance and rejoicing in the church calendar.  Feast days of saints are those days for their commemoration when the date picked (unless it clashes with a previous feast day) is that of their ‘birthday’ when they were born to Heaven (that is, the day of their death).  Other feasts during the liturgical year are those of incidents from the life of Christ and Mary, or in the life of the Church, such as Pentecost, Easter, the Ascension, the Immaculate Conception and so forth.  To quote the old “Catholic Encylopedia”:

Feast Days, or Holy Days, are days which are celebrated in commemoration of the sacred mysteries and events recorded in the history of our redemption, in memory of the Virgin Mother of Christ, or of His apostles, martyrs, and saints, by special services and rest from work.  A feast not only commemorates an event or person, but also serves to excite the spiritual life by reminding us of the event it commemorates.

Since it is a celebration, the vestments worn by the priests offering the Masses on those days are white or gold.  We’re currently in Ordinary Time, so the usual vestments are green (the colour of hope) but for All Saints Day they will be white.  From a 1964 Missal in my possession:

Green, white and red may be replaced by cloth of gold, which is worn on great solemnities.  WHITE signifies the joy and purity of the soul.  The white vestment is the peaceable garment for the feastdays of Christ the Light of the world, of the Holy Trinity, Our Lady, the Angels, Confessors and Virgins.  It is also worn from Christmas to the Epiphany, and during Eastertide, seasons during which the Church sings her most cheerful hymns in honour of the Birth and the Resurrection of the Redeemer.

And lastly, Bob as you know full well, the Feast of All Saints isn’t warmed-over paganism appropriated from the Celts by the centralising and imperialistic Roman Church sometime in the 6th, 8th or 10th century.  No, it’s warmed-over paganism appropriated from the Romans by the Romans.  Well, that’s the explanation cultural anthropologists advance for why in the West the original feast was held, not on 1st November following Oíche Shamhna (it wasn’t called Hallowe’en yet) but on 13th May – that was the date of the Roman feast of the Lemures (the restless and potentially malevolent dead or spirits of the Otherworld).  What we do know is that the origin of the festival of All Saints celebrated in the West dates to the first decade of the 7th century when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and All the Martyrs.  This was probably derived from an existing practice from the fifth through the seventh centuries that in some places at irregular intervals the Holy Martyrs were honoured on 13th May.

all-saints-day-2The Feast of All Saints was moved to its current date by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century.  He built a new oratory (side-chapel) in St. Peter’s Basilica for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”.  This had less to do with the Irish seasonal festival of Samhain and more to do with his opposition to Iconoclasm, which was the big controversy of the day roiling the Eastern Church; by promoting the use and veneration, and publicly demonstrating his own veneration, of icons and relics by a building programme of repair and adornment of the churches in Rome which involved their decoration with icons and images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints, by erecting in the Basilica of  St. Peter an iconostasis which he had received as a gift from Eutychius, the Exarch of Ravenna (who had been put in the job by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, ironically an Iconoclast himself) and by the abovementioned oratory in St Peter’s with multiple relics and the promotion of the Feast of All Saints on its new date.

That Hallowe’en isn’t a “pagan festival made Christian by the conniving Catholics to cozen the natives” can be seen from the fact that in the early Irish church, the feast was celebrated in April (as distinct from Samhain at the end of October/start of November), in keeping with the practice of celebrating such a feast on the earlier date in the West of May and in the East after Pentecost: dates which run generally and vaguely to a period stretching from sometime in March to sometime in May/early June.

The Mexican Día de los Muertos is another interesting example: again, anthropology directs us to an originating Aztec festival honoring the goddess of the dead, but this was in the ninth month of their calendar (around August), not in November.  Pre-existing traditions may well, as in the Irish customs, have been incorporated into the Feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, but the fact that Día de los Muertos is now celebrated over the end of October/start of November shows that it was the Church influencing the native culture, not the other way round.

So what is the point of All Saints’ Day?  If we celebrate the Lord’s Day on every Sunday, and if we have the great feasts of the life of Christ and His Bride the Church during the year, as well as commemorations of individual saints on every single day, what’s the reason for having one more day in which they’re all mushed together, so to speak?

Firstly, it’s a feast of the Universal Church.  This means that whether you’re in Tokyo, Tennessee, Toronto or Touraneena, you are (supposed to be) going to church on that day.  We all, as the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, in union with Him as the Head, celebrate the Mass which on our behalf and with our participation, by representing the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, (i) gives due and deserved adoration to God (ii) gives thanks for all blessings (iii) seeks pardon for our sins with the confident expectation that we will obtain it through His mercy and (iv) prays for every blessing necessary of body and soul, for ourselves and for others.

Secondly, it’s the feast of All Saints.  Not just the ones everyone knows, not just the ones of our particular culture or nation, not just the big names.  All the saints – known and unknown, those once popular but now forgotten, the new ones just announced last year, the founders of religious orders or missionaries who brought hundreds and thousands to the Faith and the ones who presided over the domestic church and raised their children and bore witness in their ordinary lives of work and family.  They belong to us all: Korean and Japanese martyrs, Native American converts, Irish missionaries, Italian mothers, French nuns, Greek sellers of purple.

Thirdly, it’s the feast of All Saints.  The Communion of Saints, the cloud of witnesses of whom St. Paul speaks, the ones who have run the race and won the crown, who have gone before and enjoy the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.  Those who with us and with all the departed make up the Church: the Church Triumphant in Heaven, the Church Suffering in Purgatory (who are also linked with the second, conjoined feastday of 2nd November, that of All Souls) and the Church Militant, those of here on Earth still slogging through the day-to-day affairs of our lives.

On this day, at the start of November, when it’s cold and dark and gloomy and wet, when the evenings are getting darker earlier and the clocks have gone back, when it’s the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Church puts on Her bright garments and lights Her candles and decks Her altars and calls us all to rejoice and be glad and to celebrate, because it’s a birthday party!  All Her children who have gone to the Father are remembered by those waiting their turn, and their Mother speaks of them with love and anticipation in the lectionary readings for the feast.

A last quick word on what I said above about the linked feast day that follows on 2nd November, All Souls’ Day or the Feast of All the Faithful Departed.

There’s an emphasis nowadays (almost an expectation) when celebrating (and it is celebrating) funeral services that the deceased has gone straight to Heaven.  Well, God grant that it be so for all of us!  But some of us, at least, are in a doubtful case as to our final destination (nobody can say with certainty, even of the greatest sinner, that he or she has gone to Hell).  More of us aren’t as fit as we should have been: we’re not wearing the wedding garment or our lamps have gone out while we waited for the bridegroom.  In Catholicism, the place of final purification is Purgatory, where the saved and redeemed souls (and they are saved; Purgatory is not a ‘get out of Hell’ second chance) are tried like gold in the fire.

All Souls’ Day is their day, and the day of prayer and remembrance of all those who have died; all those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith.  All our families and friends (and enemies), those we loved and those we hardly knew.  If on All Saints’ Day, we wear white and celebrate those saints we do not know but who are known to God, then on All Souls’ Day (in former times) the black of mourning or the violet of repentance were worn (still optional but nowadays more likely to be the green of Ordinary Time) and we beseeched the mercy of God for the dead.

Traditionally, this is the day that people visit graveyards and tend family graves, pray for their deceased at the graveside, and gain plenary indulgences (one for visiting a church, one for visiting a cemetery) which they offer up for the souls in Purgatory.  On this day, all priests have the privilege of celebrating three Masses on All Souls Day: one, for the faithful departed; one for the priest’s intentions; and one for the intentions of the Holy Father.  This was granted by Pope Benedict XV in 1917, in the midst of the Great War, because of the massive death and suffering of that time.  You can pray for all the dead on that day.  Even the most notorious sinner, because only God has the final judgement and the final knowledge of who is lost and who is saved, and we can hope and ask for His mercy.

Once again, it is the reminder of the Communion of the Saints: those in Heaven, those in Purgatory, and we here in the midst of our earthly lives, bound by our common baptism, by the corporate unity of the Church, by the grace of God.  It’s not a one-way street: we pray for them and ask them to pray for us all at the same time.  The Holy Souls (the souls in Purgatory) are not unproductive or helpless; their prayers on our behalf are every bit as effective as those of the saints in Heaven.  This is an exchange of mutual love and remembrance, not a bartering of favours – and that is why the misuse of indulgences and the abuse by Tetzel was indeed a scandal and a disgrace, turning what is the kindness of family into the chaffering of hucksters.

Most cultures – indeed, I imagine every culture – has customs regarding remembering or propitiating the dead.  You can, if you like, say that All Saints’ and All Souls’ are pagan intrusions into the pure Gospel or indulge in pop psychology about how the canny old Church enticed the natives by letting them keep their old beliefs with a sprinkling of holy water on top.  But these feasts are crucially different: we are not making bargains with the fearsome dead who will otherwise be offended if they are not properly looked after.  We have no Hungry Ghosts or wandering spirits who will bring misfortune if not appeased.  Our dead are to be welcomed and loved, not feared or cajoled.

And since it is Hallowe’entide, let me end with a recommendation for a ghost story: Charles Williams and his novel “All Hallows Eve”, a story of wandering ghosts, black magic, and redemption by Divine Love, with an excerpt from the first moments of the afterlife, when two dead women meet and realise they are dead, and are haunting the scenes of their past lives:

“She stared down at the other girl, and she exclaimed aloud: “Oh my god!”

It was the kind of casual exclamation she and Richard had been in the habit of throwing about all over the place.  It meant nothing; when they were seriously aggressive or aggrieved, they used language borrowed from bestiality or hell.  She had never thought it meant anything. But in this air every word meant something, meant itself; and this curious new exactitude of speech hung there like a strange language, as if she had sworn in Spanish or Pushtu, and the oath had echoed into an invocation.  Nothing now happened; no one came; not a quiver disturbed the night, but for a moment she felt as if someone might come, or perhaps not even that — no more than a sudden sense that she was listening as if to hear if it was raining.  She was becoming strange to herself; her words, even her intonations, were foreign.  In a foreign land she was speaking a foreign tongue; she spoke and did not know what she said.  Her mouth was uttering its own habits, but the meaning of those habits was not her own.  She did not recognize what she used.  “I haven’t done anything. . . . Oh my God!”  This was how they talked, and it was a great precise prehistoric language forming itself out of the noises their mouths made.  She articulated the speech of Adam or Seth or Noah, and only dimly recognized the intelligibility of it.”

Editor’s note: I thought it appropriate to end today’s meditation with this great rendition of For All The Saints. Enjoy.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQcTn_oEuxU’]





  1. We really are ALL saints…in Him.

    Sinners and saints…simultaneously. Declared so by Jesus…for His sake.


    What a God.

    Happy All Saints Day. Those who have gone before…and our brothers and sisters in Christ…no matter what church they belong to here on earth.

  2. Stunning arrangement and performance of For All the Saints. Thank you for including it, Martha. My soul is stirred as with few other hymns when I hear and sing it. We celebrate All Saints on Sunday, one of my favorite Lord’s Days of the year.

  3. Beautiful, Martha! Thank you for the lovely and accurate description, especially for our, ahem, separated brethren…….

    Regarding Holy Days……If you have a moment, check out a newish website call “Eye of the Tiber”. (For non-Americans, it is a play on words from the title song of the popular “Rocky” boxing movies, which was “Eye of the Tiger”.) The site is a parody Catholic news site, run by Catholics, and sometimes the replies from those who don’t get the humor or satire is funnier than the material!!!

    At any rate, one of the “articles” explains that every Holy Day, Sunday obligation, and Feast has been moved to Easter Sunday, to make it easier for Catholics to get to Mass without too much interference with their schedules…..it is almost as funny as the pieces that “prove” the Holy Father is requiring all Catholics to become homosexual….

  4. Yes, by all means, All Saints, Christmas, Easter, etc., days of freedom and celebration and observance, reflection and memory and prayer and worship together; but please, no Holy Days of Obligation to be observed under penalty of sin.

    Christ has met all the obligations in his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension; I do not believe he thereby left in his wake even more occasions where we might sin by non-observance of ritual, calendar, ceremony, etc.

  5. Feeling a little unanchored because I am forced to miss Mass today, All Saints Day, I read this post. Intellectually stimulated, encouraged to consider my place in relation to the great cloud of witnesses, my brothers and sisters around the world. Then the hymn. Just what my soul needed today. Magnificent. Allelujah!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Same here. The Mass schedules at every church I could get to are always when I’m stuck at work. I used to go to 6:30 AM daily on those days, but they’ve been discontinued at local parishes.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “We’ve finally arrived at the end of October…”

    When in the Evangelical Circus, Oceania has suddenly always been at peace with Eurasia and angry Mobilization against The Devil’s Holiday(TM) suddenly morphs to angry Mobilization for the War On Christmas. Culture War Without End, Amen. (And those who celebrate Reformation Day instead are right up there with the Culture War types, except they’re still fighting the Reformation Wars against Popery.)

    To paraphrase Chesterton, the 99% of people in the village who celebrate the festival are the sane ones; the one Enthusiastic Activist who soapbox preaches about Mobilization for The Cause is the insane one.

    “As you know, Bob…”

    ARGH! In fiction, that’s the WORST kind of “idiot conversation” exposition/infodump shtick. Do it with Author Self-Inserts over the phone and you have half of Left Behind volumes 1-whatever.

  7. Thanks again, Martha.

    I, too, am impressed by the hymn arrangement & singers. Hard to beat Vaughan Williams for a great tune, sung by some of the greatest voices in the world, the Welsh.

    I think Halloween the way it is now in the US is a way to deal with death without having to really deal with it, you know what I mean? The point of the earlier article about mocking death is taken, but I’m not sure that’s the mindset of the average person enjoying the day and the candy… I used to be part of the non-celebration of Halloween bunch, though we did let our kids participate minimally. Where I am now, I’m simply irritated that one of my favorite months, October, has been hijacked by Halloween and nothing but Halloween, and I’m happy that the movies shown on TV will now be about other things. If you knew me IRL, you would realize how shallow I am…


    • And I’m annoyed because here it is a blatantly US ‘event’ being imported by the shops just to milk us for more money (between ‘back to school’ and Christmas). And they’ve been at it for years. Fortunately it still hasn’t really taken off. Some shops seem to be mildly schizophrenic and the Halloween and Christmas decorations coexist…

  8. Martha, thank you for personalizing your explanations (“As you know, Bob…”) — I felt you were writing just to me!

    One curious sentence in your excellent essay included “warmed-over paganism appropriated from the Romans by the Romans.” Is there a teensy little mistake in there somewhere?

    Again, excellent reading. We Bobs stick together, though. I’m with Robert F. above on Holy Days of Obligation.

  9. Daisey former Missionary and Carmelite says

    How I love the reality of the communion of saints. And I am ever so grateful to the “editor”…. the one who included the video of this glorious rendition of a song sung by the majority of denominations….by all I don’t know, but how awesome that would be. I listened to it a number of times – tears flowing at the thought of all God’s people being in one room signing these verses together as one….

    The enemy of our souls works to instill disunity wherever he can knowing well the harm it can produce. I pray this website and others like it continue to bring mutual understanding and respect between differing denominations and bring us all to have hearts more and more filled with that Love for one another with which and for which Jesus prayed.

  10. Susan Paxton says

    We sang that hymn at Mass today. Didn’t sound like that!!!

  11. Martha, thank you for elucidating on this subject. I just love parties!

  12. Can we let Headless Unicorn Guy do a series of posts or a Saturday Ramblings? I need some fiction selections and other good stuff he could come up with.

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