This Thursday, November 1st, we will be celebrating the Feast of All Saints. In our Catholic tradition, it remains one of the “holy days of obligation,” and we will follow our usual “Holy Day” mass schedule (located on the front page of our bulletin.) This offers us all an opportunity to get in touch with an ancient church practice of praying with the whole company of saints.
The origins of this church feast date to the fourth century when the Church would honor all the martyred saints in prayer. Three centuries later, as Rome was attacked and pillaged by invaders, Pope Boniface IV arranged to gather the bones of the martyrs to protect them from desecration by the invaders. The bones were taken from the catacombs and entombed beneath the Pantheon, which the Pope then dedicated as a Christian church. Boniface hoped that from then on “the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored…”
With the passing of time, this venerable tradition has lost nothing of its sacred character. While secular culture may forget that Hallowe’en is All Hallows (i.e. All Saints) evening, our Church continues to honor those who have walked this earth with us and who now enjoy the fullness of life in God.
It might be interesting to note that it wasn’t until the ninth century that paths to sainthood, other than martyrdom, were recognized. The first formal canonization didn’t take place until 993. The most recent canonization took place at St. Peter’s in Rome just two weeks ago. The process for declaring someone a saint is neither easy nor short. So when we celebrate our saints, we rejoice in their sanctity, and ask their prayers for our own growth in holiness. Today there are many more saints whose names we don’t know than whose names we do know. Saints have been named representing so many countries all around the world. On this Feast of All Saints, we honor both those we know and those we don’t know,bound together in faith as one Communion of Saints.
The following day, November 2nd, is All Souls’ Day, or as it is officially known, the commemoration of all the faithful departed. On this day we remember all our loved ones who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” The origins of this celebration in our church dates to the reforms of the middle ages that originated in Cluny, France. The Abbot of the day instructed that the monks in the great Abbey of Cluny were to sing the “Office of the Dead” and the day immediately following the Feast of All Saints. In this way, the whole Church, living and deceased, was bound up in one communion of faith. The celebration of All Souls’ Day attests to our frailty as human beings, but more importantly, to God’s unfathomable mercy. For we believe that all the human ties that bind us in life and that unravel in death will be made whole again in our eternal life in God.
For myself, I find that when I pray for a loved one who has died, I am brought into a closeness with them. It’s not the same as when they were living and we could enjoy one another’s company, but it is a closeness, nonetheless, that can bring much comfort. It has long been my practice that on every trip to my home in Ireland I always make a point of visiting the cemetery where the remains of my deceased family members lie. Visiting with them, I pray for them and I enjoy the comfort of their prayer for me.
So in the coming week, perhaps we might take some time either at Church or in our homes to set aside some time to honor those who have gone before us in faith.