Reflection: All Saints and All Souls

James Sabak, OFM Features


The solemnity of All Saints and All Souls, celebrated on the first two days of November, offer Catholics memory and hope, the pillars of Christian liturgical and daily life. In this reflection, a specialist in liturgy and sacramental theology shares the history of these two holy days and explains how they connect us with those who have gone before us, those who will come after us, and with God, the source of all relationship.

In the perennial seasonal standard, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the final exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present is both profoundly brooding, as it is chillingly expositive. In this scene, Scrooge is confronted by two figures of children who cling to the legs of the Ghost of Christmas Present. They are described as, “yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.” The Ghost names and remarks upon them: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” The echo of the Specter’s warning reverberates and lingers in all places where ignorance gives way to hatred and violence and want devolves into anguish and despair. Is there any means, one may wonder, to effectively and decisively confront these Dickensian realities?

For the Christian believer, this question is boldly answered, “Yes!,” in the celebration of the first two days of November: the Solemnity of All Saints, and All Souls. These days, each in turn, express the two foundational principles around which revolves the liturgical year and toward which develops the daily life perspective of the Christian. To the folly of ignorance, the Solemnity of All Saints responds with memory; to the scourge of want, All Souls offers hope. Memory and hope are the pillars of Christian liturgical and daily life, and are the dynamic actions through which ignorance and want are defeated.

A celebration in honor of the saints is not Western but Eastern in origin, the Greek Church having celebrated the saints on the Sunday after Pentecost since the fourth century. It entered the West in two ways — one through the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609, as the Church of St. Mary and all Martyrs (Santa Maria ad Martyres) by Pope Boniface IV – a pivotal stroke that forever claimed the Roman Forum for Christianity. The second way occurred in the following century when Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to the saints in St. Peter’s Basilica on November 1. The successor of Gregory III, Gregory IV, encouraged the celebration of the saints on this day throughout the Carolingian Empire, eclipsing the May 13 date. The French church added a vigil to the celebration on October 31, the origin of what became “All Hallows Eve” or Halloween, especially in the English Christian tradition.

Marking a Unique Celebration
While not a solemnity in its own right – having no festal rank at all in the calendar – All Souls is a unique celebration. Its origin as a Western observance (the Byzantine church dedicated every Saturday to all saints and all souls from an early period) is traced to an act of St. Odilo (Odo), abbot of Cluny, who in the 10th century ordered prayers for all the dead on November 2.

It is interesting to note that while this devotion was rapidly popularized throughout northern Europe, it was not accepted in Rome until the 14th century. The reason for this reluctance was the tendency of liturgy of the city of Rome to emphasize a more positive relationship between the human and the divine, than was common in areas outside the city. By the 14th century, the commemoration of All Souls carried with it familiar purgatorial elements (the custom of three Masses for the dead in purgatory is Spanish in origin) that remained an integral part of its Masses until the liturgical reforms of the late 20th century.

These liturgical reforms communicate to the character of All Saints and All Souls a formidable understanding of the responsibility of Christian life, enfleshing the apostolic counsel that Christians must be people who are ready to give an explanation for the hope they possess (I Peter 3:15). They are days that, while celebrated in the present, look in two directions: the future and the past.

We begin these days by looking to the future with the Solemnity of All Saints, because to be Christian is to be an eschatological people. We remember – we “make memory” – not as sentimental nostalgia, but rather as powerful anamnesis, that what God has done in human history to people not unlike ourselves, God can also do with us. It is not a day for naming the present assembly as “saints,” however much our Western egalitarian tendencies might want to, because that is jumping the gun — we are not there yet. We remember those who are acknowledged as saints in the sure and certain hope that we, too, will follow where they have walked. Christians are tasked with the responsibility of remembering that amid the mistakes and imprudence of human history, God is at work revealing love, mercy and forgiveness at every turn, which are in need of being imitated to become effective in every age.

Enacting Who We Say We Are
Memory transforms to hope on the following day, when we look to the past, to all those who have gone before us in faith. All Souls is not, contrary to popular opinion, a day dedicated to praying for the “Poor Souls in Purgatory,” as if God needs to be convinced or bargained with by us to care about us. In fact, there are no direct or overt references to purgatory in any of the presidential prayers for All Souls Masses in the Roman Missal. Rather, in commemorating all those marked with faith that have preceded us, we pray that their memory of the extravagant affection of God’s love for them will provide them with hope-empowered strength and courage to avoid despair and make the choice to believe as they undertake the greatest of all transitions of human life. In so doing, we in the present exercise the greatest of all gifts bestowed upon believers, that of being able to pray for one another. One need not be the holiest, most devout, most pious believer, nor does one need be a religious sister or brother, priest, deacon, bishop, or pope to accomplish this duty. One needs simply to believe, and to hope in that belief, to pray effectively. All Souls is the “call of duty” day for all believers to enact who we say we are.

Together then, All Saints and All Souls must be celebrated in tandem, as two sides of the whole of Christian life. Above all, they are a celebration of the relational nature of Christian life, of relationship with those who have gone before us, with those who will follow after, and with the God who is the source of all relationship. There can be no fitting act to move us to the conclusion of a year of faith than by initiating once again the powerful effectiveness of memory and hope in Christian life.


— Fr. James is assistant professor of liturgy and sacramental theology at Providence, R.I., College, as well as the chair of the American Franciscan Liturgical Commission.


Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, holy day or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at  

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