The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed
All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, and commemorates the faithful departed, those who die in God’s faith and friendship. However, Catholics believe that not all who die immediately are ready for the Beatific vision, i.e. the reality and goodness of God and heaven, so they must be purged of their sins. The Catholic Church calls this purification of the elect “purgatory.”
As to the duration, place, and exact nature of this purification, the Church has no official dogma. But the Catholic teaching on Purgatory essentially requires belief in two realities:
- That there will be a purification of believers prior to entering heaven.
- That the prayers and masses of the faithful benefit those in the state of purification.
All Souls is the day to remember, pray for, and offer Requiem Masses up for these faithful departed in the state of purification. Typically Christians will take this day to offer prayers up on behalf of their departed relatives and friends. This may be done in the form of the Divine Office of the Dead (Defunctorum Officium). Often this office is prayed on the anniversary (or eve) of the death of a loved one and on All Souls’ Day.
There are many customs associated with All Souls Day, and these vary greatly from culture to culture. Customs include praying novenas for the holy souls, and ornately decorating relatives’ graves. In Hungary the day is known as Halottak Napja, “the day of the dead,” and a common custom is inviting orphans into the family and giving them food, clothes, and toys. In rural Poland, a legend developed that at midnight on All Souls Day a great light shone on the local parish. This light was said to be the holy souls of departed parishioners gathered to pray for their release from Purgatory at the altars of their former earthly parishes. After this, the souls were said to return to scenes from their earthly life and work, visiting homes and other places. As a sign of welcome, Poles leave their windows and doors ajar on the night of All Souls Day. All of these customs show the wide variety of traditions related to All Souls Day.
Christians have been praying for their departed brothers and sisters since the earliest days of Christianity. Early liturgies and inscriptions on catacomb walls attest to the ancientness of prayers for the dead, even if the Church needed more time to develop a substantial theology behind the practice. Praying for the dead is actually borrowed from Judaism, as indicated in 2 Maccabees 12:41-42. In the New Testament, St Paul prays for his departed friend Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:16-18. Early Christian writers Tertullian and St. Cyprian testify to the regular practice of praying for the souls of the departed. Tertullian justified the practice based on custom and Tradition, and not on explicit scriptural teaching. Eventually, many writers, including St. Augustine, expounded on the concept of a purgation of sins through fire after death.
In the early days, departed Christians’ names were placed on diptychs. In the sixth century, Benedictine communities held commemorations for the departed on the feast of Pentecost. All Souls’ Day became a universal festival largely on account of the influence of Odilo of Cluny in AD 998, when he commanded its annual celebration in the Benedictine houses of his congregation. This soon spread to the Carthusian congregations as well.
The day was celebrated on various days, including October 15th in 12th century Milan. Today all Western Catholics celebrate All Souls’ Day on November 2. While the Eastern Churches lack a clearly defined doctrine of Purgatory, they still regularly pray for the departed.