What Is All Souls' Day (Commemoration of the Faithful Departed)?
All Souls' Day Definition and Summary
What is All Souls' Day? It is when the Church commemorates and prays for the souls in Purgatory, the faithful departed undergoing purification before entering heaven. All Souls' Day is celebrated on November 2, the day after All Saints' Day. Prayers: All Souls Day Prayers
Basic Facts About All Souls Day
Liturgical Color(s): Black, white, or violet
Type of Holiday: A special class; ranked with Solemnities because it takes precedence over a Sunday
Time of Year: November 2 (West), Eve of Pentecost (East)
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: All the faithful departed
Alternate Names: Commemoration of the Faithful Departed; Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum
All Souls' Day directly follows All Saints' Day and commemorates "the faithful departed," those individuals who die in God's grace. Catholics believe that not everyone who is destined for heaven is immediately ready for the "Beatific vision," i.e., the direct experience of God and His perfect nature in heaven, so they must be purified of "lesser faults" and the effects of sin.
The Catholic Church calls this purification "Purgatory." The Catholic teaching on Purgatory essentially requires belief in two realities:
- that there will be a purification of the souls of believers prior to entering heaven and
- that the prayers and Masses of the faithful in some way benefit those in the state of purification.
As to the duration, place, and exact nature of this purification, the Church has no official teaching, although Saint Augustine and others used fire as a way to explain the nature of the purification.
Many faithful Catholics, including Pope Benedict XVI, understand that Purgatory may be best thought of as an "existential state" as opposed to an actual place (see Benedict's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 230-231).
In other words, because Purgatory is outside time and space, it is not necessarily accurate to speak of a location or "duration" of Purgatory, even though the Catholic Church spoke of Purgatory this way for years. Nonetheless, the prayers and Masses of the faithful do have an impact on the purification that the faithful are undergoing in Purgatory.
Many non-Catholics, including C.S. Lewis, have believed in Purgatory, and the official dogma of Purgatory is hardly offensive, even if the popular understanding of it has led to confusion. As a more everyday explanation, many liken Purgatory to a place or state where one gets "cleaned up" before entering into the presence of Almighty God.
The Church prays for and remembers the faithful departed throughout the entire year. However, All Souls' Day is the general, solemn day of commemoration, when the Church remembers, prays for, and offers requiem Masses up for the 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. Others may remember influential individuals that they never knew personally, such as presidents, musicians, etc. This may be done in the form of the Office of the Dead (Defunctorum officium), i.e., a prayer service offered in memory of departed loved ones. Often this office is prayed on the anniversary (or eve) of the death of a loved one, or on All Souls' Day.
There are many customs associated with All Souls' Day, and these vary greatly from culture to culture. In Mexico All Souls' Day is celebrated as el dia de los muertos, or "the Day of the Dead." Customs include going to a graveyard to have a picnic, eating skull-shaped candy, and leaving food out for dead relatives. The practice of leaving food out for dead relatives is interesting, but not exactly Catholic Theology. If all of this seems a little morbid, remember that all cultures deal with death in different manners. The Western aversion to anything related to death is not present in other cultures.
In the Philippines, they celebrate "Memorial Day" based loosely on All Souls' Day. Customs include praying novenas for the holy souls and ornately decorating relatives' graves. On the eve of All Souls' (i.e., the evening of All Saints' Day), partiers go door-to-door, requesting gifts and singing a traditional verse representing the liberation of holy souls from Purgatory.
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.
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. Praying for the dead is actually borrowed from Judaism, as indicated in 2 Maccabees 12:41-42. In the New Testament, Saint Paul prays for mercy for his departed friend Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18). Early Christian writers Tertullian and Saint 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. This demonstrates that Christians believed that their prayers could somehow have a positive effect on the souls of departed believers. Closely connected to the ancient practice of praying for the dead is the belief in an explicit state called Purgatory. The New Testament hints at a purification of believers after death. For example, Saint Paul speaks of being saved, "but only as through fire" (1 Corinthians 3:15). Over time, many Church Fathers, including Saint Augustine (e.g., in Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love and City of God further developed the concept of a purgation of sins through fire after death.
In the early Church, 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 15 in 12th century Milan. Today all Western Catholics celebrate All Souls' Day on November 2, as do many Anglicans, Lutherans, and other Christians. Initially many Protestant reformers rejected All Souls' Day because of the theology behind the feast (Purgatory and prayers/Masses for the dead), but the feast is now being celebrated in many Protestant communities, in many cases with a sub-Catholic theology of Purgatory. Some Protestants even pray for the dead; many Anglican liturgies include such prayers. While the Eastern Churches lack a clearly defined doctrine of Purgatory, they still regularly pray for the departed.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Customs, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions and Customs: Visiting a graveyard for a picnic; decorating relatives' graves; remembering and praying for departed souls, giving orphans food, clothing, and toys; leaving doors and windows open on All Souls' Night
Symbols: Any symbol of death, any symbol of fire
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing All Souls' Day: All Old Testament examples of fire, all Old Testament examples of purification
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why Do You Say that All Souls' Day is a "Special Category" and "Commemoration?" All Souls' Day is officially titled the "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed." A commemoration is a very low rank on the liturgical calendar, in which virtually every other liturgical celebration takes precedence. All Souls' Day is not a commemoration in this sense, but instead is a special class of holiday. According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, which establishes the authority of Church holidays, All Souls' Day is effectively ranked with solemnities, the highest level of celebration in the Church. Thus, while All Souls' Day is a special category, it is useful to think of it as a solemnity.
This page written by David Bennett.