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What Is All Souls Day (Commemoration of the Faithful Departed)?

All Souls Day History, Information, Prayers, Meaning, Traditions, & More

All Souls Day Definition and Meaning

What is All Souls Day? It is when the Church commemorates and prays for the souls in Purgatory, who are undergoing purification before entering heaven. All Souls Day is November 2nd, 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
Scriptural References: 2 Maccabees 12:44-45; Matthew 12:31-32; 1 Corinthians 3:13-15; 2 Timothy 1:16-18; 1 Peter 3:18-20

Introduction

All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, and commemorates the faithful departed, i.e. those who die in God's grace and friendship. Catholics believe that not everyone who dies in God's grace 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 temporal effects of sin.

The Catholic Church calls this purification "purgatory." The Catholic teaching on Purgatory essentially requires belief in two realities: 1. that there will be a purification of believers prior to entering heaven and 2. 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 dogma, 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 a temporal place (see Benedict's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life 230-231). In other words, because Purgatory is outside created time and space, it is not necessarily accurate to speak of a location or duration of Purgatory. 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 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 they celebrate All Souls Day 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. All of these customs show the wide variety of traditions related to All Souls Day.

History

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 mercy for his departed friend Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18). 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. 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 St. 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 15th 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. See the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and The Catholic Source Book for more information.

Worship and Prayer Resources

All Souls Day Prayers and Prayers for the Souls in Purgatory
Office of the Dead

All Souls Art, Photos, and Images

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Cemetery Cross (D. Bennett)

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Weeping Woman Grave (D. Bennett)

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Jesus Statue Grave Marker (D. Bennett)

Last Judgment icon thumb
Last Judgment (Michelangelo)

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All Souls Day (William Bouguereau)

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Black and White Statue (D. Bennett)

More Liturgical Artwork

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 & 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 referred to as 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 General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar All Souls Day is effectively ranked with solemnities, the highest level of celebration in the Church. This is why some liturgical calendars sometimes label All Souls Day a solemnity, because it takes precedence over other liturgical celebrations just like a solemnity. Thus, while All Souls Day is a special category, it is useful to think of it as a solemnity.

All Souls Day and Church Year Books

Penguin Dictionary of the Saints
The Book of Saints
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Holy Bible: New Jerusalem Bible
Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Cross and Livingstone, eds.)
New St. Joseph People's Prayer Book
The Study of Liturgy (Jones, ed.)
Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger)
More Christian & Church Year Books

General Links

Christians and Halloween David Morrison
All About All Saints Day
The Communion of Saints: the Whole Family of God
How to Explain Purgatory

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This page written by . Last updated 10-20-2013.

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