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 those who die in God’s grace are immediately ready for the Beatific vision, i.e. the reality and goodness of God and heaven, so they must be purified of “lesser faults,” and the temporal effects of sin. The Catholic Church calls this purification of the elect, “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, grant that Purgatory may be an existential state as opposed to a temporal place. In other words, Purgatory may be something we experience instantaneously, because it is outside of the confines of created time and space. 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 to “clean up” oneself before going into the presence of Almighty God.
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. 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.
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 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
All Saint’s Day (or officially The Solemnity of All Saints) is instituted to honor all the saints, known and unknown, and, according to Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts during the year. In the early days the Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom.
In the fourth century, neighboring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of St. Basil of Caesarea (397) to the bishops of the province of Pontus.
Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration. In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. The first trace of this we find in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (407).
At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honored by a special day. Other saints were added gradually, and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established; still, as early as 411 there is in the Chaldean Calendar a “Commemoratio Confessorum” for the Friday after Easter. In the West Boniface IV, 13 May, 609, or 610, consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary. Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary for 1 November. A basilica of the Apostles already existed in Rome, and its dedication was annually remembered on 1 May. Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration on 1 November to the entire Church.