28 October 2022

The Christian feast of ‘Halloween’

This coming week we will celebrate two very significant feasts in the Church’s calendar, which are closely bound together: The Solemnity of All Saints on the 1st of November, and the commemoration of All Soul’s Day on the 2nd of November.

Image: Detail of the ascent of souls into heaven from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (Sistine Chapel, Vatican)

The Solemnity of All Saints dates back to at least the eighth century. It was originally known by the old English name of All Hallows, and being ranked as a solemnity it commenced with a vigil on the evening before, namely, the 31st October. Over time ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ was contracted to become ‘Halloween.’ It was popularly imagined that the souls of the deceased awaiting heaven would make the ascent from their graves on the eve of All Hallows. Hence, Halloween came to be associated with ghosts, the dead, and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night! Originally, children would dress up as their favourite saints: today they dress as ghosts, zombies or vampires! Every year millions of people continue to celebrate Halloween with jack pumpkins, ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treating. Very few indeed would be aware of the Christian origins of the feast, which has now taken on a life of its own as an entirely secular ‘feast,’ albeit one with a very unclear sense of purpose. If shopping centres are any gauge of culture, we can observe that a similar process of secularisation of the Christian solemnities of Christmas and Easter is well under way.

The Solemnity of All Saints recognises that the overwhelming majority of saints will never be formally declared saints (‘canonised’). Nonetheless we can still ask these holy souls to intercede for us from heaven. The following day, All Souls, recognises that many souls of the faithful departed must undergo a final spiritual purification (or ‘purgation’) before they can attain the beatific vision. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory, so little spoken of today, is in fact an expression of the great hope we have in God’s mercy. The belief in purgatory means that even those who lived less than saintly lives might have the hope of eternal salvation, having been purified from all attachment to sin. The Church encourages us on this day in particular to pray for our deceased loved ones to hasten their entry into heaven.

These twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls also serve to open our awareness of the full reality of the Church in her three-fold aspect. The Church is not simply made up of those Christians who live today. The Church is the living Body of Christ which is made up of all those who have been united to Christ through Baptism in God’s eternal plan of Redemption. The saints (sometimes called the ‘Church Triumphant’ because they have already attained the vision of God) are equally part of the Church as the living faithful on earth. Nor should we forget that the souls of the faithful in purgatory are also members of the Body of Christ (the ‘Church Suffering’). The fact that they have not yet attained the beatific vision of God does not mean that they are deprived of sanctifying grace which ensures their vital membership in the Church. The Church on earth is called the ‘Church Militant’ because we are still engaged in the battle for holiness, “Fighting the good fight for the true faith” as St Paul would say (1Tim 6:12).

The Church lists praying for the dead among the seven ‘Spiritual Works of Mercy.’ The venerable customs of visiting graves, praying the rosary and offering Masses for the deceased are particularly commendable practices for consolation of the suffering souls in purgatory. If you would like to have Masses offered for the souls of deceased loved ones, there are November Mass envelopes in the foyer of the Church.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.