In the very first days of November, the Church celebrates a triduum of saints galore, a triduum of beauty. The liturgies of November 1 and 2 commemorate more saints and virtual saints than in the entire liturgical year. Both feasts are anticipated by a vigil, All Hallows Eve. The opening antiphon for November 1st exudes unbounded joy: “Oh, how glorious is the kingdom where all the saints rejoice with Christ! Clothed in white robes, they follow the Lamb wherever he goes!”
In Medieval Europe, from the seventh or eighth century, October 31 was marked on the Church calendar as a day of preparing to venerate all those sainted men and women who had not been officially recognized by the Church.
This cult had begun with the veneration of the early martyrs who shed their blood for the faith. In the early centuries, this veneration was carried out at their tombs. One famous pilgrimage site is located at Canterbury in memory of St. Thomas Becket. On December 29th, 1170, during Vespers, he was martyred by four henchmen of Henry II of England.
Soon veneration of saints who were not martyrs became as popular as those who shed their blood for the faith. Today the Church urges the faithful to rejoice with those who have entered the heavenly realm. The annual celebration reminds us that our earthly pilgrimage is short compared to eternity. The eternal vision of God, our true destiny.
Preparing for All Saints and All Souls Days
By the eleventh century, the day after All Saints Day was dedicated to the commemoration of all the departed faithful, All Souls’ Day. On this day, the familiar verse for the faithful departed is prayed: “Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord, with your Saints forever, for you are merciful.”
The triduum of saints galore began on All Hallows Eve which served as the Church’s preparation for the two feast days of All Saints and All Souls. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter. All Hallows Eve was celebrated by praying that one would attain sainthood like their sainted loved ones and all the saints, while at the same time, praying for the dead whose prayers they sought.
In her book, The Year and Our Children, Mary Reed Newland writes: “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider. And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129, the De Profundis, 'Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord' and then go to bed.”
The English custom of knocking at doors began by begging for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. The refrain sung at the door varied. It could be as short as “a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake” to a later version: “Soul, soul, an apple or two, If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do, one for Peter, two for Paul, three for the Man who made us all” (270-78).
Advent of the Doughnut
The soul cake ushered in an ingenious variation—the doughnut. To remind people that life on earth was but a transitory reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity. Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation. With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil—goblins, witches, and cats, which were ancient symbols of the devil. Still, the familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were given out to beggars. Christian art depicted death by skulls and bones to remind Christians of death. Thus, pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side.
Nevertheless, Christendom cast its thoughts from the end of temporal life to thoughts of death, sainthood and the departed souls. The saints in heaven and those suffering in Purgatory are part of the full and complete Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. In 1955, All Hallows Eve was stricken from the Church calendar. Many in the Church are calling for its return.
The Communion of Saints
The liturgical celebrations of November 1 and 2 bring our loved ones closer to us through the Eucharist. What better way to acknowledge that, as we age, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints becomes a deep consolation, for nothing and no one is ever finally lost. All of us have loved ones who have died. These days are set aside to help us unite our thoughts and prayers with those who have preceded us to the other side of life. Here is the beauty of the Communion of Saints.
Our Children and the Communion of Saints
In postconciliar years, children of grade school ages have been encouraged to combine a celebration of All Saints Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. With the help of parents, teachers, or catechists, they find success stories from the Judeo-Christian heritage. These stories include: kings and queens, biblical heroes, Indian and American saints, teen-aged saints, founders of religious orders, and modern-day martyrs who have suffered for their faith in persecuted lands all over the world. Children don costumes similar to the saint of their choice, and the list is endless. It might be King David, Queen Esther, or Ruth of the Hebrew Scriptures. Others might include St. Kateri Tekawitha of the Mohawk Indians, those saintly Jesuits who ministered to the Indians in Upper New York State and Lower Canada; there is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first Italian immigrant and American educator, St. Martin de Porres, St. Maria Goretti, or St. Thérèse of Lisieux. They may even dress up like their own sainted grandparents.
Today, though our youth admire social and sports super-stars, the Church takes pride in her own success stories. Throughout the course of the liturgical year, all of us, young and not-so-young, celebrate not only the mysteries of Jesus and the Mother of God but also the feasts of the saints in heaven—official and unofficial. Their lives exemplify what genuine success stories really mean, and they are worthy of our admiration and imitation.
St. Paul’s Saints
A cursory reading of the Pauline corpus reveals that Paul often referred to his Gentile communities as saints. Not that they had realized sainthood. It was important for them to understand their vocation as saints-in-the-making. Each was to become Saint _____.
In our own twenty-first century, how many thousands have been martyred simply because of their profession of faith! “What are saints except geniuses–geniuses who bring to their works of virtue all the splendor, eccentricity, effort, and dedication that lesser talents bring to music or poetry or painting?” So writes Phyllis McGinley. “Like musicians, painters, poets, they are human beings, but obsessed ones. They are obsessed by goodness and by God, as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, and Beethoven by sound. And like other geniuses, they used mortal mean to contrive masterpieces. (Phyllis McGinley, Saint-Watching, 17).
Completing the Roster of Saints
Each of us may keep our own list of men and women, not officially sainted, whose feast days are celebrated on November 1. Take for example, Rose Kennedy, a valiant woman who, in her own lifetime, raised nine children, including her severely mentally disabled daughter, Rosemary. She sustained the deaths of three sons and a daughter. In her touching memoir, Times to Remember, she writes “If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would ask for faith—for faith in Him, in His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and still be happy—trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable providence. When I start my day with a prayer of consecration to Him, with complete trust and confidence, I am perfectly relaxed and happy regardless of what accident of fate befalls me because I know it is part of His divine plan and He will take care of me and my dear ones” (444).
Do our thoughts ever turn to those renowned artists who have given the world deep satisfaction through their own creative works—painters and sculptors, writers, poets, musicians, and composers? What of scientists who have made for healthier living, and those who have expanded our awareness of the heavens? Our many civil leaders and emancipators can also claim a place of saintly honor.
What of the selfless entertainers of our time, those who gave us respite from daily cares? With their hilarious comedic fun, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, for example, entertained thousands of troops fighting in World War II—especially during Christmas time.
Fred Astaire, himself a remarkable artist, once said of Judy Garland that “she was the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” In her short, tragic career that was mishandled by MGM Studios, she gave her heart unstintingly, thrilling her audiences as she sang directly to each of them. How curious, that she endeared herself to them by singing not only “Over the Rainbow,” but “Get Happy” whose lyrics point to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls:
“Forget your troubles, come on get happy
You better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy
Get ready for the judgment day.
The sun is shining, come on get happy
The Lord is waiting to take your hand
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy
We’re going to the Promised Land.
We’re heading across the river, wash your sins in the tide
It’s all so peaceful on the other side. Refrain.
In this triduum of beauty—October 31, November 1, and November 2, we give thanks for all those who have enriched our lives. We seek communion with them, our saints galore.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.