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Catholic Activity: Feast of All Saints



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Father Francis Weiser, S.J. gives the history and customs of All Saints Day.



ALL MARTYRS — The Church of Antioch kept a commemoration of all holy martyrs on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Saint John Chrysostom, who served as preacher at Antioch before he became patriarch of Constantinople, delivered annual sermons on the occasion of this festival. They were entitled "Praise of All the Holy Martyrs of the Entire World."1 In the course of the succeeding centuries the feast spread through the whole Eastern Church and, by the seventh century, was everywhere kept as a public holyday.

In the West the Feast of All Holy Martyrs was introduced when Pope Boniface IV (615) was given the ancient Roman temple of the Pantheon by Emperor Phocas (610) and dedicated it as a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. The date of this dedication was May 13, and on this date the feast was then annually held in Rome.2 Two hundred years later Pope Gregory IV (844) transferred the celebration to November 1. The reason for this transfer is quite interesting, especially since some scholars have claimed that the Church assigned All Saints to November 1 in order to substitute a feast of Christian significance for the pagan Germanic celebrations of the demon cult at that time of the year.3 Actually, the reason for the transfer was that the many pilgrims who came to Rome for the Feast of the Pantheon could be fed more easily after the harvest than in the spring.4

ALL SAINTS — Meanwhile, the practice had spread of including in this memorial not only all martyrs, but the other saints as well. Pope Gregory III (741) had already stated this when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter''s in honor of Christ, Mary, and "all the apostles, martyrs, confessors, and all the just and perfect servants of God whose bodies rest throughout the whole world."5

Upon the request of Pope Gregory IV, Emperor Louis the Pious (840) introduced the Feast of All Saints in his territories. With the consent of the bishops of Germany and France he ordered it to be kept on November 1 in the whole Carolingian empire.6 Finally, Pope Sixtus IV (1484) established it as a holyday of obligation for the entire Latin Church, giving it a liturgical vigil and octave.7 The octave was discontinued in 1955.

The purpose of the feast is twofold. As the prayer of the Mass states, "the merits of all the saints are venerated in common by this one celebration," because a very large number of martyrs and other saints could not be accorded the honor of a special festival since the days of the year would not suffice for all these individual celebrations. The second purpose was given by Pope Urban IV: Any negligence, omission, and irreverence committed in the celebration of the saints'' feasts throughout the year is to be atoned for by the faithful, and thus due honor may still be offered to these saints.8

LITURGICAL PRAYER — Almighty and eternal God, who hast granted us to venerate the merits of all Thy saints in one celebration: we beg Thee to bestow upon us the desired abundance of Thy mercy on account of this great number of intercessors.

1 PG, 1, 706 ff.
2 DACL, 15.1 (1950), 438.
3 Frazer, 633.
4 Beleth, Rationale divin. offic., 127; PL, 202, 133.
5 LP, I, 417.
6 S. Adons Martyrol., Nov. 1; PL, 123, 387.
7 Kellner, 326.
8 Decr. Si Dominum; Nilles, I, 313 (Latin text).

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958