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Blessed repose: Feasts of the dead

Scott Harris

October 29, 2019
Image from Pixabay

The mighty trumpet’s dolorous tone
Shall pierce through each sepulchral stone
And summon men before the throne

– from the Dies Irae sequence hymn for All Souls’ Day
This week, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates what has been known among English-speaking Catholics as “All Hallowtide,” which consists of two feast days associated with Christians who have died. The first of these is the Feast of All Saints on November 1, which celebrates the “Church Triumphant”, meaning the souls who now dwell with God in Heaven. This day is also referred to as the Feast of All Hallows, as “hallow” means something sacred and is a synonym for “saint”. Liturgically, each day begins with Vespers, the office of prayer around sunset, the evening before, which is why the night of October 31 is called “All Hallows’ Eve” or Hallowe’en. On November 2, following All Saints’ Day, the Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls, which is a commemoration of all of the faithful departed, not just those souls who are saints with God in Heaven.
There is actually quite a sharp contrast between the liturgical celebrations of these two feast days, even though they are closely related. All Saints’ Day is joyful and upbeat, the liturgical colour is white, and the full ceremonial is permitted for the Mass, as at any Sunday Mass or typical feast day. The tone is more celebratory, honouring the final triumph of those members of the Body of Christ who have passed from their mortality into eternal life. It is a Solemnity, meaning it is one of the higher feast days, and is considered to be a Day of Obligation in many provinces of the Catholic Church.
The origin of the Feast of All Saints isn’t easy to trace, but it may be related to Pope Boniface IV consecrating the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs in the 7th century AD, and ordering that the anniversary of this be celebrated every year on May 13. The Byzantine Church celebrates a feast for all of the saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost, so it’s possible the eastern feast influenced the western one. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III instituted the Feast of All Saints in its current form on November 1.
All Souls’ Day is a much more sombre occasion, imitating a requiem or funeral liturgy, but instead of being for one person near the time of their death, it is offered for all of the faithful departed. The bond between all of the faithful as the Body of Christ is not broken by death, and as Catholics, we believe that our prayers can help those who died with sin still weighing on their souls. Unlike the Feast of All Saints, All Souls’ Day is not a joyful celebration but a solemn liturgy for the dead. Many parishes have a book where people can write the names of loved ones who have recently died, and parishes pray for those whose funerals have taken place there in the past year. The liturgy is simple and stripped down, with homilies reflecting the reality of purgatory and the importance of praying for those members of the Body of Christ who have died.
Illustration of the Mass for the Dead from a 15th-century manuscript from Bruges, Belgium. Ms. Ludwig IX 8 (83.ML.104). Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
The current practices for All Souls’ refer back to the old custom of having a Requiem Mass on this feast for all of the faithful departed. It resembles the typical funeral liturgy in the Old Rite, but it is offered for all of the faithful who have gone to their eternal rest. The liturgical colour is black, and the ceremonial is much simpler than a usual Sunday Mass. The Gloria and Creed are omitted, incense is not used at the Introit or Gospel, acolytes do not accompany the Gospel book with lighted candles, and the “Alleluia” proclamation before the Gospel is replaced with a tract. Two very distinctive features of this liturgy are the very powerful Dies Irae sequence hymn and the catafalque draped in a black pall and surrounded by six unbleached candles, representing the casket of the deceased and standing in for all of the faithful who have died.
Maybe I’m morbid, but the All Souls’ Requiem Mass is one of my favourites of the liturgical year. There is a sombre drama to this Mass that can be very moving, especially if one has lost a loved one recently. The sung Dies Irae is both beautiful and chilling, as the words speak of God’s final judgment. Along with the Feast of All Saints, All Souls’ also taps into the very old practice of praying for those who have died. Earlier traditions of pre-Christian societies honouring the dead with festivals such as the Lemuria in ancient Rome and the Celtic festival of Samhain, as well as modern traditions like Día de Muertos in Mexico, show that the human need to commemorate and honour those who have died transcends religion and culture.
The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls offer us a chance to commemorate both the famous and unknown saints, as well as all of the faithful departed who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection. On All Saints’ Day we honour those who have become part of the Church Triumphant in Heaven, and on All Souls’ Day we pray that the souls of all of the faithful departed will join their ranks. It is the hope of all Christians that, by living out the eight Beatitudes, we will achieve the fulfillment of Christian life by becoming saints, both in this world and the next.

Grant to all, O Saviour Blest
Who die in you, the saints’ sweet rest

– from the Dies Irae
Illustration of the Office of the Dead from a 15th-century manuscript from Paris, France. Ms. Ludwig IX 5 (83.ML.101). Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.