Catholic News Service
A woman lights a candle on a grave in Belarus on All Saints Day.
Catholic News Service
A woman lights a candle on a grave in Belarus on All Saints Day.
In a 2006 homily exploring the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, Pope Benedict said that death deprives us of everything that is earthly, but not of the grace of baptism, which joins Christians to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  

"To know Jesus is to know the Father, and to know the Father means to enter into a real communion with the very origin of life, of light and love," the pope said.

The Holy Father's theologically astute words nicely summarized Christian belief on death. He also deepened the understanding of All Saints and All Souls days, which in the church begin a month of remembering our ultimate disposition.   

All Saints Day, observed Nov. 1, arose out of the early Christian tradition of celebrating the death anniversary of martyrs, who share in a fuller way the paschal mystery of Christ. When martyrdoms (martyr is Greek for "witness) increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local churches in the 4th century instituted a common feast day to make sure that all martyrs, including those unknown, were properly honored.

Pope Gregory III in the 8th century consecrated a new chapel in the original basilica of St. Peter to all saints — not just martyrs — on Nov. 1. He fixed that anniversary as the date of the observance. It is still a principal church feast and a holy day of obligation.

All Saints Day included all the holy people, martyrs or not, whose exemplary lives were hidden enough that they were not canonized. The vigil of the feast, All Hallows Eve, was also an important church event.  

Together with Christ, saints point people toward God and his divine plan, showing them how to "experience the joy of someone who trusts in God because the one real cause of sadness and unhappiness for humanity is to live apart from him," Pope Benedict said in his homily. To be holy does not mean having to perform superhuman feats or "possess exceptional charisms"; one simply must serve Jesus by listening to and following him "without losing heart when faced with difficulties," the pope explained.

"Through their prayers of intercession, the saints in heaven play an integral role in the life of the Church on earth," says a statement from the U.S. Catholic bishops. "The saints, the members of the Church who have arrived at perfect union with Christ, join their wills to the will of God in praying for those in the Church who are still on their pilgrimage of faith."

All Souls Day, Nov. 2, commemorates all of those who have died and now are in purgatory, being purified and made Christlike before entering union with the Trinity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1031) notes that "this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned," the damned being those who intentionally and unswervingly refuse to reconcile themselves to God.   

"The real death that one must fear is that of the soul," Pope Benedict said during a 2006 homily. "In fact, one who dies in a state of mortal sin, without repentance, closed up in a proud refusal of God's love, excludes himself from the kingdom of life."

Eternal life, the pope explained, experienced by those who accept God's life-giving offer, is "not only a life that lasts forever, but a new quality of existence" where one is "fully immersed in God's love" and is freed from evil and death together with all of God's friends.

While the Christian feasts developed independently of pagan observances, some cultures may have "baptized" some pagan practices which attached themselves to All Saints and All Souls days.

Among the ancient Celts in western Europe, Nov. 1 marked Samhain, the beginning of winter. Samhain was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant “summer’s end.”

The eve of Samhain, Oct. 31, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice, and Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening. Ghosts, witches, goblins, and elves came to harm the people, particularly those who had inflicted harm on them in this life. The Druids offered burnt sacrifices — crops, animals, even humans — and told fortunes of the coming year by examining the burned remains. People sometimes wore costumes of animal heads and skins.

"All Souls Day as well as All Saints Day are rooted in Christian belief and arose in this life of the Church through a healthy spirituality, despite some pagan trappings that may have survived and have remained attached to their celebration," writes Father William Saunders, dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia.

On both All Saints and All Souls days, Christians around the world go to cemeteries to clean or decorate the graves of their loved ones and ponder the time when all people, across time and space, will be united under Christ.