The Feast of All Saints on Nov. 1st commemorates Christians who lived extraordinary lives of service or who were killed in defense of the faith. In the eyes of the Church, these selfless acts of sacrifice attest to a person’s love of God above all else.
This kind of agape love is seen as sufficient to cleanse the soul of any minor or “venial” sins. Therefore, at the moment of their death, these holy ones or “saints” are said to enter heaven immediately. But what about the souls of ordinary Christians who die each year without being perfectly cleansed of venial sin or who have not atoned for minor transgressions? Do they deserve to be deprived of heaven forever?
No. The church teaches that unrepented serious sins are “mortal” or deadly in a spiritual sense. That is to say they will permanently separate us from the love of God (this is what we call Hell). But unrepented venial sins can be forgiven by God, even after a person’s death. This time for a final “purging” of sin before a soul enters heaven is the basis of the doctrine of Purgatory.
Early Christians were heirs to the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. This included a conviction that the prayers of the living could benefit the dead. The Old Testament recounts a story of a battle 160 years before Jesus was born, in which Judah Maccabee prays and offers sacrifice for his dead companions who had committed the sin of idolatry: “For if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death” (II Maccabees 12:44).
In the early Church, the names of the faithful departed were posted in churches so the community would remember them in prayer (a practice we still maintain in every Mass during the Prayers of the Faithful and especially during the month of November by displaying the book of the dead, which lists all deceased members of our local church). However, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity there was no universal day of memorial for these souls in Purgatory.
In the 7th century, monasteries were celebrating an annual Mass for all the deceased of their order. Then, around 1040 A.D., the Abbot of Cluny decreed that all of the Cluniac monasteries should offer prayers and chant the psalms of the Office of the Dead for all of the souls in Purgatory on the day after the Feast of All Saints. This idea spread to Benedictine and Carthusian monks and soon, Nov. 2nd was formally established as the Feast of All Souls for the whole Church.
Next week, we will look at the customs of the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls.