Q: Why do we need a separate celebration for “All Saints”? Doesn’t each saint already have a dedicated feast day?
A: Yes, it is true that every officially recognized saint in the Catholic Church has a particular day on which they are celebrated. However, the list of officially recognized saints (also known as the “canon of saints”) does not contain every human soul that shares eternal life in communion with God.
There are undoubtedly many unknown women and men who lived in deep communion with God in this life. (see Revelation 7:9) Their decision to accept God’s love and be a conduit of that love to others allowed them to experience the great riches of the Lord’s grace and friendship. We believe that God’s mercy now joins them to the saints and angels in heaven. We may never know their names, but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The solemnity of All Saints, celebrated November 1 as a holy day of obligation, is the one day of the year when we celebrate these holy men and women both known and unknown.
The saints are one with us in the church because the bonds of our baptism are stronger than death itself. As such, the saints remain members of the family of God and give strength to the body of Christ. They care about us, pray for us, and continue to inspire us to live holy and heroic lives by imitating their examples of faithful friendship with Jesus. Because of their intercession on our behalf, the saints are a source of strength for the entire church — especially for us as we struggle to live our faith daily here and now.
It is important to remember that All Saints’ Day is not really focused on the saints themselves but rather on the important role they play in the work of salvation as witnesses to the efficacy of grace. We celebrate them because they worship constantly in God’s presence and join their voices with ours in one chorus of intercession for God’s mercy.
Since they persevered faithfully through the trials of this life and now share fully in the heavenly life of God, we refer to the saints as members of the “Church Triumphant” because they share in the victory of Jesus, the Lamb of God. This designation helps to establish both the relationship and the distinction between them and us, the “Church Militant” (engaged in the Christian struggle of fidelity), and the poor souls in purgatory, the “Church Suffering,” who are experiencing the purification of God’s love freeing them from all attachment to sin. Together we are one church and for that reason we pray for each other as a manifestation of our common faith and of our spiritual works of mercy.
The church has always been aware of this graced and holy fellowship, and for that reason, we began to profess our belief in the “communion of saints” as part of the early symbol of faith known as the Apostles’ Creed. The practice of celebrating a common feast for all martyrs was well established by the fourth century. This communal celebration was necessitated in part by the unprecedented number of martyrs executed under the terrifying reign of the Emperor Diocletian.
The date of this communal celebration in honor of all martyrs was originally connected to Easter, since the saints are those who share in the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the year 609 or 610, the celebration was affixed to May 13 in commemoration of the transfer of several hundred martyrs’ remains to the Pantheon in Rome when it was dedicated as a Christian church and given the name St. Mary of the Martyrs (which it still bears to this day). This annual celebration was extended to the universal church at that time by Pope Boniface IV.
The relationship between martyrdom and holiness was beautifully stressed by Pope Gregory I (590–604) and in the Irish “Cambrai Homily,” in which martyrdom is described by colors: red (violent shedding of blood), white (spiritual detachment) and green or blue (penitence and self-denial). The current date of November 1 was established by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century in commemoration of a chapel he had built in the old St. Peter’s Basilica that was dedicated to all saints, since that chapel included the relics of both martyrs and those who lived heroic lives of faith but were not put to death for Christ.
The important role of the saints in the life of the church is evidenced by the way early Christians visited and prayed at the tombs of the martyrs. All Saints’ Day allows us to share in their devotion. So important is our communion with the saints for our daily lives of faith that it has been a holy day of obligation since 835.
By celebrating the solemnity of All Saints each year, we come together as one family of God and join with all our sisters and brothers in the church, living and dead, to praise God and to thank them for their ministry, which gives us strength, encouragement, inspiration and intercession, as we also embrace the call to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy. (see Matthew 5:48)
Saints of God, pray for us!
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - 2018