To Trace All Souls Day | Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | November 1, 2008 and November 2, 2011
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once said so well, one major difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Catholics pray for the dead:
“My view is that if Purgatory did not exist, we should have to invent it.” Why?
“Because few things are as immediate, as human and as widespread—at all times and in all cultures—as prayer for one”s own departed dear ones.” Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva, had a woman whipped because she was discovered praying at the grave of herson and hence was guilty, according to Calvin, of superstition”. “In theory, the Reformation refuses to accept Purgatory, and consequently it also rejects prayer for the departed. In fact German Lutherans at least have returned to it in practice and have found considerable theological justification for it. Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed; it is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death. The happiness or unhappiness of a person dear to me, who has now crossed to the other shore, depends in part on whether I remember or forget him; he does not stop needing my love.” 
Catholics are not the only ones who pray for the dead. The custom is also a Jewish one, and Catholics traditionally drew upon the following text from the Jewish Scriptures, in addition to some New Testament passages, to justify their belief:
Then Judas assembled his army and went to the city of Adulam. As the seventh day was coming on, they purified themselves according to the custom, and they kept the sabbath there. On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honourably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. 
Besides the Jews, many ancient peoples also prayed for the deceased. Some societies, such as that of ancient Egypt, were actually “funereal” and built around the practice.  The urge to do so is deep in the human spirit which rebels against the concept of annihilation after death. Although there is some evidence for a Christian liturgical feast akin to our All Souls Day as early as the fourth century, the Church was slow to introduce such a festival because of the persistence, in Europe, of more ancient pagan rituals for the dead. In fact, the Protestant reaction to praying for the dead may be based more on these survivals and a deformed piety from pre-Christian times than on the true Catholic doctrine as expressed by either the Western or the Eastern Church. The doctrine of purgatory, rightly understood as praying for the dead, should never give offense to anyone who professes faith in Christ.
When we discuss the Feast of All Souls, we look at a liturgical commemoration which pre-dated doctrinal formulation itself, since the Church often clarifies only that which is being undermined or threatened. The first clear documentation for this celebration comes from Isidore of Seville (d. 636; the last of the great Western Church Fathers) whose monastic rule includes a liturgy for all the dead on the day after Pentecost.  St. Odilo (962-1049 AD) was the abbot of Cluny in France who set the date for the liturgical commemoration of the departed faithful on November 2.
Before that, other dates had been seen around the Christian world, and the Armenians still use Easter Monday for this purpose. He issued a decree that all the monasteries of the congregation of Cluny were annually to keep this feast. On November 1 the bell was to be tolled and afterward the Office of the Dead was to be recited in common, and on the next day all the priests would celebrate Mass for the repose of the souls in purgatory. The observance of the Benedictines of Cluny was soon adopted by other Benedictines and by the Carthusians who were reformed Benedictines. Pope Sylvester in 1003 AD approved and recommended the practice. Eventually the parish clergy introduced this liturgical observance, and from the eleventh to the fourteenth century it spread in France, Germany, England, and Spain.
Finally, in the fourteenth century, Rome placed the day of the commemoration of all the faithful departed in the official books of the Western or Latin Church. November 2 was chosen in order that the memory of all the holy spirits, both of the saints in heaven and of the souls in purgatory, should be celebrated in two successive days. In this way the Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints would be expressed. Since for centuries the Feast of All the Saints had already been celebrated on November first, the memory of the departed souls in purgatory was placed on the following day. All Saints Day goes back to the fourth century, but was finally fixed on November 1 by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD. The two feasts bind the saints-to-be with the almost-saints and the already-saints before the resurrection from the dead.
Incidentally, the practice of priests celebrating three Masses on this day is of somewhat recent origin, and dates back only to ca. 1500 AD with the Dominicans of Valencia. Pope Benedict XIV extended it to the whole of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America in 1748 AD. Pope Benedict XV in 1915 AD granted the “three Masses privilege” to the universal Church. 
On All Souls Day, can we pray for those in limbo? The notion of limbo is not ancient in the Church, and was a theological extrapolation to provide explanation for cases not included in the heaven-purgatory-hell triad. Cardinal Ratzinger was in favor of its being set aside, and it does not appear as a thesis to be taught in the new Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
The doctrine of Purgatory, upon which the liturgy of All Souls rests, is formulated in canons promulgated by the Councils of Florence (1439 AD) and Trent (1545-1563 AD). The truth of the doctrine existed before its clarification, of course, and only historical necessities motivated both Florence and Trent to pronounce when they did. Acceptance of this doctrine still remains a required belief of Catholic faith.
What about “indulgences”? Indulgences from the treasury of grace in the Church are applied to the departed on All Souls Day, as well as on other days, according to the norms of ecclesiastical law. The faithful make use of their intercessory role in prayer to ask the Lord”s mercy upon those who have died. Essentially, the practice urges the faithful to take responsibility. This is the opinion of Michael Morrissey:
Against the common juridical and commercial view, the teaching essentially attempts to induce the faithful to show responsibility toward the dead and the communion of saints. Since the Church has taught that death is not the end of life, then neither is it the end of our relationship with loved ones who have died, who along with the saints make up the Body of Christ in the “Church Triumphant.”
The diminishing theological interest in indulgences today is due to an increased emphasis on the sacraments, the prayer life of Catholics, and an active engagement in the world as constitutive of the spiritual life. More soberly, perhaps, it is due to an individualistic attitude endemic in modern culture that makes it harder to feel responsibility for, let alone solidarity with, dead relatives and friends. 
As with everything Christian, then, All Souls Day has to do with the mystery of charity, that divine love overcomes everything, even death. Bonds of love uniting us creatures, living and dead, and the Lord who is resurrected, are celebrated both on All Saints Day and on All Souls Day each year.
All who have been baptized into Christ and have chosen him will continue to live in Him. The grave does not impede progress toward a closer union with Him. It is only this degree of closeness to Him which we consider when we celebrate All Saints one day, and All Souls the next. Purgatory is a great blessing because it shows those who love God how they failed in love, and heals their ensuing shame. Most of us have neither fulfilled the commandments nor failed to fulfill them. Our very mediocrity shames us. Purgatory fills in the void. We learn finally what to fulfill all of them means. Most of us neither hate nor fail completely in love. Purgatory teaches us what radical love means, when God remakes our failure to love in this world into the perfection of love in the next.
As the sacraments on earth provide us with a process of transformation into Christ, so Purgatory continues that process until the likeness to Him is completed. It is all grace. Actively praying for the dead is that “holy mitzvah” or act of charity on our part which hastens that process. The Church encourages it and does it with special consciousness and in unison on All Souls Day, even though it is always and everywhere salutary to pray for the dead.
 See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, with Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985) 146-147. Michael P. Morrissey says on the point: “The Protestant Reformers rejected the doctrine of purgatory, based on the teaching that salvation is by faith through grace alone, unaffected by intercessory prayers for the dead.” See his “Afterlife” in The Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey (Collegeville: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1993) 28.
 Maccabees 12:38-46. From The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Containing the Old and New Testaments. Catholic Edition. (London: The Catholic Truth Society, 1966) 988-989. Neil J. McEleney, CSP, adds: “These verses contain clear reference to belief in the resurrection of the just…a belief which the author attributes to Judas …although Judas may have wanted simply to ward off punishment from the living, lest they be found guilty by association with the fallen sinners…. The author believes that those who died piously will rise again…and who can die more piously than in a battle for God”s law? …Thus, he says, Judas prayed that these men might be delivered from their sin, for which God was angry with them a little while…. The author, then, does not share the view expressed in 1 Enoch 22:12-13 that sinned- against sinners are kept in a division of Sheol from which they do not rise, although they are free of the suffering inflicted on other sinners. Instead, he sees Judas”s action as evidence that those who die piously can be delivered from unexpiated sins that impede their attainment of a joyful resurrection. This doctrine, thus vaguely formulated, contains the essence of what would become (with further precisions) the Christian theologian’s teaching on purgatory.” See The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, SS, etal., art. 26, “1-2 Maccabees” (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990) 446. Gehinnom in Jewish writings is more appropriately understood as a purgatory than a final destination of damnation.
 Spanish-speaking Catholics today popularly refer to All Souls Day as “El Día de los Muertos”, a relic of the past when the pre- Christian Indians had a “Day of the Dead”; liturgically, the day is referred to as “El Día de las Animas”. Germans call their Sunday of the Dead “Totensonntag”. The French Jesuit missionaries in New France in the seventeenth century easily explained All Souls Day by comparing it to the the local Indian “Day of the Dead”. The Jesuit Relations are replete with examples of how conscious were the people of their duties toward their dead. Ancestor worship was also well known in China and elsewhere in Asia, and missionaries there in times gone by perhaps had it easier explaining All Souls Day to them, and Christianizing the concept, than they would have to us in the Western world as the twentieth century draws to a close.
 See Michael Witczak, “The Feast of All Souls”, in The Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter Fink, SJ, (Collegeville: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1990) 42.
 “Three Masses were formerly allowed to be celebrated by each priest, but one intention was stipulated for all the Poor Souls and another for the Pope”s intention. This permission was granted by Benedict XV during the World War of 1914-1918 because of the great slaughter of that war, and because, since the time of the Reformation and the confiscation of church property, obligations for anniversary Masses which had come as gifts and legacies were almost impossible to continue in the intended manner. Some canonists believe Canon 905 of the New Code has abolished this practice. However, the Sacramentary, printed prior to the Code, provides three separate Masses for this date.” See Jovian P. Lang, OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1989) 21. Also see Francis X. Weiser, The Holyday Book (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956) 121-136.
 Ratzinger stated: “Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely, the importance of baptism. To put it in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). One should not hesitate to give up the idea of “limbo” if need be (and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed “limbo” also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer); but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue for faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be.” See Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, 147-148.
 Morrissey, “Afterlife” in The Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 28-29.
This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, as “To Trace All Souls Day,” in The Catholic Answer, vol. 8, no. 5 (November/December 1994): 8-11.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
• On November: All Souls and the “Permanent Things” | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Death, Where Is Thy Sting? | Adrienne von Speyr
• Purgatory: Service Shop for Heaven | Reverend Anthony Zimmerman
• The Question of Hope | Peter Kreeft
• The Next Life Is a Lot Longer Than This One | Mary Beth Bonacci
• My Imaginary Funeral Homily | Mary Beth Bonacci
• Do All Catholics Go Straight to Heaven? | Mary Beth Bonacci
• Be Nice To Me. I’m Dying. | Mary Beth Bonacci
• Are God’s Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin
• The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• The Cross and The Holocaust | Regis Martin
• From Defeat to Victory: On the Question of Evil | Alice von Hildebrand
Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
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