Shorter days, a refreshing crispness in the air, a profusion of cheerful orange pumpkins…these, coupled with high schools and universities gearing up to host their homecoming festivities all signal that summer has finally yielded to autumn. Even the Catholic Church celebrates its own unique style of homecoming – All Saints Day on November 1st.
On All Saints Day, the Catholic Church celebrates all the saints, both known and unknown, who have completed their earthly journey and have made the ultimate “homecoming” to Heaven, attaining the beatific vision. It is an old feast, dating approximately to the late fourth century, and in its earliest form, celebrated the martyrdom of saints (including Saint John the Baptist) on the anniversary of their martyrdom. After the increase of martyrdoms during the time of the Roman persecutions, a common feast day was established to ensure that all martyrs would be properly honored. All Saints Day was initially celebrated during the Easter season. Pope Gregory III moved the celebration to its current date of November 1 and originally limited the commemoration to Rome. Around the year 840, Pope Gregory IV extended the feast to the entire Church and formally established November 1st as the Solemnity or Feast of All Saints.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul speaks about many members (Christians) making up one body with Christ as the head. It is on this that the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints” is based. The Communion of Saints beautifully reminds us that nothing is accomplished alone; not only do we always have Jesus’ real though hidden presence with us as He promised, but through the Communion of Saints, we are indelibly a union of the living faithful on earth (the Church Militant), the blessed in Heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the holy souls in purgatory (the Church Suffering). Through this union, the Church Militant assisting one another through prayers and good works are aided by the intercession of the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Both the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant aid the Church Suffering in purgatory, as they are no longer able to merit for themselves. Our connection with the Church Triumphant is a special blessing as they cheer us on along our journey toward our own “homecoming” and stand ever at the ready to lend their intercessory help.
On All Saints Day, we should also take time to recall that Heaven is really not so far away, that it is certainly within reach of all of us with a bit of diligence and effort. When we think of the saints, it’s usually the Augustines, the Dominics, the Francises, the Teresas, the Catherines that come to mind – inarguably each a “heavy-weight” in his/her own right, certainly. But it bodes well for us to remember that Heaven is home to a host of saints who were the most ordinary of people. Saint Isidore was a 12th-century farmer, Blessed Margaret of Costello had multiple physical handicaps and was abandoned by her family, Saint Moses the Black was a slave and later bandit before his conversion and Saint Zita was a maid servant for virtually her entire life. These are just a few saints who were neither martyrs, nor mystics, nor did they found religious congregations nor did they leave behind great theological treatises. However, what they do have in common with the Saint Dominics, the Saint Teresas and all the others is their faithful obedience to the will of God.
November is sometimes referred to as the “month of the dead”, but we should rather consider November as the month of the living because as Jesus said, “…He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). Jesus tells us that God desires eternal life for all His children and that Heaven is our ultimate goal, where all the saints who have gone before us anticipate our “homecoming”. Saint Paul’s inspiring words encourage us, “Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2).
All Saints Day, is followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, which commemorates all the faithful who have died in “God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church – 1030-1031). These are the poor or holy souls in purgatory. For those still living, it is Christian obligation to pray for the souls in purgatory and “Saint Thomas Aquinas taught there is no greater charity to be practiced than to help the souls who cannot help themselves in purgatory.”
What are some of the best ways the Church Militant can aid the Church Suffering? The most efficacious means of relieving the terrible sufferings of the holy souls is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catechism states (1032): “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” The second most powerful means of alleviating the sufferings of the souls in purgatory is the Rosary. We can merit many indulgences, both plenary and partial, which we can apply toward alleviating the suffering of the souls in purgatory.
God wants us to pray, “to pray unceasingly”, as Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians (1 Thes 5:17). On this All Souls Day, and throughout the year, remember to pray for deceased loved ones regardless how long they have been gone; pray for all the souls in purgatory, (it does not matter whether or not you knew them in life), particularly those most abandoned or who might not have anyone to pray for them. Remember that in praying for the holy souls we are shortening their sufferings and helping to usher them into God’s presence. Their gratitude and joy for our prayerful help in releasing them from purgatory is returned to us immeasurably as they become our very effective intercessors in Heaven!
What happens when the soul gets to Heaven and Masses are continued to be said and Rosaries and prayers still offered? Well, no prayer is ever wasted with God. We can trust that in His great mercy and love He will apply them to other holy souls in need and according to Saint Thomas Aquinas “…the deceased in Heaven receives an increase in their intimacy of God’s love and an increase in their own intercessory power.” God is never outdone in generosity!
“As we enter Heaven, we will see them, so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are and they will say: “A poor soul you prayed for in purgatory!” (Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen). What a joyous thought to know that someday we will meet the poor souls we helped bring into the glorious presence of God!