As “Trick and Treating” and the other festivities of Halloween pass, we arrive at All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). The former is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics. The latter is not and is often informally celebrated on the previous Sunday afternoon so the faithful can gather at the parish cemetery to commemorate their departed friends and family. The Church has always taught prayers for the deceased are efficacious for helping these souls achieve their heavenly reward and All Souls Day is a preeminent example of this.
It is not hard to see the connection between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The Catholic Church has always classified its members into three distinct groups: the Church Militant (you who are reading this, me and all others still making our earthly pilgrimage); the Church Suffering (those who have departed this vale of tears and are being purified in Purgatory); and the Church Triumphant (those souls who have received their eternal reward and now see the Face of God). The Church has always taught the Christian God is a living God and those who live a righteous life are still alive in the Lord. Indeed, the members of the Church Triumphant are by definition saints, and are commemorated on All Saints Day. The gathering of families and friends at the parish cemetery for the celebration of All Souls Day symbolically brings all three of these groups together.
The various branches of Orthodoxy keep All Souls Days differently but with a similar emphasis. Slavic Orthodoxy has five distinct All Souls Saturdays. One falls on a Saturday before the beginning of Lent. The next three fall on the Second, Third, and Fourth Saturdays of Lent. The fifth is celebrated on the Saturday Before Pentecost, the celebration of the beginning of the entire Church. The Sunday after Pentecost is the Sunday of All Saints, once again connecting all of the branches of the Church. The Greek Orthodox also celebrate another All Souls Day on the Saturday after the feast of the Great Martyr and Myrhhbearer Demetrius, which is October 26. The Great Earthquake of Constantinople in 740 CE is also remembered on the same day. The following Saturday was originally a remembrance of those who perished in that horrible calamity. Of course, all branches of Orthodoxy dispute the concept of Purgatory with Catholicism, having a different belief of the immediate afterlife awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus.
To me, such disputations miss the impact and the power the All Souls services have on followers. Even now I make the long journey to the family cemetery to be with my relatives and friends, both living and deceased for the All Souls Day celebration. It is a day when distant members of my extended family gather to remember our deceased. As a deacon, I would often participate in the procession around the four corners of the cemetery where prayers and incense were offered for the faithfully departed. Later that evening, I would return and drive to the small hill overlooking that hallowed place. The grave candles were all lit and the cemetery was bathed in an unearthly red glow. It was truly a sobering experience.
I would think of the four generations of my family who are buried there: my paternal grandparents who were responsible for my religious upbringing; my favorite aunt, the first college educated person in my family who urged me to take my studies seriously; my godfather, who always remembered important events in my life and those of my children: and my cousin, who would have been the first of my generation but for her death a few days after her birth. There are obviously many more. I can go on and on but I think you understand the impact the day makes on those of us who take the time to attend. I know my relatives and friends have gone on to their eternal reward and are saints. Yes, they are not proclaimed as saints by the Church, but if I am right (and I am sure I am), they are saints. In short, the proper day to remember them would be November 1, All Saints Day! They see the Face of God, something we all aspire to. I believe they stand before the Throne of God and as a Catholic believe they can intercede for us. In my own prayers I ask for their help to navigate the vicissitudes of life.
As I sat on that hill, contemplating the red glow I would also think of another reality. We are all mortal and will someday depart this Earthly Realm. This is a certainty. Death is the Great Leveler. We will all leave with none of our earthly possessions and stand in front of the Lord on that day with nothing but our Faith and our Deeds. These days remind us of that eventuality. This can be a scary proposition for anyone, but even more so for me. I can only hope and pray that I will once again see my friends and relatives on that day, standing with them hearing the angels sing the Cherubic Hymn.
For the complete version with footnotes:
For the doleful song during the procession around the cemetery:
For more information on this hymn: