Coming close to those who are close to us
In 609 or 610, Boniface IV received permission from the Emperor Foca to consecrate the already ancient building of the Pantheon in Rome under the title Saint Mary and all the Martyrs. (It should be understood that the first group of saints to be officially recognized were all martyrs in the formal sense, that is, they shed their blood for and with Christ. Only later were other categories added, because it was realized that is quite possible to give one's whole life for Christ without actually shedding one's blood and, indeed, this is the goal for most of the faithful). The subsequent feast commemorating this dedication of the Pantheon was soon widely diffused throughout the Western Church, but by the tenth century it had already taken on the connotations of a feast of all the saints, no matter whether they were martyrs or not. There is a similar feast in the Eastern Church, but on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It is an interesting characteristic of Catholic devotion, that it tends to take on more significance, and more components, as the centuries progress; so that, by our own time, it is often referred to by preachers as "our feast" — giving hope to those who are still part of the Church on earth, the "Church militant", that they will one day join the "Church triumphant" in Heaven. It is a healthy development for the faithful to be able to contemplate the thought of their own loved ones, who have passed on from this life, at peace and rest, and in eternal joy, with the Lord in Heaven.
The feast of All Souls or, more correctly, The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (because it is not a feast in the liturgical sense) is thought to have its origins with St Odilo of Cluny, who, in 948 A.D. instituted a commemoration of the faithful departed in his monastery. In the Benedictine liturgical books, still today, an Antiphon commemorates this fact on the memorial of the Abbots of Cluny, 11 May. (Interestingly, another antiphon refers to the Paschal Candle, whose use had obviously reached France by his time).
Naturally, for both these days, one could postulate a certain amount of pre-Christian influence. Most peoples of the world have some kind of commemoration or veneration for ancestors, and a concern to provide for their needs in the afterlife together with an, at times, exaggerated fear of their malign influence, if the behaviour of those still living should happen to be at variance with the ancestors' teaching and customs. The Church is always at its best when it knows how to welcome such customs and give them a fuller significance in Christ, while being careful to avoid anything that is harmful. This is, after all, how the feast of Christmas came into being, basing itself on the feast of the Sol Invicta; the unconquered Sun, who came to be identified with Christ, the Light of the World. With regard to All Souls, in my own monastery of Prinknash, Gloucester, England, and in many other places too, we have the custom of lighting lamps on the graves of all the departed in the cemetery, on 2 November, and of going there, together with the lay faithful, at night, to say prayers. This is always a most moving occasion, and somehow also deeply reassuring, as we contemplate the fact of our shared life in Christ.
As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, any healthy devotion, any true liturgy, must base itself on the fact that we are baptized into Christ, and therefore share in his divine life and in his sonship with the Father. We are priests, prophets and kings. The celebration of our glorified ancestors in the faith, so to speak, should not be seen as a celebration of those far removed from us, but rather of those who are always our brothers and sisters, whose sole task is to glorify God by bringing us close to him. We should also remember that eternal life is not something that happens to us after we die, but something that begins the moment we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, and enter the waters of baptism. There is, then, no substantial difference between us and the saints, or between us and the souls in purgatory — those who were not sufficiently purified from the vestiges of sin in this life and have need, therefore, of a time of purification before they can reach the full vision of God.
Perhaps the most helpful words on the subject of Purgatory come to us from the pen of the recently beatified John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Here he reminds us that there is always to be a healthy fear of offending God in us — a fear which is far from being terror; such terror has no part in the true Christian life — a fear which protects us in the time of temptation, and which is also a sign of heavenly bliss to come.
*Monk of Prinknash Abbey, Gloucester, England