All Souls' Commemoration

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


All Souls' Commemoration

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 03 December 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, celebrated on Nov. 2, is listed in the table ranking celebrations. But it seems to be anomalous in that I can find no classification for this celebration as a solemnity, feast, memorial, etc. Is this the case? If so, it would appear to be unique in the liturgical calendar. — A.L., Campbell, California

A: Even though this celebration has already passed this year, it is worth commenting upon.

Effectively, this celebration is in a class of its own. It is not a feast as such, since it intercedes for, rather than celebrates, the faithful departed. The Mass has liturgical precedence over Sunday. All the same, whenever the commemoration falls on a Sunday, the Glory and Creed are omitted.

All Souls' Day has three readings even when it falls on a weekday. Some lectionaries provide only one set of readings, indicating that the readings for the other two Masses that a priest may celebrate that day are taken from the ritual for funeral Masses. Other lectionaries, such as the Italian, helpfully offer three possible schemes of readings, each one with three readings.

Unlike a solemnity or feast of the Lord, the precedence over the Sunday Mass does not extend to the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours is that of the current Sunday although it may be substituted by the Office for the Dead in public recitation.

Again, unlike solemnities or feasts of the Lord which fall on the Sunday, there is no anticipation of the Mass of All Souls on Saturday evening. The Mass of All Saints is celebrated throughout the day.

In countries where the Mass of All Saints is not a holy day of obligation, this Saturday evening Mass of All Saints would fulfill the Sunday precept.

Historically, a day dedicated to praying for the dead is witnessed in several places and on several dates. Benedictine monasteries celebrated deceased members on the week following Pentecost, and there is clear evidence for this practice in seventh-century Spain, near Pentecost. It seems that the custom of celebrating this commemoration of the deceased in relationship with some great feast such as Pentecost, Epiphany or a noted saint was very common in the Church. For example, St. Eigil (died 822), abbot of Fulda, fixed the date on Dec. 17, anniversary of the death of St. Sturmius, the abbey’s founder.

In Germany the celebration is recorded as being well established on Oct. 1 around the year 980. It would appear the first diocese to adopt the commemoration was that of Liège before the year 1008. It was introduced into the Diocese of Milan between the years 1120 and 1125 and celebrated on Oct. 16, the day following the feast of the Dedication. It remained at that date until the time of St. Charles Borromeo (died 1584), who switched it to Nov. 2.

The most influential person in establishing and spreading this feast was, however, St. Odo of Cluny (died 1048), who adopted this practice for his vast family of monasteries. He fixed the date for Nov. 2, to relate it to the already well-established feast of All Saints the day before.

From them it spread to all other Benedictine monasteries, and this was instrumental in extending the commemoration to the whole Church.

From what we have said regarding the union of this commemoration with major celebrations, it is clear that there is scant foundation to the hypothesis that this celebration was established by the Church as a counterweight or as an attempt to sanctify a pagan Celtic festival honoring the dead. This pagan festival was presumably held in early November and had somehow survived into the Middle Ages, but there is no written evidence of its existence during this period.

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Follow-up: All Souls' Commemoration [12-17-2013]

A reader from the Byzantine tradition offered an informative addition to our Dec. 3 column on All Souls' Day:

"In your recent article on the All Souls' Commemoration and its development you mentioned evidence of the seventh-century Spanish practice of celebrating it near Pentecost. Given the Syriac-Greek influence on the Mozarabic and Gallican rites, I wouldn't be surprised if they followed a tradition similar to the Byzantine one.

"In the Byzantine churches our commemoration of the deceased is intimately tied into our celebration of Easter. We remember them on five Saturdays: the second Saturday before the Great Fast; the second, third, and fourth Saturday of the Fast; and finally on the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday. We also celebrate All the Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. In this way we remember the entire Church as we call to mind the great mystery of our salvation." As our reader points out, the Byzantine tradition is slightly different in having several such celebrations rather than a single commemoration, but there can be little doubt that this custom did influence the Hispanic liturgy during this period.

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