Communion of Saints

Solemnity of All Saints

A saint is a holy person. A saint is called to be humble, repent of his sins, grow in virtue and continue the ministry of Christ in the world, as a member of His visible Body, bringing God’s presence, love and mercy to others. Since the 1st century the Church has recognized those Christians whose lives truly reflect the Gospel mission of faithfulness to Christ and love of neighbor. Saints who are officially canonized are held up as role models for living in Christ and whose entrance into heaven after death is certain.

The reason why Catholics have images, statues and stained glass of Saints is to remind us of the heroes of the faith, kind of like keeping photos in a family album or statues of our national heroes. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God, so the members of His Body can be put into images too.  A 3rd century catacomb painting was found of Mary holding the baby Jesus.

All Saints day started in the Eastern churches around the 4th century in the month of May to commemorate all the martyrs who have died for bearing witness to Christ. By the year 800, Christians living in England and Ireland started to observe the feast of All Saints on November 1st.  The Western Church wanted people to understand that those who died in Christ are still part of our family in God and that they can help us with their prayers. Eventually, the feast of All Saints became official sometime in the 9th century to encourage a correct understanding of the Communion of Saints.

The Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, is comprised of the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant and the Church Suffering. The Church Triumphant refers to the Saints in heaven, the Church Militant refers to the faithful here on earth, who are engaged in battle against sin and evil, and the Church Suffering refers to the souls in Purgatory, who are undergoing their purification before entering heaven.

The day before on October 31st came to be known as Halloween, which comes from the words “All Hallows Even”, which means the “Evening before All Holies.” In fact, Halloween used to be called “Hallowmass” or “Mass for All Saints”, which is offered in honor of All Saints. In the Middle Ages, Christians would go around from house to house begging for small pastries called “soul cakes”, in exchange for offering prayers for the soul of any deceased.

The Catholic Church decreed through the Council of Trent that all bishops and others who hold the office of teaching the faith, are to instruct the faithful in matters regarding the intercession and invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the legitimate use of images, teaching them that the Saints in heaven offer up their prayers to God for men, and that it is good and beneficial to invoke them and to have recourse to their prayers, assistance and support in order to obtain favors from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who alone is our Redeemer and Savior. Furthermore, the honor which is shown to the Saints is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we venerate, we adore Christ and venerate the Saints whose likeness they bear.

Commemoration of All Souls

The commemoration of all souls began sometime in the 11th century, after the monks in Cluny (France) suggested that November 2nd be a day to offer prayer and sacrifice for anyone who died in the friendship of God, but perhaps were not fully sanctified at the moment of death. Soon after, the whole Church adopted All Souls day in the universal calendar. The Church recognizes that most people aren’t quite perfected in God’s love when they die, but pass away with some scars of sin on their souls.

The Church has decreed through the Council of Trent the doctrine of Purgatory: Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught in sacred councils, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavor that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and everywhere proclaimed by the faithful of Christ.

In order to understand the doctrine of Purgatory, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to earthly things, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God, but as a consequence from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no temporal punishment remains. (CCC 1472)

The Church has always offered prayers and the sacrifice of the Mass since the 1st century for all the souls undergoing purification. For example, St. Paul prayed for his dead friend Onesiphorus in his second letter to Timothy. (2 Tim 1:16-18). The phrase “dormit in pace” which means “he sleeps in peace” was found in the catacombs of the early Christians. Later on, it evolved into “Requiescat in pace” which means “Rest in peace” and to this day can still be seen on the gravestone of Christians.

In view of our ultimate goal of being fully reunited with Christ in heaven, the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to imitate those who through faith and patience inherited what has been promised. (Heb 6:12) We the faithful here on earth, cannot be separated from the Saints in heaven or the souls in Purgatory, because we are all part of the Mystical Body of Christ. May the Saints in heaven and the souls in Purgatory help us, and in return, may we help the souls in Purgatory with our prayers and offerings of Holy Mass.