The 20th-century remodelers of the Roman Liturgy displayed a strange, seemingly inexplicable disdain for vigils. Hence, such centuries-old vigils with recognizable resonances in popular culture as today's Vigil of All Saints ("All Hallows' Eve"), were abolished to the obvious benefit of no one anywhere. Still, Halloween has successfully survived as a popular, secular celebration instead. In fact, it has thrived in the decades since the Church abandoned it to revert to its pagan origins. Thus, the traditional Autumn Triduum of All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls remains recognizable - with lots of secular celebrants for Halloween, far fewer religious celebrants for All Saints, and fewer still, sadly, for All Souls.
For many revelers today, Halloween is just an excuse for children - and increasingly for many adults - to dress in costume and extort candy from their neighbors (and even from perfect strangers). That adults also "trick or treat" seems at first thought to be bizarre at best, although in a society in which adults have now for decades imitated their kids in how they dress on a daily basis, perhaps it is not so bizarre that they should imitate kids in costume on Halloween as well.
Historically, however, Halloween had another, much more serious dimension. An ancient pagan festival occurring at a major seasonal turning point in the year, originally a night of fear in the face of the forces of evil, it was incorporated into the Christian calendar late in the first millennium when All Saints Day was moved to November 1. In moving the feast of All Saints to November - from the May 13 anniversary of the 609 Dedication of the Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church Sancta Maria ad Martyres - the medieval Church was symbolically celebrating the triumph of Christ over the demonic elements traditionally associated with the pagan festival we now call Halloween. In effect, this ritualized the triumph of Christianity over older pre-Christian European paganism by celebrating the triumph of God's grace (exemplified in the saints) over sin and Satan. If Halloween is now a $7 billion extravaganza that now largely overshadows All Saints, perhaps that sadly symbolizes the cultural triumph of a new post-Christian paganism over a Christian faith increasingly being consigned to society's margins.
That said, whether Halloween is experienced as a traditional Christian vigil, a harmless children's holiday, another regression by adults into infantilized behavior, or a reassertion of anti-Christian paganism, for the Church the next day, All Saints Day, still celebrates the Church Triumphant - triumphant over Satan, sin, and death. Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued relationship with them – a "communion of saints," which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us with the saints already in heaven, who have gone before us with the sign of faith.
In the Church, saints are seen as visible examples of the effects of God’s gifts of grace and as models of sanctity, of whose friendship and intercession we are beneficiaries. So, citing Saint Augustine, the Church prays in her liturgy:
For you are praised in the company of your Saints
And, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.
By their way of life you offer us an example,
by communion with them, you give us their companionship,
by their intercession, sure support,
so that, encouraged by so great a cloud of witnesses,
we may run as victors in the race before us
and win with them the imperishable crown of glory, through Christ our Lord.
In his journey to Catholicism, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) famously studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent (The Roman Catechism) and was especially impressed by Article IX on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Many years later, writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, Hecker recalled: "When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented."
The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just tomorrow but in every Mass everyday, signifies our union, as the still struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror that heavenly community of angels and saints – and so transform the world according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.
When Origen (c. 184-253) recommended praying in a place where all the faithful assemble together, he assumed the presence also of the spirits of the dead and the guardian angels of those assembled (De Oratione 31, 5-7).
All of which brings us to the third and last day of the Church's great Autumn Triduum, All Souls Day - now perhaps the least noticed of the three days, but an occurrence which not that long ago was widely observed by many and was widely seen as the popular culmination of the three days. This unique day turns out attention to Purgatory and to the Communion of Saints, that especially attractive doctrine that, as already mentioned, played so important a role in the conversion of Isaac Hecker.
Yet, as Karl Rahner already observed some 80 years ago in Theological Investigations: "Most contemporary Christians have already ceased to have any sense of being actively in communication with their own dead, the members of their family and the relations whom they have lost. ... They are forgotten, and in so far as they are thought of at all attention is focused upon their lives while they were still among us and not in any true sense upon the fact that they are still living." My guess is that anyone who has attended a representative sample of Catholic funerals since Rahner wrote that will readily recognize this problem.
While very much a reflection of our contemporary alienation, the modern neglect of the Church's tradition of prayers for the dead, at least in America, is not entirely unique to today. In his first Pastoral Letter (May 28, 1792), Archbishop John Carroll found it necessary, considering the especially challenging situation in which the American Church then found itself, to admonish the Catholics of the United States: "Follow your departed brethren into the regions of eternity, with your prayers, and all the assistance, which is suggested by the principles of faith and piety."
The almost unthinking resort by some in the pre-conciliar liturgical practice to the Requiem Mass on ferial days with multiple options - not unlike the similarly lazy resort to repeating the Sunday Mass in green vestments on such occasions by some in the contemporary rite - was an unfortunately overdone practice, one which I can well remember. Unfortunately, that common practice distorted the place of prayer for the dead in the liturgy and, by extension, may have undermined the salience of the doctrine of the communion of saints in practice. That said, all those Requiem Masses focused on praying for the souls in purgatory probably did sustain a real relationship between the living and the dead, even as the changing conditions of modern society were increasingly undermining that relationship.
Certainly, the excessive overreaction against Masses for the dead in the Church's post-conciliar liturgical experience has itself been yet another distortion and a pastoral disaster. As Saint Augustine told his congregation: "the dead can be helped by the prayers of holy Church, and the eucharistic sacrifice, and alms distributed for the repose of their spirits; so that God may deal with them more mercifully than their sins have deserved" [Sermon 172, 2; tr. Edmund Hill].
Or, as Dante expressed it in the hopeful words of the soul of Manfredi, grandson of the Empress Constanza, in the last line of Purgatorio, Canto 3 : "For those on earth can much advance us here" che' qui per quei di là molto s'avanza.
(Photo: Stained-glass Window portraying Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, Patron of the Souls in Purgatory, celebrating Mass to intercede for the souls in Purgatory, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church, Bronx, NY)