Here at the abbey and in our Abbot’s Circle programming this last year we have been leaning into the depth and beauty of our wonderful Catholic feasts. We all expect to prepare for and to celebrate well the high points of the liturgical year – Christmas and Easter come immediately to mind – but striving for the fulness of Catholic life invites us to emphasize other festivals with preparation, feasting, and celebration. That’s why we spend so much time and attention on some of our other wonderful feasts such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Holy Father Saint Norbert, and our great Archangelic Patron St. Michael.
Halloween is nearly upon us, and with it comes another great opportunity to celebrate as only Catholics can … and should! Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, is the Vigil of the great solemnity of All Saints. The great feasts and solemnities of the Church’s year always begin with a Vigil the evening before. These feasts are so great that their celebration must extend beyond one mere calendar day. We begin to celebrate liturgically the evening before, and when the festivals are of the highest solemnity like Christmas and Easter, we extend the celebration after for a whole Octave.
All Saints Day is one of these important celebrations, so we mark its Vigil on October 31st; and this is where the Catholic celebration of Halloween finds its origin. We mark the victory of all the Saints in Heaven on November 1st – the Church Triumphant. We then turn our attention and our fervent prayers on November 2nd to the Souls of the Faithful Departed who are still undergoing their purification in Purgatory – the Church Suffering. It’s the whole Church celebrating as a great unity. We on earth who make up the Church Militant honoring the Saints, the members of the Church Triumphant, and then all of us together praying for the members of the Church Suffering. This triduum from Halloween through All Souls’ Day used to be called “Hallowtide.” What does it mean for how we celebrate?
Our secular culture has coopted Halloween just as it has many other formerly Catholic feasts. Saint Valentine’s Day comes to mind here, but even Christmas is more and more losing its Christian identity. In a once-Catholic world and in once-Catholic places, the characteristic features of the celebration of Halloween had Christian meaning. Why skeletons and so many reminders of death? Because Catholic Christians would visit the cemeteries where their deceased loved ones awaiting the final resurrection; they would clean and decorate their tombs, leave candles, and pray for their holy souls so as to aid them in their time of purification. Why trick-or-treating? Because in the British Isles, among other locales, Christians would hand out sweets and “soul cakes” to the children who would come knocking on their doors and who would promise to pray for the souls of their beloved dead. Why masks and costumes? Because in many Catholic places, masquerading was part of the wonderful interplay between the material world here below and the spiritual world just beyond the veil. We can masquerade as the Saints we hope to become, mock the demons whom Christ has already conquered, and dance at the liminal edge between the visible and invisible worlds. Just think of Mardi Gras in Venice or New Orleans, or the pre-Lenten parades of Bavaria for more examples of the same.
So what about us in this day and age? The worst corners of secular Halloween have made the day (and indeed the weeks prior to it) all about gore or scare or sensuality, evacuating the feast of the Saints and Holy Souls. But we mustn’t let the world steal the Christian feast from us completely! With our families and our parish communities, we can remind one another of the Catholic joy that comes with celebrating these days well. Let’s carve our jack-o-lanterns and decorate our homes with the autumnal signs of this harvest season. We can welcome our children into the fun of masquerading and trick-or-treating, safely and appropriately, of course. While we do, we can teach them how these festivities remind us to celebrate the Saints and to pray for the dead.
After Halloween, be sure to attend Holy Mass on the Solemnity of All Saints. Remember, it’s a holy day of obligation for all of us; and it’s the reason why we celebrate Halloween in the first place. Then, on All Souls Day, be sure to visit a nearby cemetery and pray for souls of the faithful departed. We can clean and decorate the graves of our deceased loved ones, sprinkle those graves with holy water, and teach our children about the bonds of love, friendship, and prayerful intercession that reach across the veil between this life and the next.
The Church blesses these prayers for the dead and visits to a cemetery with the ability to gain indulgences, and these indulgences in turn assist mightily in the purification of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Remember, these souls are no longer able to help themselves, and so they depend completely on our prayers for them and our sacrifices on their behalf. From November 1st through November 8th, we can gain a plenary indulgence for them every day, so let’s be sure not to miss these amazing opportunities. For more details about how to gain these indulgences, be sure to read the information appended below.
What treasures we have in the rich liturgical and cultural history of our Holy Catholic Faith! As Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day approach once again, may we seize upon the many opportunities this Hallowtide presents to extend our life of faith into more and more corners of our Christian lives. Christ is the king and center of all hearts, the Lord of the universe, and the head of the whole Mystical Body, the Church Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant. He wants to reign over more and more of our lives, and we can invite Him to do just that this Hallowtide. And as we celebrate the upcoming feasts publicly and joyfully, we will also be proclaiming Him to the world around us.
Learn more about obtaining plenary indulgences during November by following this link.