The Church has encouraged prayer for the dead from the earliest times as an act of Christian charity. “If we had no care for the dead,” Saint Augustine noted, “we would not be in the habit of praying for them.” Such prayers were performed in the early Church, and by the sixth century Benedictine monks prayed for deceased members of their order.
The feast of All Souls is a commemoration of the departed faithful of Christ. The actual feast dates back to the ninth century, even though it was the custom in monasteries to set aside a day for prayers for the deceased. It was a Benedictine abbot of Cluny (France) who selected November 2 as the day for commemorating the faithful departed. The custom spread from Cluny and was finally adopted throughout the Roman church.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Dominicans had the custom of celebrating three Masses on All Souls Day in order to fulfill all the requests for Masses. In 1915 Pope Benedict XV extended this privilege to the universal Church, prompted by the large number of those who had died in the First World War. Requiem Masses (also known as Mass for the dead) are celebrated on this feast day, and religious houses and priests recite the Office of the Dead. Ultimately, the feast was designed to aid the souls of the deceased, particularly of those in purgatory, that are not perfectly cleansed or have not fully atoned for venial sins committed on earth.
Whether or not one should pray for the dead is one of the great arguments which divide Christians. Appalled by the abuse of indulgences in the church of his day, Martin Luther rejected the concept of purgatory. Yet prayer for a loved one is, for the believer, a way of erasing any distance, even death. In prayer we stand in God’s presence in the company of someone we love, even if that person has gone before us into death.
Observances of a religious nature in addition to prayer and Masses are practiced on All Souls Day, that includes public processions or private visits to cemeteries and decorating graves with flowers and lights. This feast is observed with great fervor in Mexico.
Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson. “Encyclopedia of Saints-Revised.” Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003.
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day-Updated and Expanded.” Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar-Updated and Revised Edition.” New York: Alba House, 2012.