The solemnity of the feast of All Saints is probably of Celtic origin. Since the early centuries of the Church the liturgical calendar has reserved one day to honor, collectively, all the saints, both those officially recognized and those known only to God.
The earliest certain observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is an early fourth-century commemoration of “all the martyrs.” Later, when Christians were free to worship according to their conscience, the Church acknowledged other paths to sanctity. In the early centuries, the only criterion was popular acclaim, even when the bishop’s approval became the final step in placing a commemoration on the calendar. In the early seventh century, after successive waves of invaders plundered the catacombs, Pope Boniface IV gathered up some twenty-eight wagonloads of bones and reinterred them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope rededicated the shrine as a Christian church. According to Bede, the pope intended “that the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored in the place which had formerly been dedicated to the worship not of gods but of demons” (“On the Calculation of Time”).
The first papal canonization of a saint occurred in 993; the lengthy process now required to prove extraordinary sanctity took form in the last five hundred years. All Saint’s Day feast honors the obscure as well as the famous—the saints each of us has known. Thus, we are reminded that the true company of saints is far more numerous than the list of those who have been formally canonized.
The feast of All Saints does not honor a company of “immortals,” far removed from the realm of ordinary human existence. The saints were not “super” human beings but those who realize the vocation for which all human beings were created and to which we are ultimately called. No one is called to be another St. Francis or St. Teresa. But there is a path to holiness that lies within our individual circumstances, that engages our own talents and temperaments, that contends with our own strengths and weaknesses, that responds to the needs of our own neighbors and our particular moment in history. The feast of All Saints strengthens and encourages us to create that path by walking it.
This collective feast, All Saints, is also an occasion to acknowledge the varieties of holiness. Though they share a certain family resemblance, the saints are not formed in any particular mold. Some are renowned for contemplation and others for action; some played a public role while others spent their lives in quiet obscurity. Some demonstrated the vitality of ancient traditions while others were pioneers, charting new possibilities in the spiritual life. Some received recognition and honor within their lifetimes, while others were scorned or even persecuted.
“Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning. Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself… In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.” – St. Bernard
Ellsberg, Robert. “All Saints.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
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.