November seems like the perfect place for All Souls’ Day. Although a time a harvest, it is also a time of dwindling life and light, a time that signifies the approach of death. Coming immediately after All Saints’ Day, when the Church Militant venerates the Church Triumphant and those in glory pray for us, All Souls’ Day has us attend to the remaining part of the Mystical Body.
The placement of All Souls’ Day right after All Saints’ Day also makes sense from a historical perspective. According to Dom Gregory Dix, our liturgical veneration of the saints is ultimately rooted in an early belief in purgatory. He traces the history this way:
- The earliest Christians believed that the deceased faced the possibility of purgative fires. So when a Christian died, it was customary to offer prayers for that person on the anniversary of his or her death.
- When a Christian was martyred, the community felt strange about praying for his soul, because it was confident the deceased had bypassed purgatory entirely. On the other hand, it was customary to do something on the anniversary of a Christian’s death. So instead of praying for the martyr’s soul, they would offer prayers in celebration of what the martyr had done. (This is captured in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.)
- In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
- In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem began celebrating all the great biblical saints, because for someone living in Jerusalem all the biblical saints were local.
- When the many pilgrims to Jerusalem brought this practice back to their various homes, suddenly a lot of communities were celebrating saints that were not local to them. Thus was born the universal calendar of saints.
So in a kind of order of discovery, All Souls’ Day is prior to All Saints’ Day: we discovered Masses in honor of the triumphant by realizing we weren’t comfortable counting them as suffering. But in another order, All Saints’ Day is first: we look to the goal first and then pray that our suffering brothers and sisters will reach it; all of us who can pray, which includes us on earth and our forerunners in heaven, first unite together and then, together, pray for the suffering deceased.