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The liturgy of All Souls Day

30 November, 1999

 Ritual responses to death have changed often in the Church’s history. Liam Tracey OSM, Professor of Liturgy in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, examines especially the history of All Souls Day and some problems of perception raised by the liturgy of that day. At some point in our lives, we have to face the mystery of […]

 Ritual responses to death have changed often in the Church’s history. Liam Tracey OSM, Professor of Liturgy in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, examines especially the history of All Souls Day and some problems of perception raised by the liturgy of that day.

At some point in our lives, we have to face the mystery of death. What will my death be like? What happens to us after death? Is there something after death? Do we have any kind of relationship with those who have died before us?

Such questions are ones that do not preoccupy us every day of the week, but there are times in the human journey when they become very real. The death of a loved one, a crisis in one’s own life, a national disaster can all be times when these questions become very real and answers are sought. The rhythm of the year of the Church also faces these questions. Easter, the annual celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is perhaps the most privileged place where we face these realities. In the lived experience of many Christians, the celebration of a funeral of a loved one often brings these questions close to our consciousness.

All Souls Day is perhaps another moment for reflecting on these issues. The celebration of All the Faithful Departed is a unique celebration in the Liturgical Year. While it cannot be called a solemnity or a memorial, the calendar lists it as belonging to the ‘solemnities of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints listed in the general calendar’ (1). While the Order of Christian Funerals celebrates the death of an individual or indeed a group, the celebration of All the Faithful Departed is a focused celebration where all those who have gone before us ‘marked with the sign of faith’, as one of the Eucharistic Prayers remind us, are remembered.

Early Roman practice
The first mention of a day dedicated to commemorating all the faithful departed is to be found in a monastic rule attributed to Saint Isidore of Seville (died 636), who ordered his monks to celebrate the Eucharist for the souls of the departed on the Monday after Pentecost. The choice of this day may be due to the fact that the emerging feast of All Saints was celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, following some examples from the Christian East. At the beginning of the ninth century, the Abbot of the important monastery of Fulda, Egil, ordered his monks to remember all the deceased on 17 December, the feast of Saint Sturmius, the founder of their monastery. There is evidence that in other churches all the deceased were prayed for in the time after the celebration of Epiphany. Though in Milan, this remembrance was celebrated on 16 October, the day after the celebration of the dedication of the city’s cathedral.

Like all peoples of the ancient world, early Christians too remembered their dead and continued to pray for them (2).  The Romans kept their festival of Parentalia, a commemoration of dead relatives, from 13 February to 21 February, at the end of their year which began anew on 1 March (3).  During this feast a chair (cathedra) was left empty in memory of particular deceased members of the family. The Church of Rome began to celebrate the death of Peter on 22 February. It was only later that the chair was reinterpreted in terms of Peter’s teaching office in his community and the feast then seen as Peter’s taking charge of the Church of Rome.

Some of the Roman funeral customs were retained by the early Christians once they were not seen as incompatible with their faith. We find evidence from the second century of prayers for the dead and celebrations of the Eucharist on the anniversary of a loved one (4).  Initially these celebrations were on the third day after burial and the yearly anniversary; later the seventh day, the thirtieth day and the fortieth day also became special days for commemorating the deceased person. These fixed days for the memorial of the dead with the Eucharist probably replaced the ancient sacrifices for the dead and sometimes perhaps the refrigerium as well. The refrigerium was a memorial meal eaten at the graveside of the person and was replaced by the Eucharist when abuses began to creep in (5).

Monastic practice
The first mention of a day dedicated to commemorating all the faithful departed is to be found in a monastic rule attributed to Saint Isidore of Seville (died 636), who ordered his monks to celebrate the Eucharist for the souls of the departed on the Monday after Pentecost. The choice of this day may be due to the fact that the emerging feast of All Saints was celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, following some examples from the Christian East. At the beginning of the ninth century, the Abbot of the important monastery of Fulda, Egil, ordered his monks to remember all the deceased on 17 December, the feast of Saint Sturmius, the founder of their monastery. There is evidence that in other churches all the deceased were prayed for in the time after the celebration of Epiphany. Though in Milan, this remembrance was celebrated on 16 October, the day after the celebration of the dedication of the city’s cathedral.

However, it is the great monastery of Cluny which began the commemoration of the dead on 2 November. It was Abbot Odilo of Cluny (died 1048) who ordered all Clunaic houses to celebrate a memorial of all the faithful departed. The commemoration quickly spread all through France, Germany and England. However, it was only in the thirteenth century that it was accepted at Rome and the rest of Italy. Odilo, in choosing 2 November, linked this celebration with that of All Saints. In doing this he may have known of the practice of Amalarius of Metz (died ca 850) who, two centuries previously, remembered the dead during the celebration of All Saints. While there have been some attempts to show that 2 November was chosen in order to counteract Celtic celebrations of the dead, these attempts have largely remained unconvincing (6).

It was at the end of the fifteenth century among the Dominicans of Valencia in Spain that we find first mention of the tradition of celebrating three Masses on this day as on Christmas Day. Pope Benedict XIV approved this practice in 1748 and extended it to Spain, Portugal and Latin America. In 1915, it was extended to the whole Church by Benedict XV, with the proviso that each priest might only receive one stipend and celebrate the second as compensation for all the Mass foundations that for various reasons had been forgotten or not been fulfilled in the course of the centuries.

The paschal mystery
Christian tradition too over the course of the centuries has viewed the aftermath of death in different optics. Although the revised General Norms for the Liturgical Year gave precedence to the celebration of Sunday, the revised edition of the Roman Missal of 1970 gives precedence to All Souls, as the rubric for the day notes ‘Even when November 2 falls on a Sunday, All Souls Day is celebrated with the following Masses’.

The liturgy of Masses for the dead were thoroughly revised after Vatican II had called for the liturgy to reflect more clearly the paschal character of Christian death. It is the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Christ that is our hope and the foundation of how Christians view death. In many ways, the revised liturgy of the dead sought to recapture the early Christian view of dying and death (7), and purify the many medieval additions that had crept into the liturgy with their characteristics of judgement and fear, which obscured the Christian belief of sharing in the resurrection of Christ.

The three Masses given in the Roman Missal for All Souls Day are marked by this belief in the Easter Mystery of Christ. They pray that those who have gone before us might share in that same mystery. The prayers also seek to strengthen our faith in his resurrection. The Roman liturgy over the course of the centuries developed in such a way that it often seemed to be more preoccupied with those not present at the liturgical celebration, than with the worshiping assembly, one of the principles of the liturgical reform was to remedy this situation.

The Commemoration of All the Faithfully Departed coming as it does in early November is part of the last weeks of the liturgical year and the attention that the liturgy gives to the end times, the judgement of God and the coming of Christ as Lord of All. In the Northern hemisphere, it is also situated deep in the heart of winter, with short days and long evenings with their inevitable overtones of darkness and decay. This day offers those charged with preaching an opportunity to enable the community to reflect upon the mystery of death in Christ and its significance for the life of all Christians. Outside a funeral celebration, there is little room in the current liturgical calendar for opportunities to focus on the mystery of Christian death and certainly our contemporary society shies away from any reflection on the topic.

Preaching on what we believe about death
What we believe about death influences how we celebrate the death of a Christian and how we might preach on this day. Some of the earliest Christian traditions saw that the dead went to a place of rest located somewhere between this earth and the final resurrection of the dead. It was only after the final judgement on the last day that all would be raised up and share in the glory of God. This kind of corporate eschatology saw those still alive as awaiting the appearing of the Lord, those who have died also awaited that moment in their place of rest.

It was in the Middle Ages that the idea of a personal judgement by God of the individual at the moment of death gained ground. Popular piety began to focus on praying for souls in purgatory who were being purified in this place for their sins.

This kind of eschatology, sometimes called an individualistic one, does away with an intermediate place of rest and focuses on the destiny of the individual, there is, in this approach, little sense of the solidarity of Christians awaiting the glorious day of the Lord. The present liturgical texts reflect these two approaches to the destiny of Christians. We find in the texts ancient images mixing with more medieval ideas.

The liturgical texts
As one prepares to preach today, these mixed messages can also strike the preacher. Some texts treat the human person in a holistic way, others separate body from soul and suggest that the soul already enjoys the bliss of heaven.

This confusion and ambiguity has been noticed by liturgists reflecting on contemporary funeral celebrations. If immediate glory is so emphasised by the preacher and the liturgy, is the victory of Christ over death rendered irrelevant? Might this not just be another face of the modern denial of death? As we have struggled to overcome the negative images of the old funeral rites, have we not in the new Order of Christian Funerals and its pastoral implementations denied the reality of separation and human pain that death brings? (8)

Focus on individual psychology
However, the changes in the funeral liturgy might be even more profound than that. The distinguished American liturgist, Lawrence Hoffman, notes that within his own community of Judaism and its various traditions, the focus of funeral rites has fundamentally changed (9).

Because contemporary culture, and he writes from an American perspective, places the individual at the centre of its attention, and the individual only exists from birth to death, that being the duration of the self, it has no interest in what happens after death. So what interests society is how this individual handles the arrival of death and how other concerned individuals cope with the period of mourning after the death has occurred. Death and mourning are conceived of as problems and defined as psychological.

While the Irish situation is markedly different, I do wonder if our ritual responses are functioning now as psychological. Hoffman goes on to note that whereas in the past the rabbis were concerned about affirming the continuity of the self after death and thus dealt with customs of death in a theological fashion, today the psychological has supplanted that and attention has shifted to the needs of the mourners (10).  The consolation that is offered to the mourners is conceived of as a psychological consolation rather than a theological one. Our new rites are pastorally sensitive – and that is indeed a good thing – but we still lack theological scrutiny of our current pastoral practice.

Perhaps, this liturgical celebration which is separate from any particular funeral celebration is a good place to start thinking and preaching from a theological framework, preaching the hope that is within us and the conviction that our future lies with God. At all times we must keep in view, the wrench that is death and the hope that our – at times – faltering faith teaches us.

I find the words of the Irish theologian Dermot Lane useful in this regard when he notes that our presentation of eternal life must not be just as a continuation of this life:

To give this impression would be to ignore the finality of death and to run the risk of playing down the uniqueness of historical existence. Instead, eternal life must be presented in terms of the completion of this life. A new and creative tension between the present and the future, between the already and the not yet, between the known and the unknown, between the present life and eternal life, must be maintained in eschatology. At most we can merely imagine the promise of new life in Christ to come because ‘no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God had prepared for those who love him’ in this life (1 Cor 2:9) (11). 

    NOTES

1. General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (21 March 1969) II, I, 3.

2. For a recent study of early Christian attitudes to death see J. Davies, Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity (London, Routledge, 1999).

3. The classic work on Roman traditions around death and burial is J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1971).

4. See P. Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship. A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practices (London, SPCK, 1996). This development was one of the major influences on the Eucharist coming to be celebrated on weekdays.

5. See the discussion in J.A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite (Westminister, Christian Classics, 1992) p. 218. Also the fine essay by C. Vogel, ‘The Cultic Environ-ment of the Deceased in the Early Christian Period’, in A.M. Triacca, (ed.), Temple of the Holy Spirit (New York, Pueblo Publishing Company, 1983) pp. 259-276. For an exhaustive treatment of meals in the ancient world and their influence on early Christian practices, see D.A. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist. The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003).

6. The most notable proponent of the this theory was the historian of religions, J. G. Frazer who proposed it in a 1906 study that provoked responses from the historians, H. Thurston and F. Cabrol. They convincingly showed that no ecclesiastical document mentions a confrontation between the Church and the Celtic celebration. Rather it is the link with the celebration of All Saints on 1 November that led Cluny to celebrate All Souls on 2 November.

7. This is well expressed by Jon Davies, see J. Davies, Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity (London, Routledge, 1999) 196: ‘Death, in Christ, becomes holiness, the means to salvation not only for saints and martyrs but also for all Christians. Death was the dies natalis, the day of birth into eternity, a time of joy.’

8. For a useful reflection on these issues in terms of the funeral liturgy, see D.C. Smolarski, Sacred Mysteries. Sacramental Principles and Liturgical Practice (New York, Paulist Press, 1994) 138-155. The still standard work on the Order of Christian Funerals is R. Rutherford – T. Barr, The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals (Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1990).

9. See L.A. Hoffman, ‘Rites of Death and Mourning in Judaism’, in P.F. Bradshaw and L.A. Hoffman (eds), Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship (Notre Dame/London, 1996) PP. 214-239.

10. Hoffman writes, op. cit., p. 219: ‘But as we refer to ritual today, we shall see how psychology has replaced eschatology as the favoured paradigm of modernity, with consequences for the way rites of burial and mourning are presently presented and explained.

11. See D.A. Lane, ‘Eschatology’, in Komonchak, J.A., (ed), The New Dictionary of Theology (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1987) P. 342.


This article first appeared in Scripture in Church (Oct-Dec 2003), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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