|Devotion to Our Lady||
Hail—Ye Unsung and Forgotten Saints
The Church celebrates holy men and women throughout the year on various saint days, but the Solemnity of All Saints is when the Church honors every saint, known and unknown. While we have information about many saints, and we honor them on specific days, there are many unknown or unsung saints, who may have been forgotten, or never been honored specifically.
Early Customs of Honoring the Innumerable Saints
Christians have been honoring saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:
“Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
All Saints Day was instituted to honor all the saints, known and unknown, and, according to Pope Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts during the year. On All Saints Day, we celebrate these holy individuals, and ask for their prayers and intercessions.
In the early days the Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. In the fourth century, neighboring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of St. Basil of Caesarea (379) to the bishops of the province of Pontus.
More Martyrs Than Days in a Year
Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration. In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great, that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all.
The first trace of this we find in Antioch, on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day for All Saints in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (died 373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (died 407). St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) assigned a day to the feast—the first Sunday after Pentecost—on which day the Eastern Churches celebrate the feast to this day.
At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honored by a special day. Other saints were added gradually, and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established; still, as early as 411 there is in the Chaldean Calendar a “Commemoratio Confessorum” (a Commemoration of Confessors of the Faith) for the Friday after Easter.
The Pagan Pantheon Becomes Saints’ Shrine
In the West, Pope Boniface IV, on May 13th, 609, or 610, consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary. Pope Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary for November 1st.
A basilica of the Apostles already existed in Rome, and its dedication was annually remembered on May 1st. Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration on November 1st to the entire Church. The vigil (October 31st—All Hallows Eve) seems to have been held as early as the feast itself. The Octave of All Saints was added by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84)—today the Octave has been discontinued.
The concept of All Saints Day is connected to the doctrine of The Communion of Saints. This is the Catholic teaching that all of God’s people—in Heaven, on Earth, and in the state of purification in Purgatory—are spiritually connected and united. In other words, Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that the saints of God are just as alive as those on Earth, and are constantly interceding on our behalf. Remember, our connection with the saints in Heaven is one grounded in a tight-knit communion. The saints are not divine (only God is divine), nor omnipresent (not everywhere), nor omniscient (not all-knowing). However, because of our common communion with and through Jesus Christ, our prayers are joined with the heavenly community of our fellow Christians, who are saints. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) testifies to this belief:
“We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition...” (Catechetical Lecture 23:9).
The Catholic Catechism concisely describes this communion among believers, by which we are connected to Christ, and thus to one another:
“Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness ... They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us ... So, by their fraternal concern, is our weakness greatly helped ... As Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace … We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so, because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples!” (Catholic Catechism)
There are thousands of canonized saints, that is those individuals officially recognized by the Church as holy men and women worthy of our imitation. Because miracles have been associated with them, and because their lives have been fully examined and found to be holy by the Church, we can therefore be assured they are prime examples of holiness, and powerful intercessors before God on our behalf.
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied by location, with local churches honoring local saints. However, feast days gradually became more universal. As stated above, around the time of St. Ephrem (died 373) and St. John Chrysostom (died 407), many local churches celebrated All Saints Day on the First Sunday after Pentecost.
In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance (November 1st) probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (d. AD 741), and was likely first observed on November 1st in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.
Dom Gueranger covers the history of the feast in his magistral work, The Liturgical Year, in the final volume.
The Victory of the Persecuted Saints
“When Rome had completed the conquest of the world, she dedicated to all the gods, in token of her gratitude, the Pantheon, the most durable monument of her power. But when she herself had been conquered by Christ, and invested by Him with the empire over souls, she withdrew her homage from vain idols and offered it to the martyrs; for they, praying for her as she slew them, had rendered her truly eternal. To the martyrs, then, and to Mary their Queen, she consecrated forever, on the morrow of her merciful chastisement, the now purified Pantheon. ‘Come forth from your dwellings, ye saints of God, hasten to the place prepared for you’ (The Roman Pontifical for the Dedication of a Church).
Rising From the Catacombs
For three centuries the catacombs were the resting-place of our Lord's athletes, when they were borne from the arena. These valiant warriors deserved the honors of a triumph far better than did the great victors of old. In 312, however, Rome, disarmed but not yet changed in heart, was not at all disposed to applaud the men who had conquered the gods of Olympus and of the Capitol. While the Cross surmounted her ramparts, the white-robed army still lay entrenched in the subterranean crypts that surrounded the city like so many outworks. Three centuries more were granted to Rome, that she might make satisfaction to God's justice, and take full cognizance of the salvation reserved for her by His mercy.
"In 609 the patient work of grace was completed; the Sovereign Pontiff Boniface IV uttered the word for the sacred crypts to yield up their treasures. It was a solemn moment, a forerunner of that wherein the angel's trumpet-call shall sound over the sepulchers of the world (Requiem Mass, Sequence: Dies Irae). The successor of St. Peter, in all his apostolic majesty and surrounded by an immense crowd, presented himself at the entrance of the catacombs. He was attended by eighteen chariots magnificently adorned for the conveyance of the martyrs. The ancient triumphal way opened before the saints; the sons of the Quirites sang in their honor:
“ ‘You shall come with joy and proceed with gladness; for behold, the mountains and the hills exult, awaiting you with joy. Arise, ye saints of God, come forth from your hiding-places; enter into Rome, which is now the holy city; bless the Roman people following you to the temple of the false gods, which is now dedicated as your own church, there to adore together with you the majesty of the Lord’ (The Roman Pontifical for the Dedication of a Church).
The Last Word Belongs to the Victorious Martyrs
“Thus, after six centuries of persecution and destruction, the martyrs had the last word; and it was a word of blessing, a signal of grace for the great city hitherto drunk with the blood of Christians. More than rehabilitated by the reception she was giving to the witnesses of Christ, she was now not merely Rome, but the new Sion, the privileged city of the Lord. She now burned before the saints the incense they had refused to offer to her idols; their blood had flowed before the very altar on which she now invited them to rest, since the usurpers had been hurled back into the abyss. It was a happy inspiration that induced her, when she dedicated to the holy martyrs the temple built by Marcus Agrippa and restored by Severus Augustus, to leave upon its pediment the names of its original constructors and the title they had given it; for then only did the famous monument truly merit its name, when Christian Rome could apply to the new inhabitants of the Pantheon those words of the psalm: ‘I have said, you are gods.' (Psalm 81:6). May 13th was the day of their triumphant installation.
Origins of the Feast
“Every dedication on earth reminds the Church, as she herself tells us, of the assembly of the saints, the living stones of the eternal dwelling which God is building for Himself in Heaven. It is not astonishing, then, that the dedication of Agrippa's Pantheon, under the above-mentioned circumstances, should have originated the feast of today. Its anniversary, recalling the memory of the martyrs collectively, satisfied the Church's desire of honoring year by year all her blessed sons who had died for the Lord; for, at an early date it became impossible to celebrate each of them on the day of his glorious death.
“In the age of peace there was added to the cult of the martyrs that of the other just, who daily sanctified themselves in all the paths of heroism opened out to Christian courage. The thought of uniting these with the former in one common solemnity, which would supply for the unavoidable omission of many of them, followed naturally upon the initiative given by Pope Boniface IV.
“In 732, in the first half of that eighth century which was such a grand age for the Church, Pope Gregory III dedicated, at St. Peter's on the Vatican, an oratory in honor of the Savior, of His blessed Mother, of the holy Apostles, of all the holy martyrs, confessors, and perfect just, who repose throughout the world. A dedication under so extensive a title did not, it is true, imply the establishment of our feast of All Saints by the illustrious pontiff; yet from this period it began to be celebrated by divers churches, and that, too, on November 1st, as is attested, with regard to England, by Venerable Bede's martyrology and the pontifical of Egbert of York. It was far, however, from being universal, when, in the year 835, Louis Ie Debonnaire, at the request of Pope Gregory IV, and with the consent of all the bishops of his realm, made its celebration obligatory by law. This decree was welcomed by the whole Church and adopted as her own, says Ado, with reverence and love.
“The councils of Spain and Gaul, as early as the sixth century, mention a custom then existing, of sanctifying the commencement of November by three days of penance and litanies, like the Rogation days which precede the feast of our Lord's Ascension. The fast on the Vigil of All Saints is the only remaining vestige of this custom of our forefathers, who, after the institution of the feast, advanced the triduum of penance, so as to make it a preparation for the solemnity itself. 'Let our devotion be complete,' is the recommendation of a contemporaneous author; 'let us prepare ourselves for this most holy solemnity by three days of fasting, prayer, and alms-deeds.'
“When extended to the entire world, the feast became complete; it was made equal to the greatest solemnities, and widened its horizon till it reached the infinite, embracing uncreated as well as created sanctity. Its object was now, not only Mary and the martyrs; not only all the just children of Adam; but, moreover, the nine choirs of angels, and above all the Holy Trinity itself, God who is all in all, the King of kings-that is, of the saints, the God of gods in Sion. Hear how the Church awakes her children on this day: 'Come let us adore the Lord, the King of kings, for He is the crown of all the saints.' Such was the invitation addressed by our Lord Himself to St. Mechtilde, the chantress of Helfta, the privileged one of His divine Heart: ‘Praise Me, for that I am the crown of all the saints.' The virgin then beheld all the beauty of the elect and their glory drawing increase from the Blood of Christ, and resplendent with the virtues practiced by Him; and, responding to our Lord's appeal, she praised with all her might the blissful and ever-adorable Trinity, for deigning to be to the saints their diadem and their admirable dignity.
"Dante, too, describes Beatrice in the highest Heaven forming her crown of the reflection of the eternal rays. ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,' sang the inhabitants of paradise with one voice. ‘I seemed,' says the sublime poet, ‘to behold a smile of the universe. The kingdom of bliss, with all its people both old and new, turned look and love all towards one point. O triple light, which shining in a single star dost so delight them, look down upon our tempests!’ (Dante, Paradiso).
The Divine Office Responsories
“In many churches the ancient Office of the feast, up to the sixteenth century, had this peculiarity, that at the Nocturns the first antiphon, the first blessing, the first lesson, and the first responsory, treated of the blessed Trinity; the second of these respective pieces spoke of our Lady, the third of the angels, the fourth of the patriarchs and prophets, the fifth of the apostles, the sixth of the martyrs, the seventh of the confessors, the eighth of the virgins, the ninth of all the saints.
“On this account the first lesson, contrary to the custom of the rest of the year, was given to the highest dignitary of the choir, and the first responsory to the first cantors. The rest followed in order down to the children, one of whom sang the lesson of the virgins, and five others, clothed in white and holding lighted tapers in their hands in memory of the five wise virgins, sang the eighth responsory before the Lady-altar. The ninth lesson and responsory were again chanted by priests. All, or nearly all, these customs have been successively modified; but the arrangement of the responsories remains the same.
“The Greeks honor, with us, on one common solemnity, ‘all the saints of all the countries on earth, of Asia, Libya, and Europe, of north and south.’ But, whereas the West celebrates at the close of the year a feast which represents the gathering of the harvest into our heavenly Father's granary, the East keeps it on the first Sunday after Pentecost, in that springtime of the Church, when, under the action of the Holy Ghost, sanctity was everywhere beginning to blossom. We find it thus as early as the fourth century; for it was on this first Sunday after Pentecost, which with us Latins is now the feast of the most holy Trinity, that St. John Chrysostom pronounced his discourse in honor of ‘all the martyrs, who have suffered throughout the world.’
“In the West also, as we have seen, the origin of All Saints' feast was this general commemoration of the martyrs. This latter was placed by some Eastern churches on the Friday within the octave of Easter. It was a happy thought thus to associate the confession of Christ's witnesses with the victory over death won by Him, whose divine confession before Pontius Pilate had been an example and a support to them in presence of their executioners. Indeed, Rome herself had had the same inspiration, when she made her solemn commemoration of the martyrs in the beginning of May; and she still reserves to the martyrs and apostles the honor of having a special Office for the whole of Paschal Time.”
The above quoted section was taken from Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year, the final volume.