All Saints Day commemorates those in Heaven praying for the faithful

October 25, 2016

Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the canonization of 10 new saints in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 15, 2022. Five of the new saints are from Italy, three from France, one from India and one from the Netherlands. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

HOUSTON — While it lies in the shadows of Halloween (also known as Eve of All Hallows) on Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints or All Saints Day is a special day in the Catholic Church. A day dedicated to honoring the saints, both known and unknown. A day devoted to honoring those who unite us with Christ, who model Christian life and intercede on our behalf.

Saints help us out with big things and small things: they are intercessors for us — you’ve lost something, ask St. Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of lost articles, to help you; worried you might oversleep in the morning, turn to St. Vitas, Patron Saint for protection against oversleeping. Whatever your needs, whoever you’re praying for, there’s a saint that can help you.

“While many, even some Catholics, might believe that we pray to saints in the same way we pray to God,” explained Father Luke Millette, Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese. “This is a misunderstanding of what we are truly doing. The saints cannot do anything on their own. Their power is that they intercede for us.”

Catholic doctrine of intercession and invocation of saints was officially set forth by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which states “...the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Who alone is our Redeemer and Saviour.”

“For my own part, I think of it in this way. If everything that our faith says is true, then it is impossible to not both believe in and ask for the intercession of the saints,” continued Father Millette. “Few if any Christians would ever hesitate to ask those living on this earth, their friends and family, to pray for them when some need arises in their life. And yet, Scripture, in the Book of Revelations, makes it clear that those who have died in Christ are not dead but living, gathered around the throne of the Lamb praising the Lord and interceding for those still here on earth.”

True worship (as opposed to veneration or honor) does indeed belong to God alone. When we pray to the saints, we’re simply asking them to help us, by praying to God on our behalf, or thanking them for having already done so.

“We can, of course, address our prayers directly to God, and He can hear us without the intervention of any creature,” said Father Millette. “But this does not prevent us from asking the help of our fellow-creatures (saints) who may be more pleasing to Him than we are. As St. Thomas pointed out, we invoke the angels and saints in quite different language from that addressed to God. We ask Him to have mercy upon us and Himself to grant us whatever we require; whereas we ask the saints to pray for us, i.e., to join their petitions with ours.”

They act or interpose on our behalf. So basically, we need help with something or we want to pray for a particular cause, turn to a saint and they pray to God on our behalf. 

And it is important to remember that saints are also there for us as models of living a Christian life. Father Millette said studying their lives and trying to follow their example helps us be good Christians. We can gain strength in our faith and in our daily lives by learning from them.
All Saints Day is also a celebration of the communion of saints. 

As Father Dempsey Rosales Acosta SSL, STD, Chairman of the Theology Department and Association Professor at the University of Saint Thomas, explained, “The belief of the communion of saints implies the notion that we, pilgrims on this earth, are not alone. We maintain a special relationship with the persons who had preceded us in faith. It also implies a special relationship with the community of those who had died keeping their faith in the Lord (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 948).”

“The communion of saints does not include exclusively those who have been officially canonized by the Catholic Church but a large number of faithful departed who belong to Christ and are sharing the beatific vision of God,” added Father Acosta. The term ‘saints’ refers to those who believe in the Lord Jesus and are incorporated into Him in the Church through Baptism. (Acts 9:13.32.41).

“Therefore, when we address the community of saints, on All Saints Day, our prayers to the saints serve as a reminder of our participation in the mystical body of Christ, the Church” said Father Acosta.

Celebrating and honoring martyrs and later saints, can be traced to the early days of Christianity. 

“In the early days of the Church, many of the first Christians were martyrs and death as a martyr was considered to be a great grace because the Christian who died in this way died in imitation of the death of the Lord,” said Father Millette. “We know that Christians at this time believed that those who died as martyrs were already in Heaven with God because many inscriptions were found in the Catacombs next to the bodies of martyrs, asking for their intercession before God. Due to this devotion to the saints and belief of their special closeness to God, Masses were often held in the Catacombs showing a deep understanding of the connection between the Eucharist the Suffering and Death of Our Lord and the Saints who suffered like Christ.”

As time went on and there were more martyrs, not every martyr could be celebrated on a specific day, so it became more common to celebrate several martyrs on a single day. It seems that a common feast day for all martyrs was held in certain places as early as the third Century. In 614, Pope Boniface IV established the “Feast of All Martyrs” commemorating the dedication of the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, into a Christian church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. By 741, the feast included not only martyrs, but all the saints in Heaven as well.

In 844, Pope Gregory IV named Nov. 1 as All Saint Day, and in 1484, Pope Sixtus IV established Nov. 1 as a holyday of obligation and gave it both a vigil (known today as “All Hallows’ Eve” or “Halloween”) and an eight-day period or octave to celebrate the feast. 

Father Millette reminds us that “It is important for all Catholics to celebrate this feast because it is not only a time to celebrate the saints who still live in Christ, but to also ask their intercession so that we too might one day join their number and become one of those numberless and sometimes nameless host who gather around the throne of the Lamb.”

He continued, “We often believe that our passed loved ones are already in Heaven with God, and if that is true, then what better time is there to celebrate those people in our own lives who have become one of the numberless unknown saints of the Church.”