The Liturgies of November


November is traditionally associated in the Catholic Church with remembrance of the dead. Bringing to mind deceased family and friends can be very painful, especially if the bereavement is relatively recent. In our liturgical celebrations, however, we are reminded to ‘look both ways’, the title and theme of a recent Australian movie.

True remembrance is not just about looking back to the past but also looking ahead to the future in trust and hope. Just as our loved one shared in Christ’s death in baptism, we believe that he or she will share in Christ’s resurrection and enjoy eternal life in God’s presence. This is illustrated by the fact that we pray for the deceased during a month that begins with the celebration of all the saints and culminates in the feast of Christ the King.

The feast of All Saints recognises all the saints of heaven, both known and unknown, in a single celebration. The feast of All Saints first appeared in the fourth century when Eastern Church introduced a feast to celebrate martyrs on the Sunday after Pentecost. By the seventh century, the feast was being observed in the West and included those saints who were not martyrs. The present date of 1st November follows a tradition established in England and Ireland.

Celebrating All Souls Day on the day after All Saints reminds us of those who have not yet achieved the goal of their pilgrimage, the Kingdom of Heaven. As part of the communion of saints, they need our prayers. This feast is an opportunity for us to pray in unity for our relatives and friends and for those who have no one to pray for them.

The feast of All Souls developed along side the feast of All Saints. The Church has consistently encouraged prayers for the faithful departed. In the early years, a list of the names of the dead was placed in the church so that the community would remember them in prayer.

In the 6th century, Benedictine monasteries held a solemn commemoration of their deceased members on the day after Pentecost. Similar services soon came to be held in other religious communities. In the first half of the 11th century, St Odilo of Cluny decreed that the Office of the Dead was to be offered for all the souls in purgatory in all monasteries of the order on November 2nd, the day after All Saints. Other orders followed this custom, and soon November 2nd was adopted as the Feast of All Souls for the whole Church.

The feast of Christ the King which brings the liturgical year to a close was instituted by Pius IX in 1925 to mark the close of a Year of Jubilee. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church offers this explanation of the meaning of the feast: “It is the celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead humankind to seek the ‘peace of Christ’ in the ‘Kingdom of Christ’”.

This feast should inspire all Christians with a sense of confident hope that Christ will come again as the supreme ruler over “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace”. (Preface of Christ the King)


Elizabeth Harrington