Devotion to the saints is rooted in a vibrant Christian view of history

The Church celebrates her mystical understanding of the presence of the past, the communion of saints across time, in a special way during the month of November.

November 1, 2020 Dr. Christopher Shannon ColumnsFeaturesThe Past Present 6Print

Detail from “Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven” (1428-30) by Fra Angelico. (

Editor’s note: This is the inaugural essay in a new and regular CWR column titled “The Past Present”, written by Dr. Christopher Shannon, a professor in the History Department at Christendom College. 

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This ominous aphorism from the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) remains perhaps the dominant rationale for the study of history in our culture. It is as far as possible from the Catholic understanding of the past. Where Santayana sees a machine, malfunctioning yet repairable with the toolkit of historical analysis, the Church sees the Mystical Body of Christ, ever-ailing but ever-healing through the saints who witnessed to Christ in their own time and continue to witness to us in our own.

The Church celebrates this presence of the past, the communion of saints across time, in a special way during the month of November, the month of All Saints and All Souls. It is a fitting moment to launch a column in which I hope to provide readers with an opportunity to reflect on the presence of the past all year round.

Every religion has a history, but Christianity is a uniquely historical faith. That is, for Christians history is not optional but essential. Christianity was born at the intersection of two very distinct understandings of truth: one, Jewish, rooted in the historical relationship between Yahweh and his particular Chosen People; the other, Greek, rooted in the philosophic quest to transcend all particulars of place and time in pursuit of universal Truth. Confronted by this stark either/or, early Christians did what they have done since: they chose both/and.

Still, for most of the centuries that followed, Christians experienced their faith through particular liturgies and devotions, few as central as the remembrance and veneration of Christians past. From the earliest centuries, Christians prayed for their ordinary dead and to the exceptional dead who would acquire a title once shared by all Christians, the saints.

At first, the exceptional dead were primarily the martyrs, those who most fully followed Christ’s command to take up their cross and follow him, even to the point of death. Christians met at the graves of the martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths; the Church would eventually integrate these memorial services into the liturgical calendar. With the passing of the Age of Martyrs, new models of spiritual excellence emerged, most especially among the practitioners of monasticism. These saints distinguished themselves through lives devoted to prayer and asceticism, while their holiness issued in spectacular miracles. Ordinary Christians rarely aspired to imitate such holy men and women, but greatly valued the intercessory power of those who had scaled such heights of sanctity.

Some of these recognized saints made it to the universal calendar of the Church, through most of the Middle Ages the most popular saints were local heroes; however much the origins of the devotion may have been lost in the mists of time, the feast days of these local saints became profound sources of community identity and much anticipated occasions for community celebrations. For all Catholics, devotion to Christ was unthinkable without a complimentary devotion to the saints; for some Catholics, devotion to the saints seemed to substitute for devotion to Christ.

Excessive devotion to the saints would appear in the eyes Protestant critics as evidence of the corruption of the faith by superstition, even paganism. Sadly, this time of year in which we celebrate the communion of saints, we also recall the rending of that communion through the events of the Protestant Reformation. Still, when Martin Luther began his public challenge to the Church on All Hallows’ Eve of 1517, he did so not primarily in defiance of Church teaching on intercessory prayer or prayers for the dead, but rather against what was at the time the relatively recent practice of applying meritorious works (indulgences) to relieve the suffering souls of Purgatory.

Luther’s tendentious reading of the scriptural understanding of justification by faith nonetheless quickly ballooned into a full-scale attack on a whole range of Church teachings and practices, including Purgatory itself and the broader tradition of intercessor prayer and devotion to the saints. Protestants affirmed the Nicean Creed, though retained only an attenuated notion of the communion of saints. Protestant historical imagination became similarly stunted. With the thousand years preceding the Reformation dismissed by Luther as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Protestants replaced devotion to the saints with a greater emphasis on the heroes of the Old Testament figures—which, with all due respect to the tradition of typology, seems an odd substitute for those wishing a more Christ-centered faith.

Protestants would, of course, develop their own histories tracing the path of “true” Christianity since the Reformation—though histories careful to distinguish themselves from legend and myth, and on guard lest the honoring of past heroes undermine the primacy of Christ.

For better or for worse, a version of such rationalism has colored the modern Catholic approach to the communion of saints. Even before the Reformation, Catholic scholars engaged in re-writing saints’ lives in accord with new Renaissance standards of elegance also expressed greater concern to verify the historical accuracy of earlier accounts. The Council of Trent would require evidence of miracles as part of its newly rigorous procedure of canonization but the post-Reformation Church would put greater emphasis on devotion to saints as role models of virtue and piety rather than wonder workers.

Beyond the issue of devotion itself, the Church would step up its efforts to suppress the raucous festivities that traditionally accompanied the celebration of the feast days of saints. Church leaders took the Reformers’ criticisms to heart and sought to cleanse devotion to the saints of all traces of immorality and residual paganism. This was a much harder battle than the clarification of doctrine at Trent itself. It would rage on for centuries, into the streets of the nineteenth-century American city, where recently arrived immigrants sought to continue their rural, peasant traditions of festivity under the censorious glare of Irish-American clergy, products of yet another in the many waves of Trent-inspired reform in field of clerical education.

We see echoes of this struggle over festivity in recent debates over the celebration of Halloween, the secular holiday that overlaps with All Saints/All Souls. For this overlap, we have, ironically in light of my previous observations, the Irish to blame. Growing up Irish Catholic in America, I never thought of Halloween as particularly Irish. I first became aware of the connection while reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous essay on Irish-America in his 1964 book (with Nathan Glazer) Beyond the Melting Pot. Lamenting the assimilation of the Irish into the colorless norms of lower-middle class American culture, he observed that the Irish will no longer be viewed as cultural curiosities who, for some unknown reason, went wild at Halloween.

The location on the liturgical calendar of the feasts of All Saints/All Souls, along the concomitant celebration of All Hallows Eve, do seem to owe something to the Irish, or at the very least have had special consequence for the Irish. The November 1st date of the Feast of All Saints happens to coincide with the pre-Christian, Celtic celebration of Samhain, which roughly marked the seasonal turning point from autumn into winter according to the climate of the British Isles. According to pagan tradition, this liminal, seasonal turning point saw the release of the souls of the dead to wander the earth for a time. Such pagan/Christian overlap is pervasive, and nearly unavoidable, in the liturgical calendar.

At some point in the ninth century, November 1st replaced May 13th as the liturgical date for celebrating the saints. Tradition has it that Pope Gregory IV (827-44) changed the date due to the availability of greater food supplies at harvest time to celebrate the feast in a fit manner. Still, the previous date was traditionally linked to a different pagan-Christian overlap: Pope Boniface IV’s dedication of the Pantheon in Rome in 609, the first such pagan Roman temple repurposed as a Christian church.

The historical facts surrounding this shift in the liturgical calendar remain elusive. The traditional practices associated with the celebration remained strong for a millennium. Interviews conducted by the Irish Folklore Commission in the early-to-mid twentieth century report the persistence of the belief that the time of All Hallows Eve say the temporary release of the souls of Purgatory. These souls were believed to return to their ancestral homes for one night. To welcome these souls, people would leave their doors unlocked, keep a fire burning all night and set chairs around the fire for the visiting souls. The family would say the rosary together and then go to bed to give the souls sometime at the fire undisturbed. More public celebrations would include the building of large bonfires and, of course, the visiting of homes in search of hospitality in imitation of the wandering souls. The tradition of dressing up as “ghosts” provided protection from possible harm from wandering spirits, but Irish Catholics (as opposed to Protestants) generally held a benign view of this seasonal encounter with dead souls.

This close relation between the natural and the supernatural has been one of the spiritual casualties of modernity. No doubt this close relation contained a dark side, sustaining ghost stories and folk traditions that verge on the superstitious or even occult. Still, the attempt to redirect Halloween festivities into more sanitized expressions—superhero and Disney character costumes for the secular, saint’s costumes for the pious—risks surrendering the natural impulse to confront the forces of darkness to those dark forces themselves.

For this, we need look no further than the whole modern genre of horror fiction, up to and including its more recent secular liturgical celebration through the practice of Zombie Walks. In my lifetime, I have seen Halloween decorations advance from the humble Jack O’Lantern to elaborate front-lawn grave-yard displays that out deck most halls I see at Christmas time. Americans today spend roughly $9 billion dollars annually on Halloween, a commercialization that, judging from the fate of Christmas, just may be the true source of the demonic in our culture.

Restoring Christian culture requires embracing the full range of human experience. If medieval Catholics could face the Dance of Death, maybe contemporary Catholics can find some new way to leave a chair out at Halloween for a suffering soul in Purgatory.

About Dr. Christopher Shannon 3 ArticlesDr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014).

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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