The Feast of All Souls follows All Saints day and like All Saints it speak about the mystery of the Church; that it is something bigger than what we understand. The Communion of Saints is a consideration of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church, and places us face to face with the reality that even the universe is too small a place for the church.
In Catholic teaching the church is made up of the those who are in heaven, those who are on earth and also those who are in a state of purification which in the west we have termed as Purgatory. The Church triumphant, militant and suffering, all make up what is known as the Mystical Body of Christ.
As such the Feast of All Souls is about the church suffering. The Feast is also called the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. On this day we remember all who have left us and offer prayers for those who are in Purgatory. Further it sets the tone for the rest of the month as November is a month devoted to praying for those in Purgatory. On All Souls day a person can obtain two plenary indulgences; one for visiting a church and one for visiting a cemetery which benefit those in purgatory. Along with these, prayers can be offered, candles lit in remembrance, and sometimes cemeteries will be open and provide candles for honoring the dear departed.
In some countries the feast is a much larger affair than in the U.S. For instance, in Mexico the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a national holiday. Held on All Saints and All Souls, there are parades and celebrations, people wear masks of the dead which are brilliantly decorated and will make altars with pictures, and candles to remember a lost loved one.
Other traditions are the making and distributing of Soul Cakes, which originated in Brittain in the Middle Ages. The Cakes, or Cookies were given to children, and would represent prayers for the dead or souls being freed from purgatory.
The 60’s folk group Peter Paul and Mary recorded a song based on an old rhyme for soul cakes, called “A’ Soalin”
Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.
This may help to explain a little of the origins of modern Halloween with it’s masquerade and treat giving. But the bigger picture in all of this is an idea about the church and it’s completeness. The Mystical Body of Christ as an organism, a single body which prays beyond the boundaries of life and death. It speaks of the privilege and responsibility to intercede not only for the welfare of the living but also of the dead, and also explains that heaven will not just be a matter of clouds and harps, but that even the Saint in Heaven will continue to participate in the Body of Christ through prayer.