An Eve Haunted By a Pagan Past

MASHPEE, Mass.-'Tis the season when the line between Christian and pagan practices seems to blur.

Halloween, derived from All Hallowed's Eve, refers to the night before All Saints' Day. But it comes from the Celtic pagan feast Samhain, when spirits from the Otherworld (which should not be confused with either heaven or hell) were most able to enter the regular world through a fairy mound, called in Irish síd. On this day, Nov. 1, more than any other the Celts believed they were most likely to be accosted by foreign spirits, who could influence their lives.

This feast, though probably older than Christianity, lent itself to the Christian idea of communing with the dead through prayer and sacrifice, now especially marked by the Church on All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov. 2.

This year's is the 1,001st celebration of All Souls' Day, according to medievalist Sandra Miesel, of Indianapolis, who said that St. Odo of Cluny popularized the idea of having a special Mass for the dead on that day.

Union with the dead was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: “This most sacred Synod accepts with great devotion the venerable faith of our ancestors regarding this vital fellowship with our brethren who are in heavenly glory or who are still being purified after death” (No. 51).

Catholic history is full of examples of departed brethren making return visits. Most of these come from private revelation, which Catholics are not required to believe. But some come from Scripture, suggesting that exiting this world is not irreversible for God.

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11:43–44, and restores to life a 12-year-old girl (Matthew 9:25, Mark 5:41–42, Luke 8:54–55).

Praying for the Dead

Living with the dead was not a strange idea for Christians of the Middle Ages, as a similarly titled book by Patrick Geary suggests.

“The living had an overwhelming obligation to pray for the dead,” Miesel said. “The continuity between the dead and the living, the ties of family and friendship, persist despite death.”

The faithful were inspired partly by charity, but also, Miesel said, by the “hope their descendants would do the same for them.”

That same spirit, so to speak, animates devotion to the dead from the current crop of those living on earth. And then, when the souls in purgatory finish their sentence, Miesel noted, “They'll become our patrons in heaven.”

The imperfect Christian living here on earth can hope the cycle will continue.

“And when we die, we'll be part of our descendants' lives in the same way,” Miesel said.

But while that's the ideal, some say the living aren't doing their part.

Father Benjamin Luther, pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish in Paducah, Ky., said many funerals nowadays are framed in the language of unofficial canonizations, with nary a mention of purgatory.

“People don't pray for the dead,” Father Luther said. “And of course, it's a big mistake.”

Ignoring the dead has affected Catholics' perspective on the culture.

Father Luther said Catholics don't seem to have a different perspective on Halloween from anyone else, which he finds disapponting because the celebration can be a catechizing tool. Several years ago, he said, one family in his parish held a “saints' party” at Halloween time, where kids dressed up as saints.

What the Church once borrowed from the pagans to make a point can still be useful, the priest said, but that requires making the point.

“We need to complete the process of truly Christianizing the observance,” Father Luther said.

Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.