Solemnity of All Saints

Dear Pam,

It’s still Halloween while I write this.  I am afraid that my guards are plotting some kind of Halloween bash for me, and it won’t be pleasant, and it will leave me in no shape to write to you tomorrow.  But it’s just as well. Liturgically speaking, all the great Solemnities begin after sundown on the day before.

You may be interested to know the origin of this celebration.  It has a lot to do with the question you posed in your last email: “How can I keep being a strong Christian on a campus that’s becoming so pagan?”  No matter what, that task won’t be easy. But you will be encouraged in your efforts by hearing about origins of today’s feast, and who knows, it may spark some ideas.

You haven’t been to Rome, but that’s where the celebration began, back in 609, under Pope Boniface IV.  And it happened in a strange, quite Halloween-like circumstance. One of the older residential areas of the city was located near a huge Roman temple called the Pantheon (built by the emperor-architect Hadrian back in the second century).  You’ve probably seen pictures. Well, a couple hundred years before Pope Boniface’s time, the Roman Empire had turned Christian – at least, for the most part. Little by little the Romans repudiated their pagan ways, and the city, though beleaguered by barbarians and plagues, began to give off the “good odor” of Christ, as St Paul put it.  Unfortunately, some bad pagan odors still lingered. One particularly putrid aroma hovered about the Pantheon. As a Temple, it had held huge statues of all the gods most revered by the imperial family (thus its name, “pan-theon”, “all the gods”). It was abandoned, since Christians were now using their own temples, but was becoming the object of frequent complaints from those who lived in its neighborhood.  It seems that frequently, when they would walk by the door of the old temple, strange things would happen. Eerie voices would threaten them; bricks would fall down menacingly; ice-cold breezes would accost them, along with things that were worse than mere breezes. In short, it was clear that the place was haunted by demons.

Around the year 609, the complaints reached new heights, and the neighborhood appealed directly to the Pope to do something about it.  Razing the massive structure to the ground was too gargantuan a task, so Boniface IV found a creative solution: he decided to exorcise the Temple and re-consecrated it as a Christian Church, dedicated not to “all the gods” but to “all the Roman martyrs” and to Mary, the queen of all saints and martyrs.  This he did, and soon after the complaints stopped. It still serves as a church today.

The memorial of that consecration was celebrated on May 13th, but it became so popular that a century or so later Pope Gregory III moved the feast to November 1st (anniversary of his dedicating a chapel to all the saints in the Vatican Basilica), and extended the celebration to the whole Church.  Thus “All Saints’ Day” was born – it scattered evil spirits and recalled the witness of all those Christians who faithfully followed Christ through the gates of his Passion into the light of Glory.  

So if the neo-paganism on campus gets worse and worse, don’t let it get you down; look for a creative way to “baptize” it, and count on the prayers of the saints to support you.

Your loving uncle, Eddy

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