All Hallows' Eve, or "Halloween," is the evening before All Saints' Day. While this is no major revelation, the celebration of Halloween remains the cause of much controversy and debate, especially in Catholic circles. Today, the nonchalant Catholic treats Halloween like the rest of the culture, and the scrupulous Catholic condemns it as pagan and evil. Both approaches are wrong.
When I was growing up, Halloween meant nothing other than costumes and trick-or-treating. There was no mention of saints or souls in Purgatory. My own experience represents the more popular, nonchalant attitude towards Halloween, an attitude steeped in mere fun with virtually no concern for the spiritual. Granted, my family was not Catholic at the time, and so that may explain everything.
Now that I am Catholic, the spiritual realities of Halloween are impossible to miss. All Hallows' Eve is the Vigil of All Saints' Day. And the Church even elevates this feast to a holy day of obligation, meaning "the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. ... [and] abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God." (All Souls' Day, where Catholics honor those in Purgatory, falls on the day after All Saints' Day.)
Looking back, there's only one reason Halloween wasn't properly celebrated when I was younger; my family completely lacked a Catholic perspective. There was no acknowledgment of the Church Triumphant, no prayers said for the holy souls in Purgatory and no Mass attended. In other words, my Halloweens weren't proper because prayer and contemplation didn't accompany the candy and costumes.
Halloween, ultimately, is a reminder of the last things, especially death. The tombstones and skeletons in the front yards, although mostly displayed in a joking manner, are healthy reminders of our own mortality, for "the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
But death isn't the only reality to ponder during this season. Saint Philip Neri once observed that "beginners in religion ought to exercise themselves principally in meditation on the Four Last Things." He was referring to death, judgment, Heaven and Hell.
As children of God, these last things are necessary to consider; they are the most basic and fundamental to the Catholic faith. On a lower level, even atheists and agnostics — who, like all human beings, are made in God's image and likeness — check the box for the first among the Last Things.
"The dread of death is inherent to human nature," writes Fr. Martin von Cochem, O.S.F.C., in The Four Last Things. Death is so dreadful and painful because it separates the intimate union of body and soul.
The necessary consequence of death is judgment. Scripture teaches that "it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
The former involves the individual judgment by Christ immediately after death. At that instant, man renders an account for everything he's done or failed to do. Every thought, word and deed is taken into account. "By your words you will be justified," Our Lord teaches, "and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:37).
The latter judgment, that is, the general judgment, involves the reunion of body and soul after the general resurrection of the dead. Unlike the particular judgment, the general judgment is public, as Our Lord makes clear: "Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (Matthew 25:32).
Death and the judgment that follows ought to be at the forefront of the human mind. Fr. Martin von Cochem advises his readers of this very point when he writes, "There is no greater, no more important art upon earth than the art of dying a good death. Upon this thy whole eternity depends."
Eternity is spent in Heaven or Hell, and this brings us to the last half of the Four Last Things. If one dies in the state of grace, eternal bliss awaits. If one dies in a state of mortal sin, eternal torment awaits. On the subject of this sentencing, the Church quotes St. John of the Cross: "At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love." Christ's judgment, therefore, is not determined by how much He has infinitely and unconditionally loved us. Our sentence, rather, is determined by how much we have loved Him. We will either hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant. ... [E]nter into the joy of thy lord," or, "Wicked and slothful servant! ... And the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
In one sense, God's kingdom is a reward for loving God in this life. In another sense, for those who love Him, Our Lord teaches that "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). Either way, it is a persevering "yes" to God in this life that results in eternal union with Him. Likewise, a persevering "no" to God is what earns eternal separation from Him.
Finally, it is one's charity that not only determines Heaven or Hell but the level therein. Souls, therefore, experience more or less pain in Hell depending on how much they rejected God in this life. Likewise, souls in Heaven experience more or less joy depending on how receptive they were to God's will on earth.
Heaven is nothing other than the beatific vision, where the saints and angels see God face to face. But God is essentially spiritual, so we do not see God face to face in the same way we see things here on earth. The term is used analogously. Instead, we see God by the light of glory that God gives to His saints and angels. The light of glory is proportionate to the amount of charity we had while on earth.
Halloween ought to remind us of these realities. We should be thankful for all the skulls, skeletons and tombstones we see. It should draw us to the confessional and Holy Mass, and most of all to the embrace of the cross in our daily lives.
Part of the Halloween tradition also involves prayers for the dead, as All Souls' Day prescribes. Along with asking the saints to intercede for us and honoring their lives, Catholics pray for the suffering souls in Purgatory.
Praying for the dead is an ancient practice among the faithful. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Jews in the Old Testament.
In the second book of Maccabees, Judah Maccabee, a Jewish priest and military leader, with his army, gathered the bodies of some of their members who died in battle: "Under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear" (2 Maccabees 12:40).
Realizing the sinful state in which their comrades died, "they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out" (2 Maccabees 12:42).
The Church has always encouraged the faithful to pray for the dead — even making such prayers part of her liturgy from ancient times. Let us contemplate and prepare for death, as the Maccabean army did. And, indeed, let us also pray for the dead during this season.
To learn more about the Catholic roots of Halloween, watch this week's Mic'd Up, wherein David Gordon interviews Catholic author Joseph Pearce.