The celebration of a feast of All the Martyrs goes back to the first centuries AD, according to the testimony of St Ephrem of Damascus and St John Chrysostom. It was kept on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
It was rather later in Rome, AD 610, that the old pagan temple, the Pantheon, sacred to all the gods of Rome, was consecrated as a church in honour of 'St Mary and the Martyrs' on 13 May. A chapel in their honour was dedicated in St Peter's in 735.
The feast was probably brought to England by St Egbert, bishop of York, about the same date. It is attested as also being celebrated about AD 800, and on 1 November, following the English practice.
The Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to all the martyrs, thought of as not merely replacing the old pagan gods, but as driving them out, the gods having been reduced to the status of demons in current Christian thought. In the same way, perhaps 1 November had been the day in northern Europe on which the gods/demons of winter had been propitiated, and was henceforth to be the day on which all the saints would be venerated, and their protection sought against the rigours of the northern European winter.
And what does All Saints day mean for us? I think it is the day on which we think of all the uncanonised saints there are, and especially those we have a personal devotion to. I am thinking here, for instance, of Cardinal Newman for many English Catholics.
Or again of Mother Margaret Mary Hallahan for the Dominican Sisters of the Stone Congregation which she founded. She had been housekeeper to Bishop Ullathorne, first bishop of Birmingham after the restoration of the hierarchy in England, and she founded her congregation at Stone, Staffordshire, with his support and blessing.
Is he too, the man whose life took him From Cabin-boy to Archbishop (his autobiography), and who reminded Cardinal Manning that he himself had
'ad a mitre on 'is 'ead while you were still a bloomin' 'eretic,
another uncanonised, and no doubt uncanonisable, saint? I would like to think so.
Then finally there are the people we have known, who in our own estimation have gone straight to heaven when they died, saints totally unknown and unsung in the Church at large.
I think here of my assistant novice master back in 1948-9, Alphonsus Okell O.P. - 'Alf' of course to all his brethren and to us novices - who had been badly gassed in World War I, and whose contributions to the divine office in choir (all in Latin of course) were not infrequently the source of innocent and not easily controllable merriment both to the novices and the older brethren. He was a man of the sweetest imaginable nature.
At an even more personal level, I think of my aunt Jean, nominally a member of the Church of Scotland, and most certainly not a Catholic, again a most sweet-natured person, always cheerful, ready at the drop of a hat to do everybody else's work for them. So, all the saints whose intercession is certainly worth pleading for.