In remembrance

I’ve never had ‘trick-or-treaters’ turn up at my place for Halloween. For most of my life that was not surprising because Halloween, like Valentine’s Day or the Super Bowl, was something known to us only from American TV shows.

Now, I gather, ghosts and goblins are to be encountered at many a suburban door on 31 October, and I would be a most unsatisfactory neighbour if, as would be very likely, I had no ‘treats’ on hand. I guess I’d have to take the consequences, settling for the ‘trick’.

Of course, I am Catholic, so there is that funny part of me that hankers for the revival of good old customs from the Middle Ages. What bothers me about the modern Halloween, however, is its lack of context. When our medieval forebears gave rein to their old superstitions and fear about the ghosts, it was a kind of parody of the old pagan world, almost an exorcism of it, before they got serious for the days of All Hallows and All Souls. Today’s little goblins are far less likely to turn their minds, on 1 November, to the great consolation of celebrating their fellowship with the saints in heaven or to the reverent duty of praying for the holy souls in purgatory the next day. So Halloween serves no useful purpose in the community, other than boosting the trade of fancy dress suppliers and confectioners. A celebration without cause.

Not that I have any great objection to Halloween hijinks. Once, when I served in a country parish, the minister of another denomination got very worked up about the P&F of the local Catholic school organising a Halloween party as a fundraiser. He preached against it, put posters on telephone poles in the area and, of course, sent me a blistering letter for promoting devilish superstition. ‘All a bit of innocent fun.’ Not jolly likely, apparently.

Of course, the Reverend Mr X was in some ways just being faithful to the Reformation. The more capital-p Protestants not only abolished Halloween but also the invocation of the saints and the prayers for the dead that were its counterweight or mirrored image. Without that context of rather warm and friendly ties with the dead, I guess you are thrown back on the ancient dread of the unknown and unknowable. If the hallowed dead are not contactable, not those ‘many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us’, the field is left open to the demons. All ghosts and goblins, no All Saints or All Souls.

It was not by accident that Martin Luther produced his Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences on the Eve of All Hallows. It was a little bit cheeky, since his own prince, Fredrick the Wise, would open his enormous collection of relics, viewing which earned millennia of indulgences, the next day. It was a great piece of timing. To make a fuss about indulgences, Masses for the dead and so on in November was inspired timing. And now five hundred years have come and gone since that day, and in country NSW Halloween can still be a good occasion for making a fuss about dangerous superstitions.

In this November, if I can address a few words to my Catholic readers, I would like to think there would be a good deal of prayer for the dead and lots of invocation of the saints in our homes and churches. To unbelievers and semi-believers, the culture around us is persistently saying that ‘you’re a long time dead’ or, if younger, ‘YOLO, You Only Live Once’. Against that, our Apostle’s Creed asserts that we believe in the Communion of the Saints, that we are united in the one church with the saints in heaven and the yet-to-be saints in purgatory. The community of the living forms only part of the Body of Christ, which also includes all ‘the faithful departed’. But beliefs that are not lived out tend to fade and wither. Pray for the dead. Ask prayers of the saints as you might ask them of a living friend. If the saints and the holy souls aren’t real to us, then we’re left with only the burnt-out stub of November faith, the harmless but meaningless silliness of pretend ghosts and goblins.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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