All Saints’ Day And All Souls’ Day: What’s the Difference?

by Feast Days And Seasonal Celebrations, October

All Saints’ Day is celebrated each year on November 1st and is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics of the Latin Rite. The following day, November 2nd, is All Souls’ Day. What are these? What is the difference between them? To begin, we really need to investigate the questions: what is a soul? And what is a saint? 

What is a Soul?

Normally when we use the word “soul” we are referring to “spirit,” but these are a bit different concepts from one another. Generally speaking, the soul is what gives life to the body. Whatever is alive has a soul; this includes bacteria, plants, animals, humans, and angels. Of course, even the difference between a “plant soul” and an “animal soul” is vast. 

Human beings, specifically, have what is called a “rational soul.” Our rational soul is what allows us to think and to act, to know things and to will towards certain goods. Wherever our body is, there our soul is. We have a body and a soul; this is part of what makes us human beings. In fact, to be without either a body or a soul is the cause of various nightmares and monsters: a body without a soul is a zombie and a human soul without a body is a ghost. 

The related word “spirit” comes from the Latin spirare which means “to breathe.” Oftentimes, spirit is used interchangeably with soul, but spirit tends to bring with it the connotation of the higher aspects of our rational soul. The spirit could point to abstract thought, art, religion, and morality, beyond mere animation of our bodies. St. Paul lists the elements of man as spirit, soul, and body in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Ephesians 4:23.

Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem. offers a fantastic breakdown of this distinction: 

“‘Soul’ when distinguished from ‘spirit’ means that which gives life to a body. ‘Spirit’ when contrasted with ‘soul’ simply means those aspects of human life and activity that do not depend on the body or on the conditions of matter, and so open the soul toward the supernatural life of grace. Human nature has all of these aspects essentially, and finally, even the body will share in the life of the spirit in the resurrection (Catholic Answers).” <>

What is a Saint?

Next, let us look at the definition of “saint.” Saint comes from the Latin “sanctus” which means holy. This term is used in both the Old and New Testaments to refer to the followers of God. We can call someone a saint on Earth who exhibits holiness in a remarkable way. Likewise, the holy souls in purgatory can be called saints in the sense that they are holy and bound for Heaven. 

Most of the time, however, when we use the term “saint” we are referring to the members of the Church Triumphant in Heaven. God’s disciples in Heaven, who have attained purified perfection by His grace, are called saints: the holy ones of God. There are countless men and women over the last millennia who are officially recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, and there are many more who are not known by name. One does not need to be beatified and canonized in order to be a saint in Heaven. The Church simply gives us the assurance that those recognized by official canonization are definitely in Heaven. 

What is All Saints’ Day?

The liturgical calendar of the Church is punctuated by various feast days of saints. On these days, we ask in a special way for the intercession of these holy men and women. We also honor their cooperation with God’s grace and seek to imitate their lives. We may also read some of their writings or pray in a way which was particularly loved by that saint. 

There are too many saints to honor specifically by name and there are only 365 days in a year. And, as I mentioned, there are more saints in Heaven than only the ones known by name. So, the Church celebrates All Saints’ Day each year to commemorate each individual in Heaven: those known by name and those known to God alone. 


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In the Eastern Catholic Churches, this special feast is celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost. In the Latin West, November 1 became the date to honor all saints. This practice goes back at least to the 8th Century. Even in secular culture, we have an indication of the prevalence of the day. The night before All Saints’ Day is known as All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween (Hallow is the German word for the Latin sanctus). In the history of the Church, All Hallows’ Eve came to be celebrated analogously to the way that Christmas Eve celebrates Christmas.

All Saints' Day Quote Pope Francis

What is All Souls’ Day?

On the other hand, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a commemoration of all the faithful departed, including those still undergoing the purification of purgatory. While All Saints’ Day is a holy day of obligation, All Souls’ Day is not. However, it is still a beautiful celebration that sets aside one day to pray, in particular, for the holy souls in Purgatory as they undergo the cleansing fire of God’s grace in anticipation of Heaven.

This All Saints’ Day, let us joyfully look forward to one day joining the company of the holy ones of God in Heaven. And this All Souls’ Day, may we pray ardently that the holy souls in Purgatory might fully be cleansed of all attachment to sin and proceed to their eternal reward. 

All Souls’ Day Prayer

St. Gertrude's Prayer For the Souls In Purgatory
St. Gertrude’s Prayer For the Souls In Purgatory
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Image: Laurence Goff, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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