As Catholics and Christians throughout the world honor saints both known and unknown during the Nov. 1 Feast of All Saints, they participate in a celebration as old as the Church itself. The tradition originated locally with individual churches celebrating the anniversaries of the deaths of local martyrs.
As churches exchanged relics and stories of martyrs with each other, the number of feast days commemorated began to multiply. However, after the Christian persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian ended in 313, it began to be difficult to celebrate each martyr.
"There were too many martyrs," said Ron Rombs, associate professor of theology.
By the end of the fourth century, churches had begun to assign individual days to commemorate all the martyrs together, Rombs explained. Rome Program alumni will recognize the first church dedicated collectively to martyrs: Santa Maria ad Martyres, also known as the Pantheon.
"Then, after the persecutions ended, martyrdom morphed into sanctity," said Rombs.
With fewer Christians being martyred, believers turned to venerating the saints for their example of holy belief.
By the early 700s, Pope Gregory III had established an annual commemoration of all the saints on Nov. 1 for Roman Christians. Pope Gregory IV extended it to the entire church in the ninth century, and so it is celebrated today.