While the broader culture celebrates Halloween at the end of this month, many Protestants will focus on Reformation Day while two days later Catholics will utter prayers as part of All Souls’ Day. It is a fitting historical tribute (or irony) that All Souls’ Day and Reformation Day occur within two days of one another with All Saints’ Day sandwiched in between. It is as though the two great reform movements of western Christianity stand as bookends to the patristic heritage. The observance of these three days reminds Christians of a common patristic heritage and the way reformation and renewal can both reshape and fracture that heritage.
Odilo, the fifth abbot of Cluny initiated All Souls’ Day, most likely around the year 1025. Designed to complement All Saints’ Day, it was initially extended to the daughter houses of the great abbey of Cluny. Odilo conceived the day as an extension of the practice of prayer and charity to the dead whose souls could be wrestled from purgatorial fires by Cluniac warrior-monks in their unceasing liturgical celebrations. In many ways, this new day pointed toward the doctrinal developments that would be unleashed by the Gregorian reforms, so named for the pope who most advanced them, Gregory VII.
The same year that Odilo died Bishop Bruno of Toul was affirmed as Pope Leo IX. Bruno had been selected the year before by his cousin the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III who was keen to see a fellow German on the papal throne. During his short tenure as pope, Leo IX aggressively set in motion a number of institutional reforms, especially in relation to the morals of the clergy, that stoked the fires of reform. Cluny was central to these reforms, many of which came from an emerging monastic spirituality that would transform religious life. All Souls’ Day points back to this time of reform.
It is hard to overestimate the impact of the reformation of the late-eleventh and twelfth centuries. Between Leo IX’s election in 1049 and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the papacy made its claims to a universal episcopacy, a schism between Rome and Constantinople erupted that has not healed, the seven sacraments were codified, scholasticism emerged as an educational model supporting the new universities, and a monastic revolution swept over Europe, culminating in the preaching orders. The nature and extent of this reform movement is breathtaking in its alteration of medieval society.
Reformation Day celebrates the moment when another famous German, Martin Luther would nail his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. Luther called for a reformation of many of the reforms and doctrines that had unfolded as part of the previous reformation. He called into question many of the sacraments, attacked the idea of purgatory in relation to indulgences, chose the new educational model of humanism over scholasticism, and challenged the authority of the papacy. While Luther also came out of the religious orders, his theology ultimately called for their dissolution.
To isolate these two great reformations from one another can blind one to the great struggle of western Christendom to facilitate growth and development through renewal without that renewal fracturing existing structures. It can also lead to lopsided views that lay the blame for current divisions at the feet of one or the other. Both periods led to a number of important reforms that changed the face of Christendom and both reforms produced schisms that remain with us today.
Next year will mark the eight-hundredth anniversary of the Fourth Lateran Council with the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation to follow in 2017. These anniversaries offer the opportunity to reconsider both reformations in relation to one another. Neither Protestants nor Catholics can affirm entirely the consequences of these reforms, but as we move toward Reformation Day and All Souls’ Day we should remember that the struggles of reform in western Christendom are our own.