Monthly Archives: October 2013


Many people ask whether taking part in Halloween activities is suitable for Christians. I post here an answer to this question published last year in my column in the Catholic Weekly.

Catholics and Halloween

Halloween seems to be gaining popularity in this country and I have a problem with it, with the witches and goblins and the trick-or-treating. Should Catholics, or other Christians for that matter, be involved in a pagan custom like this?

 I don’t want to tell you whether you or your children should be involved in celebrating Halloween, but I can give you some background to shed light on the matter.

First of all, the name Halloween is Christian. It means simply hallows evening, saints evening, and it refers to the vigil of All Hallows Day, All Saints Day, celebrated on November 1.  “Hallow” is an old English word for saint. We use the word in the Our Father when we say “hallowed be thy name”, may your name be held holy.

As I wrote in an earlier column, the feast of All Saints has been celebrated on November 1 since the pontificate of Pope Gregory III (731-741). In 732 that pope consecrated a chapel in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome dedicated to all the saints, and he fixed the annual celebration for November 1. A century later Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the feast to the universal Church and it has been celebrated on November 1 ever since (cf J. Flader, Question Time 2, q. 274).

The feast was so important that from the beginning it was celebrated with a vigil, or liturgical celebration on the evening before the feast. The vigil came to be known popularly as Hallowe’en, hallows evening. Even today the feast of All Saints is celebrated as a liturgical solemnity with a vigil on the evening before.

But why the witches and goblins, pumpkins lit up by a candle and trick-or-treating? For this we have to go back to the early Celts. The ancient Celtic peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany celebrated on November 1 the beginning of the new year and the coming of winter. On the night before the new year they celebrated the festival of Samhain, the Lord of the Dead.

They believed that the spirits of the dead, both good and evil, including ghosts, witches and goblins, wandered on earth again that night, and in order to scare away the evil spirits they would light bonfires and wear masks. Thus they were not embracing the ghosts and witches and other evil spirits but rather trying to scare them away.

As regards the custom of children going from door to door asking for lollies and other types of food, commonly known as trick-or-treating, it may have its origins in an Irish custom that goes back hundreds of years. Groups of farmers would go door-to-door collecting food and other items for a village feast and bonfire. Those who gave food were assured of prosperity and those who did not were threatened with bad luck. It seems that the Irish immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century took this custom with them and so trick-or-treating came to be associated with Halloween.

As a boy I grew up with the custom in the United States, where it was completely harmless and lots of fun for everyone. But reflecting on it later in life I have come to question the aspect of playing a trick on people who did not give treats. This could consist in rubbing their windows with a bar of soap or other equally harmless acts.

What I do not like about it is the fact that it introduces children to what in adults would be called a protection racket: threatening people with harm if they do not pay a sum of money. I do not want to give this undue importance, because children are innocent and do not understand the full implications of what they are doing, but simply to point out its possible implications. If children today do not play a trick on those who do not give them anything, so much the better.

And as for the pumpkins, again we go back to the Irish, who would hollow out a turnip and place a lighted candle inside to ward off evil spirits. When the Irish went to America, they found the much larger pumpkin a better solution.

So that is the background to Halloween, which has both pagan and Christian origins. If children want to live the custom, they can be told about the Christian origins of the name and the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

They might be suggested to give some of the treats they receive to poor children, through a charity, so that they do not see the feast as an opportunity to indulge themselves.

The family Rosary

Saying the Rosary in the family is a great blessing but it is not always easy to do. This answer to a question on the family Rosary is from my book Question Time 1.

133. The family Rosary

When I was a child we prayed the Rosary every night after dinner in our family. Now that I am married I have occasionally tried to introduce the custom but my teenage children always seem to be out or wanting to study or watch television. I find that my friends have the same problem and we tend to give up trying. Is the family Rosary still encouraged by the Church or is it now regarded as outdated and no longer relevant? Is there any way to keep it alive?

You ask a very important question and I am sure there are many others who ask it. The Rosary is not something outdated. It has been part of the life of the Church for over 1000 years and many are the Popes who have blessed it and encouraged its use. Our Lady herself encouraged the praying of the Rosary at both Lourdes and Fatima, so it will never be outdated.

After all, in the Rosary we meditate on the life of Christ from his infancy, through his public life, to his passion, death and Resurrection. That practice will never go out of fashion, any more than will reading the Scriptures. Moreover, in the Rosary we honour Our Lady, telling her 50 times: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women…” Love for our heavenly Mother will never go out of fashion, any more than will love for our earthly mother.

Any prayers that are encouraged for individuals are especially encouraged for families, since prayer binds the family together. In these times, when there are so many pressures pulling families apart, family prayer takes on ever greater urgency.

Recent Popes have strongly encouraged the family Rosary. In 1974 Pope Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus: “The Rosary should be considered as one of the best and most efficacious prayers in common that the Christian family is invited to recite. We like to think, and sincerely hope, that when the family gathering becomes a time of prayer the Rosary is a frequent and favoured manner of praying. We are well aware that the changed conditions of life today do not make family gatherings easy, and that even when such a gathering is possible many circumstances make it difficult to turn it into an occasion of prayer. There is no doubt of the difficulty. But it is characteristic of the Christian in his manner of life not to give in to circumstances but to overcome them, not to succumb but to make an effort” (n. 54).

More recently, in 2002 Pope John Paul II encouraged the family Rosary in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae: “As a prayer for peace, the Rosary is also, and always has been, a prayer of and for the family. At one time this prayer was particularly dear to Christian families, and it certainly brought them closer together. It is important not to lose this precious inheritance. We need to return to the practice of family prayer and prayer for families, continuing to use the Rosary” (n. 41).

He went on to say: “The family that prays together stays together. The Holy Rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together… Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother. The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on” (n. 41).

In summary, it is a matter of not giving up. The family Rosary will be of great benefit, even if only a few are there to pray it together. The children should always be left free, and they may be invited to pray only a decade. On certain occasions – a serious illness, a death, a crisis – they can all be encouraged to pray together. It will do everyone much good. And we should not forget that a plenary indulgence is granted whenever the Rosary is prayed in the family.

Meditation on the Rosary

One of the most popular devotions is the Rosary, which developed out of popular piety over a thousand years ago. This meditation considers the history of the Rosary and contains quotations from saints and Popes encouraging us to say it often and to say it well, especially in the family.

The origin of the Rosary

Now that we are in October, which was declared the month of the Rosary by Pope Leo XIII in 1883, it is helpful to know how the Church came to have this popular devotion. Knowing how the Rosary developed over time will help us appreciate it more and say it better. This history of the Rosary is Question 131 in my book Question Time 1, published by Connor Court in 2012.

131. The origin of the Rosary        

One of my favourite prayers is the Rosary, which we have always said together in our family, both when I was growing up and now with my husband and children. Recently someone asked me where the Church got the Rosary and I was unsure of the answer. I remember something about Our Lady giving it to St Dominic. Is this true? I would be interested to know more about this.

The Rosary is one of those devotions that developed over time out of popular piety. Its origin can be traced back at least 1000 years to the custom of the lay faithful around the monasteries reciting 150 prayers, usually “Our Fathers”, in union with the monks, who were reciting the Divine Office with its 150 psalms. They would count the prayers on beads known then as Pater noster, “Our Father”, beads.

The substitution of the “Hail Mary” for the “Our Father” came around the eleventh century with the rise in popularity of the “Hail Mary”, especially in England. At that time the “Hail Mary” consisted only of the first part of the prayer, with the words of the Archangel and of Our Lady’s relative Elizabeth, up to “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The name “Jesus” was added later and an indulgence for its use was granted by Pope Urban IV in the thirteenth century. The last part of the prayer, beginning with “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, was added by Pope St Pius V in 1568.

In the twelfth century a variety of practices developed, with either 50 or 150 “Hail Marys” being recited, counted on seeds or grains threaded on a string in groups of 10. St Dominic in the thirteenth century did much to propagate the devotion, preaching it and using it in his fight against the Albigensians, a heretical sect in southern France, Italy and Spain. They rejected the sacraments, especially marriage, promoted sexual promiscuity and denied the Trinity. Blessed Alan de la Roche, O.P., tells how when St Dominic was discouraged by his lack of success in converting the heretics, Our Lady appeared to him and encouraged him to preach the Angelic Psalter, as the Rosary was then called by virtue of the words of the Angel with which the “Hail Mary” begins and the 150 psalms. When he did so he was singularly successful and he continued to pray the Rosary daily all his life and encouraged its use.

It seems that this devotion came to be called the “Rosary” from the beginning of the fourteenth century. The Latin name Rosarium, or “rose garden”, was applied to medieval love lyrics and hence to this love lyric to Mary.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the 150 “Hail Marys” were divided into 15 decades of 10, each preceded by an “Our Father”. The meditation on the mysteries of the life of Christ and Mary would come later. Around 1400 at the Trier Charterhouse, Adolph of Essen composed a work entitled “The Small Rosary of the Blessed Lady”, in which he suggested meditating on the life of Jesus while reciting the prayers. Late in the fifteenth century Blessed Alan de la Roche composed 150 themes for meditation, and he advised meditating on the Incarnation during the first 50 “Hail Marys”, on the Passion during the second and on the Resurrection, Ascension and Glorification of Christ during the third, thus giving rise to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries we know today.

In 1569 the Dominican Pope St Pius V standardised the Rosary in its present form. Following the decisive victory of the Christian navy over the Turks in the battle of Lepanto in 1571, which was attributed in great measure to the recitation of the Rosary, Pope Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories on 7 October 1572, the first anniversary of the battle. The following year his successor changed the name of the feast to Our Lady of the Rosary.

In 1883 Pope Leo XIII ordered that the month of October be dedicated to the Holy Rosary. In 2002, the beloved Pope John Paul II added the Mysteries of Light, or Luminous Mysteries, which consider the public life of Christ.

More about the history and importance of the Rosary, quotes from Popes and saints encouraging its use, different ways of saying it and answers to objections to it can be found in my little booklet Understanding the Rosary, published by the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney in 2008 and also by the Catholic Truth Society in London. Given the great benefits that have come from saying the Rosary over the years, especially in the family, its recitation is much to be encouraged.

Meditation on confession

After some time without posting anything new – life has been a bit busy! – I am finally able to post another meditation, on one of the most neglected treasures of the Church: the sacrament of Penance, or the sacrament of mercy. It has been recorded especially for people who will listen to it in their homes, or their car or some other means of transport. Just click on the link.