Inculturation is one of my favorite things about being Catholic. Incultur-what? Inculturation. It's the three-fold response that the Church has to secular culture and holidays like Halloween. Unlike many Christian denominations, we don't outright reject anything that's not inherently Christian. If you want to be ready for Halloween, keep reading to understand what the Church has to say about the festivities you might participate in or encounter this time of year.
Here's the three-fold response of the Church to secular culture:
- The Church looks for the good elements of a culture that can be incorporated into a Catholic way of life.
- The Church baptizes (or purifies) those elements of a culture that are not compatible with a Catholic way of life, but are not inherently evil.
- The Church rejects or condemns those elements of a culture that are both incompatible with a Catholic way of life and unable to be purified because they are inherently evil.
How does Halloween fit into these categories?
Let's start with number 2 - purifying the culture. Halloween has it's roots in pagan festivals that honored gods of death. They would sacrifice to such gods and believed that the dead could come back and haunt them because they believed the veil between this world and the world of the dead was thinnest at this time of year. When Christianity spread to these pagan civilizations, the Church recognized that their belief in gods of death and these festivals were not compatible with faith in the Gospel of Christ. Nonetheless, the Church recognized the kernel of truth in these pagan practices. This time of year, when death is all around us in nature and the pure white snow has not yet come to cover it up, is a natural time for humanity to think about death. Why not use this time of year to remind us of the spiritual battle for souls, the reality of evil, the reality of death and the reality of eternal life? The Church, therefore, baptized these pagan festivals moving the feast of All Saints (All Hallows) to Nov. 1st. The vigil of this feast is known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
The purpose of All Saints Day is to remember and honor those who have gone triumphantly before us into eternal life by the merit of Christ who has conquered death. I like to think of Halloween and All Saints Day as a reminder of the Book of Revelation, which tells us through figurative language that we are engaged in a real spiritual battle, but those who follow Christ will be victorious and gathered together at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (aka Heaven). And so on Halloween, we see the reality of evil and darkness, but on All Saints day we get to celebrate and ask intercession of the saints - those who are already gathered together at the great eternal wedding feast. The beautiful thing is that All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, which means all Catholics must go to Mass on this day. Why? Because the Mass is the foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb, and through receiving the Eucharist, we are mystically united with all the members of the Body of Christ - both here on earth and those living souls that are gathered at the eternal wedding feast in Heaven. What a beautiful gift!
So, knowing that the Church has purified halloween-type festivals by giving us All Saints Day, are we to reject other Halloween celebrations in our culture that focus on anything other than the saints? Can a catholic participate in the common "fun" stuff of Halloween, like dressing up in costumes, going trick or treating, carving pumpkins, going to a haunted house, watching horror movies, etc?
Here's where numbers 1 and 3 come in. All of those activities have potential to be incompatible with a Catholic way of life, but only some are inherently evil. When we go to participate in a Halloween based activity (or any activity for that matter), we must ask ourselves a simple question: Is this glorifying good or evil? Another good question to ask is whether the activity will bring out virtue or vice in yourself. If all signs point to it being good, incorporate it into your life. If it's glorifying sin/darkness/evil, reject it. Let's look at some examples.
Costumes- If you want to have an excuse to use your imagination and get dressed up on Halloween, go for it! Dressing up as something like a princess or action hero glorifies innocence, beauty, self-sacrifice, love - all good things which in no way contradict our Catholic faith. Going for more of a comedic costume to get some laughs? More power to you, as long as you're not glorifying sin or darkness to get those laughs. One of my favorite Catholic quotes is from G.K. Chesterton: "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly." As Catholics, we should embrace the opportunity to take ourselves lightly, use our imaginations and have some innocent fun on Halloween. However, innocent is the key word. Dressing up as a pregnant nun or wearing one of the many sexualized costumes on the market today glorifies sin and twists the Church's teaching on the dignity of human sexuality - such costumes would clearly not be compatible with a Catholic way of life. It's also pretty clear that there are costumes that glorify darkness and would not be appropriate for Catholics to wear (i.e., just don't buy that grave-reaper, zombie or devil costume). If you really feel you must go for gory with your costume, dress up as martyr - glorify those who sacrificed their life for Christ rather than just glorifying death. So, moral of the story, don't check your conscience at the door of the costume shop. Be holy, but have fun!
Haunted Houses/Horror Movies - Our goal as Catholics is holiness, not horror. "Be Not Afraid" is the most used phrase of the Bible. In fact, it's used over 300 times. St. Paul says, "God did not give us a spirit of fear" (2 Tim 1:7). If God's not giving it to us, who is and do you really want it? I hope the answer is no. For more reasons why the horror genre is anti-Catholic, check out this great 6 minute podcast: http://www.lifeteen.com/podcasts/the-trouble-with-terror
While there are certain elements of halloween that are not appropriate for Catholics to be participating in, we can't simply deny them. Halloween should remind us of the reality of evil and the spiritual battle. The truth is that many sacrileges (abuses of what is sacred) occur in conjunction with Halloween. Satanists have been known to steal the Eucharist from Catholic Churches and hold "black masses" where they desecrate the body of our Lord. For this reason, Halloween should also be a time for us to do reparation for the sacrileges committed against Our Lord in the name of evil. But, to reject the celebration of Halloween altogether because a few people use it as a reason to exalt evil, would be to let the devil win.
So I encourage you to wear a costume and carve a pumpkin and let the light of Christ shine through your celebration of innocence and imagination, but also stop in a Church and do a holy hour of Eucharistic Adoration. Show the Lord some love during a time when many glorify the evil he gave his life to conquer. Let Halloween be a time of innocent celebration and heartfelt reparation. Then let’s come together to receive the Eucharist worthily on Nov. 1st at the Holy Day Mass for All Saints Day.
All you holy saints and angels, pray for us!