Reflecting on the Epiphany brings a deep appreciation of what the Church commemorates as “the first manifestation our Lord Jesus Christ made of himself to the Gentiles, the first proclamation of the Catholic faith”. These are the words of St Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850), a Roman saint who spent his entire life ministering in the City.
St Vincent saw two central aspects of the Epiphany, firstly a recognition of Jesus, Son of God, and a response to him as Saviour with personal growth in love, trust and holiness; secondly, awareness of the invitation extended to all people to proclaim Jesus, that all Christians might feel responsible for making Christ known and for accompanying others in discovering a living relationship with Jesus.
The Roman saint was particularly struck by the mystery of the Incarnation; he wondered and marvelled at the essential goodness, love and mercy of God in sending Jesus Christ into our world to render concrete his infinite love and mercy. He pondered on Jesus’ “spirit of sacrifice” in assuming human form and living in this spirit throughout his life.
This became a tenet of the fundamental Rule he composed for his foundation: “We are to build within us a spiritual edifice with the virtues as exercised by Jesus Christ… who entered the world with a spirit of sacrifice, he lived with a spirit of sacrifice, he died on the Cross in a spirit of sacrifice”.
Fr Vincent’s life was centred on Jesus Christ; he felt himself drawn progressively towards transformation in Christ Jesus. Thus he chose the “Life of our Lord Jesus Christ, to imitate it with humility, trust and with the greatest perfection possible, in imitating the works of his hidden life and of his public evangelical mission” as the fundamental rule. He reflected on all aspects of the life of Jesus, he urged his followers to reflect on the events of the life of Jesus merely alluded to in the Gospels.
With this desire he instituted the annual celebration of the Octave of the Epiphany in December 1835. Perhaps we can see in the timing a desire to give thanks to God for the inspiration to found the Union of Catholic Apostolate, received on 9 January during the celebration of the Octave of the Epiphany. At the time he was Rector of the Church of Spirito Santo dei Napoletani in Via Giulia, where he served from 1834-1846. It was here that he founded the Union of Catholic Apostolate in 1835.
He organized the first Octave celebration to take place in January 1836 in the Church of Spirito Santo dei Napoletani. This first celebration was successful so he looked for a larger church to accommodate the persons expected the following year and celebrated the Octave in the Church of San Carlo al Corso in 1837 and 1838; in the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in 1839, then back to San Carlo al Corso in 1841 and, in 1842, it found a permanent home in the majestic Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. He celebrated his final Octave in January 1850, days before his untimely death on the 22nd.
Hundreds of persons gathered yearly for the Octave in the largest religious manifestation in Rome at the time, invited by St Vincent and his companions to contemplate the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ, to adore him, meditate on his manifestation to the nations and imitate the Three Wise Men and offer gifts to the Lord to be used in the service of his mission.
Pallotti had further motives in animating the Octave, one of which was his inner conviction that all people are called to salvation, to know Christ and his saving message and to respond to it. He, a man of his time in most respects, felt a keen urgency to further Christian unity, he referred to Christ’s desire expressed as “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21); this desire he transmitted as missionary zeal and charity in apostolic prayers based on Jesus’ affirmation “They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). He encouraged his followers to work tirelessly for this reality.
Fr Vincent was spiritual director to the students at the PropagandaFideCollege, then located in Piazza di Spagna, where there were students from many countries, cultures, languages and Christian Rites. It was customary on the Feast of the Epiphany to celebrate in the College the “Feast of languages” and the Eucharist was celebrated in one of the Catholic Oriental Rites. This surely influenced him in proposing the celebration of the Octave.
St Vincent was referred to as “the saint of Rome”, however he was an organized one, as evidenced in his attention to detail in animating the Octave. He had posters prepared and displayed in public places. They presented the objectives: “The Holy MotherChurch, assisted always by the Holy Spirit, in celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany… reminds her children of the first epiphany… our Lord Jesus Christ gave of himself to the Gentiles, of the first propagation of the Catholic Faith… [in order that] benefit be drawn from it…. [She] has disposed that with the celebration of Mass and of the Divine Rites on eight successive days the memory of it be revived and the spiritual trust and confidence of people be enkindled for the good of their souls”. The Octave was intended to “increase, defend, and spread holiness and the Catholic faith”, contributing to the missionary dimension of the Church.
The programme followed was ambitious, intensive and organized with a view to facilitating the broadest participation possible of laity, members of the hierarchy, of different congregations, nationalities, cultures, languages.
The day started with Mass, the recital of the Rosary, a short sermon and blessing; later Mass celebrated in the Latin Rite; followed by Mass celebrated in one of the Oriental Rites, a homily in one of the main European languages; in the evening a session of spiritual reading in one of the main European languages; the recital of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary, the sung “Salve Regina”; followed by a more solemn sermon on the mystery of the Epiphany; a collection for works of charity and zeal; Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the sung Marian Litany, prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father and a solemn blessing.
St Vincent invited the different Religious Orders in Rome to alternate and preside at one or other of the daily celebrations; he would ask the students of the Colleges or Seminaries to be present and sent preachers into the squares to specially encourage the male population to come to the celebrations. It is recorded that Pope Pius ix, elected Pope in 1846, was present at the final day of the Octave, 13 January 1847, and imparted his Apostolic Blessing.
St Vincent hoped this his spiritual and apostolic heritage would be continued by his followers; he wrote: “It is proper to our Institute to celebrate this holy Octave… not only in the church of the Procura of the Society… but if possible in the entire world, in all communities and in all Catholic families”. The post-conciliar liturgical reform removed all Octave celebrations from the liturgical calendar except the Octave of Christmas and Easter.
However the Epiphany Octave is celebrated by many Pallottine communities as “a popular mission” or “renewal week”; while the format may not be St Vincent’s, the objectives remain the same: to deepen wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation, to strengthen faith, to grow in awareness of our apostolic mission of bringing Christ and his saving love and mercy to all and of furthering Christ’s desire to bring all to unity.
In the Church of SS. Salvatore in Onda, spiritual centre of the Union of Catholic Apostolate and resting place of the human remains of St Vincent, the Feast of the Epiphany is solemnly celebrated and the image of the Child Jesus, commissioned by St Vincent and preserved in the Church, is venerated by the faithful. The Saint’s foundation has grown into what is now a Public International Association of the Faithful composed of the Pallottine Communities, other communities specifically characterized by the Pallottine charism and numerous individual members and is present in 45 countries.
The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is celebrated in the Church of SS. Salvatore in Onda each year from 18-25 January and within this Octave the Triduum of preparation and the Feast of St Vincent celebrated on 22 January. In this manner we carry on something of the spirit of St Vincent in Rome and pray fervently for our own continued conversion and the union of all believers in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
Derry Murphy, sac, President, Union of Catholic Apostolate