|St Vincent Pallotti and
the celebration of the Octave of the Epiphany
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
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 Propaganda Fide College, 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
Mother Church, 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
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
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.