Yesterday, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the community finished the Chair of Unity Octave. We prayed the beautiful prayers found in a traditional prayer book for the eight days of prayer for Church unity. This is a devotion given to the Church by the great convert and founder of the Friars of the Atonement, Father Paul Wattson.
The Octave took place from the feast of St. Peter’s Chair at Rome (January 18 — a feast suppressed in the 1962 Missale Romanum) to that of the conversion of St. Paul (January 25). While still an Anglican, Father Paul observed these eight days as a special time to pray for Church unity. In his own case, the prayer was answered abundantly by his conversion to the Catholic Faith. Eventually, the Octave received the blessing of the Church and became a prayer for the conversion of non-Catholics.
Included in the older form of the Chair of Unity devotions were prayers for the conversion of various non-Catholic people, different groups of them prayed for by name on different days: European Protestants, Anglicans, American Protestants, Jews, etc. One day (January 19) was reserved for “Oriental Separatists” (i.e., the Greek and Russian Orthodox and their fellows). The new and ever-changing versions of these prayers bear a totally different character. Indeed, from being an Octave dedicated to praying for people to enter the Catholic Church, in its new form (now called the “Week of Prayer”), it has become an ecumenical event in which the World Council of Churches participates. Gone are the prayers for authentic Church unity – I.e., the conversion of non-Catholics. Instead, we find generic prayers for a “unity” that is ill-defined.
Among the casualties of the Octave are treasures like this hymn, which alludes poetically to “the Magi of the East” while we pray for the return of Eastern Christians to the One Fold:
Once more thy guiding star place in the sky,
And lead, lead back the Magi of the East
To that One See on earth, whence thou on high
Dost speak to all, the greatest and the least;
Communion with the Apostolic See
Will banish schism in true unity.
All throughout the Octave, I was struck by the charity, beauty, and apostolic character of the prayers beseeching Our Lord, Our Lady, and the saints for the conversion of baptized and non-baptized alike to the Catholic Church. It is a perfect example of lex orandi lex credendi. When the Church’s children prayed that way, they generally believed in the necessity of the Church for salvation. Even if liberal theologians were undermining it in their books, at least the idea was kept alive in the minds of the people. After the ecclesial tumult of neo-modernism, the old prayers had to be expurgated systematically so that a new lex orandi would catch up to the avant-garde lex credendi. The result was bitter confusion in the minds of the faithful.
I will end these lines with another of the Octave’s casualties, the prayer of Saint Francis Xavier for unbelievers. It finds its place in the older prayers on the last day of the Octave, when the intention is “the missionary conquest of the world.” This prayer also used to be recited every day during the traditional Novena of Grace (March 4-12). Here in Richmond, we still include it during both the Chair of Unity Octave and the Novena of Grace. The reader will see that it is not exactly conformable to the now common liberal notions concerning salvation:
Eternal God, Creator of all things, remember that the souls of unbelievers have been created by Thee and formed to Thy own image and likeness. Behold, O Lord, how to Thy dishonor, hell is being filled with these very souls. Remember that Jesus Christ, Thy Son, for their salvation suffered a most cruel death. Do not permit, O Lord, I beseech Thee, that Thy divine Son be any longer despised by unbelievers, but rather, being appeased by the prayers of Thy saints. and the Church, the most holy spouse of Thy Son, deign to be mindful of Thy mercy, and forgetting their idolatry and their unbelief, bring them to know Him Whom Thou didst send, Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, Who is our health, life, and resurrection, through Whom we have been redeemed and saved, to Whom be all glory forever. Amen.