This month, in union with millions of Christians around the globe, we mark the 100th
anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The desire for Christian unity—which is the real spark behind the ecumenical movement—originates
in the heart of Christ. And Jesus’ fervent desire is expressed clearly in the prayer
he uttered at the Last Supper. Speaking of the beloved disciples whom his loving
Father entrusted into his care, Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name
that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” [emphasis
added] (John 17:11).
A few verses later, Jesus expands this prayer with a rich addition: “I pray not
only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that
they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be
in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).
the 'House of Unity'
Prayer is an important way to start any human project, as the opening verse of Psalm
127 asserts: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” How
much more does this apply to the urgent cause of building up the “House of Christian
Unity”! Unless Christ helps build this house, we truly work in vain.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed each year from January 18 to 25,
was begun by two American Franciscans who belonged to the Episcopalian or Anglican
Communion. They were Father Paul Wattson and Sister Lurana White, cofounders of the
Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. The group was soon to become Roman
When the Week of Prayer began in January 1908, it was known as the Octave (eight
days) of Prayer for Christian Unity. This first celebration of the “week of prayer” took
place in the chapel of a small Franciscan convent of the Episcopal Church, on a hillside
50 miles north of New York City.
Father Wattson and other members of the Atonement Friars and Sisters—and other Anglicans—felt
that the Church of England should regain its Catholic identity by seeking some kind
with the Bishop of Rome. The Atonement Friars and Sisters found their answer for
unity with Rome by entering into full communion in 1909.
From the start, however, Father Wattson’s group drew opposition for his “Octave
of Prayer” idea by choosing January 18 (then the feast of St. Peter’s Chair at Rome)
as the beginning of the annual prayer period. The “return to Rome” approach predictably
alienated many Protestant as well as Orthodox Christians.
But as the decades passed, solutions were introduced that helped offset feelings
of alienation. In the 1930s, for example, a French priest and advocate of Christian
unity, Abbé Paul Couturier, took a different tack. He advocated praying for the unity
of the Church
“as Christ willed it.”
More difficulties were resolved in 1964 when the Second Vatican Council issued its Decree
on Ecumenism. The Decree encouraged Catholics to “join in prayer with
their separated brethren”—and to recognize the spiritual gifts of other communities
Changes like these paved the way for a more cooperative spirit and a wider acceptance
of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. In 1968, moreover, the name was changed
to the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”
by Christ's Incarnation
The Week of Prayer falls shortly after Christmas. This is significant. Franciscans
and many others hold that the Incarnation already has redemptive value along with
the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, Jesus prays that
“they may all be one” on the night before he dies. But John also sees saving power
flowing from Jesus’ Incarnation.
Early in his Gospel, John writes clearly about the saving intent of Christ’s coming.
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world
might be saved through him”
(3:17). The whole of Jesus’ life—his conception, birth, childhood, public life, passion,
death and resurrection—was one continuous and total gift of self, dedicated to the
One way we can all participate in this year’s special Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity is to search out an ecumenical gathering or event in our diocese or region.
This way we can enter into prayer with Christ and with our separated sisters and
brothers, to help build up the “House of Christian Unity”!
We invite you also to read more about the history of the Week of Prayer and the
spirit behind it in an informative Catholic
Update (“Praying for Christian Unity”) by Father James F. Loughran, a Franciscan
Friar of the Atonement and director of the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute in Garrison,
Also you can find excellent information on the centenary at the Graymoor Web site, www.weekofprayer2008.org/index.html.—J.W.
Father Loughran’s Catholic Update (“Praying for Christian Unity: The 100th
Anniversary of the Week of Prayer,” C1207) can be ordered at 1-800-488-0488 or
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