By Rev. Timothy MacDonald,
SA, Associate Director
Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
The Church Unity Octave was first observed in January, 1908.
Celebrated in the chapel of a small Atonement Franciscan Convent
of the Protestant Episcopal Church, on a remote hillside fifty
miles from New York City, this new prayer movement caught
the imagination of others beyond the Franciscan Friars and
Sisters of the Atonement to become an energetic movement that
gradually blossomed into a worldwide observance involving
many nations and millions of people.
To fully appreciate this stream
that had been fed by some and had converged with others in
the historical development of the Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity, we will note some aspects of the movement's early history.
Two American Episcopalians, Father Paul James Wattson and
Sister Lurana White, co-founders of the Franciscan Friars
and Sisters of the Atonement, were totally committed to the
reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic
Church. As such, they started a prayer movement that explicitly
prayed for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy
See. Needless to say, such an observance would attract few
of our separated brothers and sisters except for a small number
of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics themselves. This idea
of a period of prayer for Christian unity originated in a
conversation of Fr. Wattson with an English clergyman, Rev.
Spencer Jones. In 1907 Jones suggested that a day be set aside
for prayer for Christian unity. Fr. Paul Wattson agreed with
the concept but offered the idea of an octave of prayer between
the Feast of St. Peter's Chair on January 18 and the Feast
of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25.
When Fr. Paul and Sr. Lurana
became Roman Catholics, Pope Pius X gave his blessing to the
Church Unity Octave and in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended
its observance to the universal church. This recognition by
papal authority gave the Octave its impetus throughout the
Roman Catholic Church. Until his death in 1940 Fr. Wattson
promoted the Church Unity Octave, later known as the Chair
of Unity Octave to emphasize its Petrine focus, through his
magazine, The Lamp.
What were some of the important
historical antecedents to this octave of prayer? Certainly
in the 19th century, the desire for Christians to pray together
was part of the spirit of the age among those alarmed by the
divisions which weakened the power of Christian witness. In
1846, for instance, the Evangelical Alliance was established
in London and had developed both international and inter-church
connections. Ruth Rouse noted that it was "the one and
only definitely ecumenical organization . . . which arose
out of the Evangelical Awakening in the 19th century"
(A History of the Ecumenical Movement: 1517-1948). The concept
of unity espoused in their constitution was union among Christian
individuals of different churches for renewal in the Spirit;
they would not deal with the question of the reunion of churches.
The Alliance set aside one week beginning on the first Sunday
of the year, for united prayer by members of different churches
to pray for renewal in the Spirit.
The Association for the Promotion
of the Unity of Christians was founded in 1857 with Anglican,
Roman Catholic and Orthodox participation. Its purpose was
"for united prayer that visible unity may be restored
to Christendom." Unfortunately Rome withdrew its support
for the Association. The problem, of course, was not the act
of prayer in itself as much as the questions that surfaced
concerning the nature of the church and the nature of the
unity being sought through prayer. This difficulty would not
begin to be resolved until almost the middle of the 20th century.
It is noteworthy that the popes
had urged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity but
from the particular stance of return to the Roman Catholic
Church. In 1894 Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to recite the
rosary for the intention of Christian unity. Again, in 1897,
he decreed in Provida matris that the days between Ascension
and Pentecost should be dedicated to prayer for reconciliation
with our separated brethren. In his encyclical Divinum Illud
, Leo sought to establish this practice of prayer as a permanent
feature of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lambeth Conferences during
this period also promoted prayer for Christian unity. Rouse
notes that the second conference of 1878 was typical of the
concern of Anglicans for reunion. At that conference, the
bishops spoke of their desire that the conference support
the observance of a season of prayer for the unity of Christendom.
In 1913 the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal
Church published a leaflet promoting prayer for unity on Whitsunday
and in 1915 published a Manual of Prayer for Unity. The preparatory
Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for
a special week of prayer for Christian unity ending with Whitsunday.
Faith and Order continued to issue "Suggestions for an
Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity" until 1941 when
it changed the dates for its week to that of the January Octave.
In this way, Christians, who for reasons of conscience, could
not join with others in prayer services could share in united
prayer at the same time. These various efforts while not attaining
wide observance among the churches was to pave the way for
the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which came to be observed
widely throughout Christendom.
In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a priest of the Archdiocese
of Lyons, sought a solution to the problem of non-Roman Catholics
not being able to observe the Octave of Prayer for Christian
Unity. He found the solution in the Roman Missal as the Association
for Promotion of the Unity of Christians had done seventy-eight
years earlier in England. Couturier promoted prayer for Christian
unity on the inclusive basis that "our Lord would grant
to his Church on earth that peace and unity which were in
his mind and purpose, when, on the eve of His Passion, He
prayed that all might be one." This prayer would unite
Christians in prayer for that perfect unity that God wills
and by the means that he wills. Like Fr. Paul Wattson, Abbé
Couturier exhibited a powerful passion for unity and had sent
out "calls to prayer" annually until his death in
While not all Catholics had
accepted Couturier's solution and some continued to emphasize
the centrality of the Petrine office in unity efforts and
prayer, all difficulties were resolved in 1964 with the promulgation
of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council.
The Decree told Roman Catholics in clear and unambiguous terms:
"In certain special circumstances, such as in prayer
services for unity and during ecumenical gatherings, it is
allowable, indeed desirable, that Catholics should join in
prayer with their separated brethren. Such prayers in common
are certainly a very effective means of petitioning for the
grace of unity, and they are a genuine expression of the ties
which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren."
In 1993 the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity issued the Directory for the
Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism and explicitly
encouraged participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity. So today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity belongs
to all Christians who are sincerely interested in the fulfillment
of Christ's prayer "that all may be one." When he
discusses prayer in common in his A Handbook of Spiritual
Ecumenism, Cardinal Walter Kasper specifically mentions that
"the celebration of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity world-wide is an initiative of singular importance to
be encouraged and further developed."
It is sponsored by the Commission
on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the
Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. On a national basis,
materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer are the
work of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
in collaboration with the Commission on Faith and Order of
the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Bishops'
Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
The theme for the Week of Prayer
for Christian Unity in 2011 comes to all the Christians of
the world from the churches of Jerusalem. The theme "They
devoted themselves to the apostles' teachings and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers" is from Acts
2:42. These churches invite us to recall that all our Christian
communities originated with the Church of Jerusalem and so
this church continues to be a powerful ecumenical symbol for
us. In our ecumenical services we are invited to meditate
on our devotion to the teachings of the apostles, fellowship,
the breaking of bread and prayers as elements that constitute
us as the body of Christ. The churches of Jerusalem also ask
for our prayers for justice and peace which have eluded their
land for so long. Christians everywhere are reminded through
their ecumenical services of the basic aspect of all Christian
witness, namely love in the service of the Gospel of reconciliation
with God and with all peoples "that the world may believe".