Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Background: Brief History

JANUARY 18–25, 2022

BACKGROUND: Brief History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022

2021 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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By: Rev. Timothy MacDonald, SA
Rev. James Loughran, SA
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 wouldunite 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 1953.

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. The materials for 2021, along with the scriptural theme, “Abide in my love… you will bear much fruit” (John 15:1-17), were prepared by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland and edited and approved by the joint Week of Prayer committee of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The theme expresses Grandchamp Community’s vocation to prayer, reconciliation and unity in the church and the human family. On a national basis, materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer are the published by Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute.