Brief History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, 2020

Altar in Our Lady of Angels Chapel where first Church Unity Octave was celebrated in 1908
Altar in Our Lady of Angels Chapel
where first Church Unity Octave
was celebrated in 1908

By: Rev. Thomas Orians, 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 1953.

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 2017 theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been selected. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary year of the beginnings of the Reformation, the theme: "Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us" (2 Corinthians 5:14-20) has been chosen. The materials for the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has two accents: reflection upon the main concerns of the churches marked by Martin Luther's Reformation and secondly recognizing the pain of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the unity of the Church. In selecting this theme, it is viewed as an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation.

For the coming year the theme finds its origins in Pope Francis' 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") when it used the quote: "The Love of Christ Compels Us" (Paragraph 9). The theme finds its scriptural context in 2 Corinthians. 5:14).. The Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) took up the work of creating the resources for this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A committee comprised of ten members representing different churches met three times in 2014/2015 to develop the necessary texts. Within the 2017 materials there will be a particular emphasis on the ecumenical worship service for the Week while at the same time commemorating the Lutheran Reformation.

For 2017, it should be noted that this biblical text emphasizes that reconciliation is a gift from God, intended for the entire creation. "God was reconciling the world (kosmos) to God's self in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation" (v.19). As a result of God´s action, those who have been reconciled in Christ are called in turn to proclaim this reconciliation in word and deed: "The love of Christ compels us"

The traditional period in the northern hemisphere for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25. Those dates were proposed in 1908 by Servant of God, Fr. Paul Wattson, SA Founder of the Society of the Atonement, to cover the original days of the feasts of the Chair of St. Peter (January 18) and the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25) , and therefore have a symbolic significance.