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Praying for Christian Unity

Q U I C K S C A N

Building the 'House of Unity'
United by Christ's Incarnation
Helping the Cause

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).

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Building 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 Catholic.

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 of “reunion” 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 of Christians.

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.”

United 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 world’s healing.

Helping the Cause

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, New York.

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 at Catalog.AmericanCatholic.org. Ask about our bulk rates.


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