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The movement among Christians promoting Christian unity, as everyone knows, is the ecumenical movement. It is the Church’s attempt to practice what Our Lord prayed for on the night before he died for us

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Praying for Christian Unity
100-year Anniversary of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

by Fr. James F. Loughran, S.A.

Christians are supposed to be together! The movement among Christians promoting Christian unity, as everyone knows, is the ecumenical movement. It is the Church’s attempt to practice what Our Lord prayed for on the night before he died for us, “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 17:21).

The Father will answer the Son’s prayer—we cannot do it on our own. The Father answers that prayer in the Holy Spirit, inspiring the hearts of believers to move away from needless division and towards unity. At the root of this is a “conversion of heart,” a turning away from sin and an embracing of the gospel.

Spiritual ecumenism has been called the soul of the ecumenical movement. Communal, ecumenical prayer is a most powerful form of spiritual ecumenism, as Pope John Paul II demonstrated so well. Prayer is initiated by faith and is an exercise of faith; it moves the heart towards conversion. Prayer for Christian unity is mysteriously united to the prayer of Jesus, which is continually offered to the Father. It invokes the Holy Spirit and is at the same time the Holy Spirit’s gift to believers.

We need each other

Prayer makes one’s heart needy for the other’s presence and long for that presence in love. It is the opposite of “I don’t need you.” It is conversation, communion and companionship. In answer to the prayer for Christian unity, God draws the Church closer together, thus saying yes to the prayer of his Son.

One hundred years ago, prayer for Christian unity developed into the standard yearly format Christians would eventually observe each January, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It started with an Octave, an eight-day liturgical celebration. In 1908, at Graymoor, in Garrison, New York, a small group of Franciscans in the Episcopal Church, led by Father Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White—cofounders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement—began the annual observance of a Church Unity Octave, eight days of prayer specifically for the “reunion” of the Church, from January 18 to 25.

It was the contention of their Society of the Atonement, and several other Anglicans, that the Church of England and all Anglicans (Episcopalians) should regain their Catholic identities and seek “reunion” of some kind with the Bishop of Rome. They felt that all the other churches, communities and denominations should pray for reunion with Rome, and, in turn, Rome should pray for these other Christians to seek reunion with her. The Society of the Atonement found its answer for unity with Rome by entering into full communion in 1909.

Sixty years later this Church Unity Octave became a foundation stone for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, first celebrated in 1968. The years between witnessed an evolution into a more ecumenically inclusive approach—with the various participants praying instead for the unity of the Church as “Christ wills it.” The Second Vatican Council (in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism, 1964) opened the Catholic Church to recognize the spiritual gifts and diversity present in the other Churches and communities of baptized Christians.

Now in its second century, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity calls Christians together in fellowship to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:12a, 13b-18). Praying together, we are reminded that we are truly sisters and brothers in one baptism. We speak to God together through Christ in the power of the same Holy Spirit. When we leave the services of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we hopefully experience a growth in spiritual fellowship and feel saddened that we are still divided. It gives us hope, but challenges our divisions.

It follows what is called the Lund Principle, named for Lund, Sweden, where the World Council of Churches first stated, in 1952, “Let us not do separately what we can do together.” In this way all Christians can already manifest the unity of the Church as much as possible. Empowered by the experience of praying together, we can also see how possible it is to join together to proclaim and bear witness to the gospel in the face of human suffering, war and social evil. It also assists us in developing theologies that support our unity.

The concept of Christian unity is empowered by the Incarnation. It is very meaningful that the Week of Prayer falls shortly after Christmas. God has become one with humanity in the Son, Jesus Christ, son of God and son of Mary. The mystery of the Incarnation itself has redemptive value even before the passion, death and resurrection. Now, and only in this one instance, is a human child also God. The nature of humanity is mysteriously changed by this action. Mary is the first to believe and the first to be redeemed, already at her own conception as a sign of the power of God’s intention in the Incarnation. Joined to Christ in baptism, Christians sacramentally share in his Sonship. From that moment on, being like Christ in his humanity, we are drawn by grace into his divinity.


This gift can be lost through sin. Therefore, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection are never separated from the Incarnation. The life, death and resurrection of Christ have won for us the atonement necessary for our continued spiritual renewal and re-entry into the life of Christ. Atonement is, simply stated, the reconciliation between God and humanity, achieved by Christ.

This mystery of the Incarnation brings with it the theological basis for solidarity with humanity, especially the poor, the outcast and the sinner. God has made us one with himself in Christ. Here the parallel gift of the atonement becomes clear: It effects a growing unity with Christians and all humanity, or, in the literal sense, at-one-ment.


God is one and there is no other god. But God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this community of persons that is so united that he is perfectly one, so perfect in love that there is no division, there is also a diversity of three persons. While each person has been revealed to us, in the broadly Christian language of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, such language should not be understood as a way to limit God. God is limitless, yet God is one. While each person is addressed as God and through each the one God is made present, none of the persons stands alone as God as if the other two were absent. The Trinity becomes the model for Christian unity as well as the goal or “end” of Christian unity: “that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).

The ecumenical movement, to be faithful to this goal, a path pointed out to the Church by Christ himself, rejects as un-Christian the idea that individuals are fully Christian outside of Christian community. Like the persons of the Holy Trinity, we need each other, all of us. Individuals who put themselves out of communion with the Church need to be wary. The expression “I do not need you” is the most dismissive thing one can say to someone else. It excludes the other totally. Even “I hate you” leaves the possibility for codependence. “I don’t need you” is a very real cut-off.

St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians addresses this so eloquently in the metaphor of the body, with the eye saying to the hand, “I do not need you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Sadly the opposite often happens, when the institution or the group says to the individual, “We don’t need you (unless you become just like us).” Ouch!

The ecumenical movement rejoices in the diversity of Christian tradition, prayer and experience. Once again, First Corinthians comes to mind with the recognition of the Holy Spirit’s distribution of various gifts, and the reminder that these gifts are not given for personal power or division, but for the unified work of the whole (1 Corinthians 12:13). This ideal of the whole community working together as the one Body of Christ will help the world to believe that Jesus really is the savior of the world “sent by God” (see John 17:21). That work, as one community, is the proclamation by word and witness of the Gospel, “that the world may believe that you sent me.”



Among the Holy Spirit’s gifts is the gift of teaching, in many different ways. There has been much legitimate diversity over the centuries as Christians try to interpret for their own times and places the tradition of the apostles. Occasionally, the interpretations have gone beyond what earlier consensus would allow. Wording or formulations used, especially to address the very authority of the Church itself, became sources of ecclesiastic division between East and West.

Those centuries were marked by the sins of ignorance, superstition, corruption and political manipulation of the Church. But they also witnessed the rebirth of science and reason. By the 16th century, the desire to reinterpret the apostolic age and to rely only on Scripture and faith, along with unmediated relationship with Christ, led to further divisions in the West. Within what became the Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant communities there were further divisions, schisms and separations. Forming one’s own church due to “irreconcilable differences” (some might call it pride) is sadly still a tradition all its own.

Many of these theological, spiritual and scientific gifts could have rightly been used for the common life and work of the Church, if the legitimate diversity they represented could have been respected. Unlike the God who is One in Three, however, many Christians said, “I don’t need you.” As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism states, this was a sin for which “both sides were to blame” (#3).

In recent years, Catholic statements from the Second Vatican Council as well as Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, emphasize the same points. They emphasize that conversion of heart is not only a basic exercise for Christian life but also the obvious starting point for the ecumenical movement. If division is seen as sin, conversion away from desiring division and towards desiring unity is necessary.

To put it bluntly, Christian division is a sin. It violates the will of God, who established one Church through his One Son, in which we proclaim there is one faith, one Lord, one Baptism. Division for division’s sake aligns itself with the evil one. It sets up obstacles within the human community against the fulfillment of Christ’s continuous prayer for unity in John 17.

Division says over and over again, “I don’t need you to fully experience Christian community.” It results in exclusion of vast groups of baptized persons from the sacraments of the Church. It carries with it chauvinism and stereotyping of one another’s belief systems and spiritualities. Most catastrophically, it stifles the proclamation of the gospel. The so called “secular world” rejoices in it, and popular media are often on the lookout for what would divide Christians much more than what would unite them. It is undoubtedly a sin.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has sought dialogue with other Christian world communions. It seeks to overcome the doctrinal divisions of the past and to find a common voice for the future. This work has been hard, and much has been accomplished. We are closer to a shared understanding on the levels of Trinitarian dogma, the Eucharist, the authority of Scripture and Tradition, and Justification by Faith than we have ever been before.

The harder work remains finding a common voice for the future. The temptation is always there to speak unilaterally in disagreement about a wide range of issues facing the world, from beginning- and end-of-life issues, to individual rights, to interreligious dialogue versus “conversion,” to human sexuality and moral behavior.

There is a way through, though, a way that Our Lord taught us. At times of hostility over social questions (immigration, health care, etc.) the call to prayer reminds us of the unbreakable bond of our common baptism. On the other hand, refusal to pray with one another is indeed a wretched experience. The reality is this: For Christians, the call to prayer supersedes division. Prayer is worship of God, not of position papers. Prayer often gets us to cool down and helps us to remember that our theological adversary is still, above all, a brother or sister in Christ. That’s the beginning of a conversion of heart.

Our passion for the truth of our convictions is tempered by the commandment to love one another. This love is most directly symbolized in prayer together. That’s what the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is all about. Remember the eye of the needle, and entering through the narrow gate: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26). Never cease praying for unity.

Fr. James F. Loughran, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, is a freelance writer. He is director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, New York, NY. Prior to that he was Ecumenical Officer of the Archdiocese of New York (from 1994 to 2002).

NEXT: Day-by-day Through Lent (by Susan K. Rowland)


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