January 21, 2013

Each year the churches throughout the world observe a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Jan. 18 to 25. How did this come about?

It was first called The Church Unity Octave and was put in place in 1908 by two American Episcopalians, Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White, co-founders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement.

They favoured the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and toward that end they started a prayer movement. Wattson located the octave between the feast of St. Peter's Chair on Jan. 18 and the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25.

When Wattson and White 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.

Not surprisingly, however, the "return to Rome" focus was off-putting for many other Christians.

In 1935, another priest who felt a passion for unity among the followers of Jesus, Abbé Paul Couturier of the Archdiocese of Lyons in France, began to share his vision of a more inclusive approach to the octave of prayer, one that would be more inviting for Christians everywhere.

Until his death in 1953, Abbé Paul send out annual calls for Christians to pray for unity "as Christ wills, and when he wills it."


Couturier's approach gained steam when Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council. Its eventual Decree on Ecumenism said:

"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."

When the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993 issued the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism, it explicitly encouraged participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Over time, the Week of Prayer engaged many other churches in countries around the globe. Today, it belongs to all Christians who are sincerely interested in the fulfillment of Christ's prayer "that all may be one" (John 17.21).

Each year, Christians in a different country are invited to choose a scriptural text and theme for the Week of Prayer. The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity develop some materials around this theme.


National and regional councils of churches adapt and add to these resources as appropriate to their local context.

Canadian resources are produced by an ecumenical writing team coordinated by the Canadian Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Witness.

The theme for the Week of Prayer for 2013 is the simple question from Micah 6.6-8: "What is required of us?"

The WCC invited the Student Christian Movement of India to prepare the resources for the Week of Prayer.

The context of India for the theme is an apt one in that the quest for Christian unity cannot be disassociated from issues of social injustice.


The Dalits of India are the people most affected by the caste system, a rigid form of social stratification. The effects of this treatment on the Dalits has been social marginalization, political under-representation, economic exploitation and cultural subjugation.

The situation facing the people of God in Micah is similar to that of the Dalit community in India.

Micah reminds us that true faith in God is inseparable from the desire for personal holiness and social justice.

(Fr. Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. He is former head of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.)