2021 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a response to Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). It is an eight-day period of prayer in which all Christians are invited to participate. The week is celebrated each year from January 18-25, concluding on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
The history of the week dates back to late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1894, Pope Leo XIII encouraged the practice of a Prayer Octave for Unity and encouraged Catholics to recite the rosary for the intention of Christian unity. A little more than a decade later, two Americans, Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White, co-founders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, started a prayer movement to pray for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy See. The two were Episcopalians who converted to Catholicism. In 1907, a conversation between Father Wattson and an English clergyman, Reverend Spencer Jones, led Reverend Jones to suggest that a day be set aside for prayer for Christian unity. Father Wattson agreed but proposed 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. The first “Church Unity Octave” was observed in 1908. After Father Wattson and Sister Lurana became Catholic, Pope Pius X gave his blessing to the Church Unity Octave, and in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended its observance to the universal Church.
While the Catholic Church adopted the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it was Abbé Paul Couturier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Lyons in France, who, in 1935, helped extend its reach to other Christian faiths. He promoted a “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” on the basis that it was the Lord’s will – “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.” It was a successful way of uniting all Christians in the same prayer.
As we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we ask God to help Christian Churches, and all people of good will, to seek common ground and an appreciation for each other. The desire for Christians to pray together is certainly not a new concept. Pope Benedict XV extended the observance of a special week of prayer to the universal Church in 1916. Its original purpose was to present visible connections across denominations through common prayer, the key which opens our hearts to Christ’s desire for unity. Such a purpose is certainly still pertinent in our time. As Christians, we share in our appreciation for Scripture as the Word of God, our faith in the Trinity, our call to help those in need, and our respect for the dignity of the human person. This common witness to our faith gives us a clear direction for our lives, a shared path that begins and ends with Jesus.
As we pray with our brothers and sisters in unity, we remember the truth that all of us, as disciples of Jesus, will find fulfillment in life by doing the will of the Father. Prayer is a grace and a genuine expression of hope and love that binds us together in Christ. In the inspiring words of Pope Francis, ‘May the Holy Spirit inspire new prophetic gestures and strengthen fraternal charity among all Christ’s disciples’ so that ‘the world may believe.’”
Each year, a different theme is chosen for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year, the theme is “Abide in My Love…You Shall Bear Much Fruit” (John 15:1-17) and was prepared by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp. The theme expresses Grandchamp Community’s vocation to prayer, reconciliation, and unity in the church and the human family.
Though we, as Christians, abide in the love of Christ, we also live in a creation that groans as it waits to be set free. In the world we witness the evils of suffering and conflict. Through solidarity with those who suffer, we allow the love of Christ to flow through us. The paschal mystery bears fruit in us when we offer love to our brothers and sisters and nurture hope in the world. Spirituality and solidarity are inseparably linked. Abiding in Christ, we receive the strength and wisdom to act against structures of injustice and oppression, to fully recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters in humanity, and to be creators of a new way of living, with respect for and communion with all of creation. The summary of the rule of life that the sisters of Grandchamp recite together each morning begins with the words “pray and work that God may reign”. Prayer and everyday life are not two separate realities but are meant to be united. All that we experience is meant to become an encounter with God.
“Jesus gave his life for all out of his love for all,” said Fr. James Loughran, SA, Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute (GEII). “To abide in his love reminds us that we live in a community celebrating our gift of unity.”
Let us all use the Prayer for the 2021 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
Enable all the members of the body of Christ to live together in unity and fellowship with one another, and lead us into the paths of peace and righteousness so that we may be well pleasing in your sight.
We ask you to teach us how to love one another as Christ loved us and help us to show one another the unusual kindness that can only come from knowing your Son, Jesus. May the Spirit stir up in our hearts a desire to be united as one, in the bond of peace and fellowship. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.