The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has its origins in the Church Unity Octave, started in 1908 by the founders of an Anglican religious order, the Franciscan Society of the Atonement. The dates were chosen to run the week from the Feast of the Chair of Peter (18 January) to the Feast of the Conversion of Paul (25 January).
18 January was in fact one of two Feasts of the Chair of Peter on the Tridentine calendar, the other being 22 February. Some distinguished these as the Chair of Peter in Rome and the Chair of Peter in Antioch, though it is not clear that that was the original intent of the two dates. Since 1960, only the later date has been celebrated in the Roman calendar as the feast of the Chair of Peter, but the dates for the Week of Prayer remain the same.
(As an interesting aside, with the resurgence of interest in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, since Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum allowing more widespread use of the 1962 missal, some liturgical traditionalists observe the January feast date. However, this appears to be incorrect, as the 1962 missal was produced after the change to the calendar mentioned above.)
The original octave focused on Anglican-Catholic reunion, and the themes as approved by Pope Pius X were a great example of what is now known as the “ecumenism of return” – which was common in the post-Vatican I period at the beginning of the last century (and which some fear is making a resurgence in these days… but more on that in a later post).
In fact, even before the Church Unity Octave was established by Father Paul Watson, SA, and Mother Lurana White, SA, there were calls for a time of prayer for Christian Unity. The Lambeth Conference, the decennial synod of the world’s Anglican bishops, in 1878 called for a period of prayer for unity around the feast of the Ascension. In 1895 Pope Leo XIII agreed, establishing a novena for Christian Unity from Ascension to Pentecost.
Since 1935, the Church Unity Octave began to expand to a more comprehensive Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, including prayer for the unity of all Christians. By 1957, there was quasi-official participation in the planning for the worldwide celebrations by a Catholic organization from Lyons, and in 1966 the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity officially became a joint project of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. The materials used throughout the world have been prepared each year by a Joint Working Group of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Additionally, a local ecumenical community prepares the theme and symbols for the Week of Prayer, and this year’s local planners were the churches of Jerusalem. The theme chosen for 2011 is: “One in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer” (cf. Acts 2:42).
Each day of the Week has a different theme:
- 18 January: The Church in Jerusalem.
- 19 January: Many Members in One Body.
- 20 January: Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching Unites Us.
- 21 January: Sharing, an Expression of Our Unity.
- 22 January: Breaking the Bread in Hope.
- 23 January: Empowered to Action in Prayer.
- 24 January: Living in Resurrection Faith.
- 25 January: Called for the Service of Reconciliation.
Compare that to the themes of the original Church Unity Octave, as approved by Pope Pius X just one century ago, to see “development in continuity” in practice for the Catholic Church’s teaching on the ecumenical movement. Unity is still the goal, in obedience to Christ and for the sake of the Church’s mission, but our understanding of this constant truth has clearly matured!
Note, not only the the marked difference in tone, but also the inclusion of prayer for the Jews both then and today, except that now it is on a day preceding the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Note also the distinction between European Protestants and American Christians.
Church Unity Octave daily themes (c.1911)
- 18 January: The Union of all Christians in the one true faith and in the Church
- 19 January: The Return of separated Eastern Christians to communion with the Holy See
- 20 January: The Reconciliation of Anglicans with the Holy See
- 21 January: The Reconciliation of European Protestants with the Holy See
- 22 January: That American Christians become one in union with the Chair of Peter
- 23 January: The Restoration of lapsed Catholics to the sacramental life of the Church
- 24 January: That the Jewish people come into their inheritance in Jesus Christ
- 25 January: The missionary extension of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world