In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Lyons, sought a solution to the problem of Catholics and non-Roman Catholics observing the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity together. He found this solution in the Roman Missal as the Association for Promotion of the Unity of Christians had done seventy-eight years earlier in England. Couturier promoted prayer for Christian unity on the inclusive basis that “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.” (cf. John 17:21-23). I think one of the most significant statements written, at least up until this point in the history of this week of prayer, is the expressed hope that this time would unite Christians in their prayer for that perfect unity that God wills and by the means that he wills. Like Fr. Paul Wattson, Abbé Couturier exhibited a powerful passion for unity. He sent out “calls to prayer” annually until his death in 1953. Both Abbé Paul Couturier and Paul Wattson became important historic figures in my research and mission several years ago when I began to study the history of modern ecumenism. These two godly men were true pioneers, men of deep faith who saw beyond the present to a very different future.
While not all Catholics accepted Couturier’s solution, and some continued to emphasize the centrality of the Petrine office in unity efforts and prayer, all the major ecclesial difficulties were resolved in 1964 with the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. This Decree, so generally unknown to many loyal Catholics, told Roman Catholics in clear and unambiguous terms: “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.” This was a new start. The door was opened in a way that called for a stance that did not focus simply on non-Catholics becoming Catholics in order to experience the grace and gift of Christ’s unity.
It is this particular emphasis that many of my Catholic friends, especially those who are new to the church and thus to the Catholic doctrine of an infallible magisterium, do not appreciate as deeply as many of my equally lovely Catholic friends who’ve lived their entire life inside the Catholic sacramental communion. Catholic converts, who are very conservative in their perspective, often think ecumenism is a sideline since the Roman Catholic Church alone is a true church. While the Catholic Church does teach that the magisterium never teaches dogmatic error the way in which dogmatic understanding is expressed and experienced is clearly a developing reality. It is here that the thought of Cardinal John Henry Newman, himself once an Anglican, becomes vital to our understanding of modern Catholic practice regarding infallibility in dogma and the practice of the faith. Let me put this very simply–the Catholic Church is very conservative in terms of how it understands and teaches dogma but it also sees doctrinal development that impacts people in different ways as the church continues to grow in its apprehension of the once for all faith of the fathers.
In 1993 the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) issued the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism and explicitly encouraged participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. So today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity belongs to all Christians who are sincerely interested in the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer “that all may be one.” When Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former head of the PCPCU discusses the prayer we share in common, in his A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, he specifically mentions that “the celebration of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity world-wide is an initiative of singular importance to be encouraged and further developed.” It is in this spirit that I personally discovered this week and came to embrace the potential that it has for our oneness as Christians.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is thus sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity today. On a national basis, materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer are the work of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, located north of New York City. Graymoor works in collaboration with the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, led by my friend Fr. John Crossin. I have personally had the unique joy of getting to know the leadership of each of these several national bodies and have come to believe that the work they do for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is of major importance.
In 2015 is it my intention to begin a visible Week of Prayer for Christian Unity celebration in the Western suburbs of Chicago, the region in which I reside. I began to work on this project initially in December. Pray with me that we will see such a movement grow here in the Chicago area.
The theme for 2014 is drawn from Paul‘s first Letter to the Corinthians 1:1-17: “Has Christ been divided?” Material prepared by the Christian Churches of Canada offers us a wealth of reflection on the “symphonic movements” of the passage. These particular reflections invite us to see how God’s grace and peace are present in our local church, the larger community and the world and asks us to move beyond a preoccupation with our immediate communities to attend to the community of all Christians and the world itself. These resources further invite us to ask ourselves for what do we give God thanks in our church, community and world. We are especially invited to reflect on the spiritual and material gifts of other Christians and other people. Finally, these reflections invite us to discern from within our church “the same purpose and mind in Christ” with other churches that will result in a deeper appreciation of the forms of worship among other churches and a deeper appreciation of the common mission we share with other Christians. Such efforts will bear fruit in our common quest for visible Christian unity.
The truth is that we continue to be divided by doctrine, polity, and practice, and to maintain our own religious identity, yet our pilgrimage towards unity continues under God’s gracious guidance. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one way that we can enter into our Lord’s prayer for our oneness by the experience of sharing a public time of prayer and love. I encourage you to find a place where you live to participate. I will mention one such place, on the south side of Chicago, in a blog next week.