The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually between January 18 and 25. It is actually an octave, which means the observance lasts for eight days.
The observance began in 1908 and was focused on prayer for the church unity. The basic idea, and the January dates, were suggested by Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. Watson conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the the Conversion of St. Paul and concluding on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Peter. The dates and ideas actually were a variant of the Protestant version of these Catholic celebrations. (Wattson was himself a former Anglican priest.) In the mid-1920’s Protestant leaders proposed an annual octave for unity leading up to Pentecost. (Many local communities also celebrate this time and offered joint prayers for unity.) Pope Benedict XVI “encouraged its observance throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church.”
What is interesting is that this observance began in Catholic circles but once it jumped boundaries it took new forms and meanings. Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, who has been called “the father of spiritual ecumenism,” (a model that has profoundly influenced me and one also openly embraced by Pope Francis) had a slightly different approach than Father Wattson. He advocated prayer “for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it, and in accordance with the means he wills.” By this Abbé Couturier enabled other Christians with differing views of the Petrine ministry to join in this movement of prayer. In 1935, he proposed naming the observance “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This proposal accepted by the Catholic Church in 1966. Abbé Couturier’s message influenced a number of Catholic leaders thus today this is the direction Catholics and Protestants take in their celebration of this week of prayer.
In the Chicago area there are a number of ways churches engage with this week. The Focolare and ACT3 Network, who both work for unity, have recently partnered this event in our area and this year the evening prayer service will be held in Wheaton. We wanted to put the event close to Wheaton College to invite students to attend, thus we will meet two blocks from the campus. All are invited and no registration is needed.