This is the first article in our Christian Unity Series.
Every year, in the third week of January (in the northern hemisphere), many Christian individuals, parishes, and associations organize ecumenical liturgies, Bible studies, and other activities to animate a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU). The WPCU calls Christians to repentance for sinful events and attitudes that led (and lead) to divisions in the church, and promotes the way of ecumenism, which aims to restore unity within the global Christian family.
The Week is typically organized around a scriptural theme and focuses on the Christian context of a particular country or region of the world. Resources for the Week are prepared by a local writing team from the featured country, and are jointly published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches. Those using the resources are invited to adapt the materials to their own context while attending to the Christian reality as it is lived out in that specific part of the world.
In my ministry as an Ecumenical Officer, the WPCU is obviously a highlight of the pastoral programming year. In our Archdiocese, for instance, we encourage all of our parishes and institutions to reach out to their Christian neighbours during the Week and join in some way in Jesus’ own prayer for His disciples—that other “Lord’s prayer”—“that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
Admittedly, for some of our faithful the WPCU is just an occasion to “touch base” once a year with the neighbours, to exchange best wishes with them and/or to affirm that while we cannot yet share full communion together, at least we can acknowledge that we are kin by virtue of the “real, but incomplete communion” that we share through our common baptism in Christ. (This is already something wonderful to celebrate!)
More frequently, however, the WPCU is an opportunity to reflect deeply upon Jesus’ call to unity, to name the diverse ecumenical reality that is already the life of every parish and virtually every parishioner (living in or touched by interchurch families), and truly to pray that the Holy Spirit may move powerfully within our own time to heal the wounds of division that we have inflicted (and often continue to inflict) upon one another within the Body of Christ.
For Catholics, of course, this is in keeping with the contemporary theology of ecumenism espoused by our Church at the Second Vatican Council. At Vatican II, our Council Fathers taught us (in reference to Jn 17:20-24) that division among Christians:
- openly contradicts the will of Christ,
- scandalizes the world, and
- impedes evangelization (the spread of the Gospel message of Christ’s love).
Faithfulness to the mission and ministry of Christ, therefore, necessitates that the followers of Jesus open themselves up to God’s restorative grace in the church, and work and pray always for increased unity within the Body of Christ. This is accomplished especially through repentance, prayer in common, increased holiness of life, collaborative witness, and fidelity to the Gospel.
The WPCU offers us precisely a framework for all of this. The main resource and activity that we are given to mark the Week is an ecumenical worship service which typically focuses on the themes of repentance, reconciliation, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. In addition, the international materials prepared each year feature eight days of biblical reflections and prayers, to immerse us more deeply into the biblical theme for the Week and allow us to see more clearly the negative effects that divisions among Christians have had upon a particular part of the world and throughout the whole world. The prayers, reflections, and the context of the prayer itself naturally call for actions of reconciliation between separated brothers and sisters in Christ.
Anyone who sincerely engages in these spiritual exercises discovers immediately that praying for Christian unity cannot be restricted simply to one week a year; it must become part of an every day, every facet commitment to living the Christian life, “so that the world may know that You have sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me” (Jn 17:23).
A couple of practical considerations to conclude:
- Many places mark the WPCU with an ecumenical prayer service hosted by a different church community every night of the Week (e.g. Catholic on Monday, Orthodox on Tuesday, Presbyterian on Wednesday, etc.). When this happens it is quite remarkable (but not surprising) to note that no two celebrations are alike, even if they use the same preparatory texts, the same hymns, etc. to animate the service. The great diversity of expression according to different denominational “flavour” allows participants to experience the service or to reflect upon the theme in ways that interact with their own heritage or spiritual tradition. As such, those who attend “the same celebration” presented in different settings begin to experience naturally something of the “exchange of gifts” that is so much a part of ecumenical methodology today.
- Often the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is referred to in short form as “Christian Unity Week.” I understand the temptation to forego the lengthy and cumbersome full title for the Week, but I find that the short form expresses something of an untruth; as if for one week of the year we pretend that we’ve already arrived at full and visible unity between our Communions, and then revert to Christian disunity for the remaining 51 weeks of the year. Further, I find that using the shortened form actually avoids the intent of the Week, which is to draw separated Christians together for a full week of praying for the unity of the church. Perhaps I’m too rigorous on this point, but within our Archdiocese I do insist upon our using the full title to describe the Week of Prayer FOR Christian Unity.
In conclusion, ecumenism is:
- a grace to heal and build
- a call to hope and charity
- a response to God’s Word and the promptings of the Holy Spirit
- a commitment to love and serve
- to forgive and ask forgiveness
- to learn and to discern
- to meet in practical forms of cooperation and in theological dialogue
- to seek the truth and fullness of communion
Ecumenism must always be rooted in prayer and oriented to Christ’s own prayer for unity among His followers. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that there is no substitute for this spiritual way.
Julien Hammond is the Ecumenical Officer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, an MDiv from Newman Theological College in Edmonton, and a ThM from the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. In 2012 he was awarded an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree from St. Stephen’s College at the University of Alberta in recognition of his work in the fields of ecumenism and interreligious relations.