By FATHER JOHN C. KIERAN, Commentary | Published January 11, 2023
The challenge of remembering and keeping established public holidays increases with every new addition to the calendar. National observances honoring significant persons, or crucial events call for renewed attention and often present an opportunity to address past neglect and/or defaults.
The present must never forget the past. Inclusion of new dates must not void long-kept observances. Take for example: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, founded in 1908 by The Servant of God Father Paul Wattson, SA, at Graymoor, New York, a pivotal event that has thrived over the years. This global prayer time has been endorsed by the Christian church family, in particular by the Vatican, also the World Council of Churches, and celebrated within the main line Christian church worldwide.
Father Wattson’s vision was to amend the scandal of infighting among Christian churches. He founded the Society of the Atonement and vigorously sought reunion of Anglican and Roman Catholics. He selected the Catholic-friendly feast days: Jan. 18 (at that time called the Chair of St. Peter) and Jan. 25, The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, to establish Unity Week. Hence the name: Church Unity Octave, emphasizing the eight-day period of prayer.
Since 1966 the World Council of Churches and the Vatican have collaborated to draft themes and select suitable biblical texts for Unity Week. These ground notes are compiled from input by ecumenical groups throughout the world and are available annually from the Graymoor Institute, P.O. Box 300, Garrison, NY 10524 (www.geii.org). The theme for 2023 is set on Isaiah 1:17, “Do Good; Seek Justice.”
In the 1930s Abbe Paul Couturier (1881-1953), a priest in Lyon, France, actively promoted Christian unity in Europe. He proposed that there be a universal week of prayer and all should pray the well-focused prayer he compiled, still in common use:
Prayer for Unity in Christ
Lord Jesus, who on the eve of your death, prayed that all your disciples might be one, as you in the Father and the Father in you;
Make us feel intense sorrow over the infidelity of our disunity. Give us the honesty to recognize, and the courage to reject, whatever indifference toward one another
Or mutual distrust, or even enmity, lie hidden within us.
Enable us to meet one another in you.
And let your prayer for the unity of Christians be ever in our hearts and on our lips,
Unity such as you desire and by the means that you will.
Make us find the way that leads to unity in you, who are perfect charity,
Through being obedient to the Spirit of love and truth. Amen.
In 1909 Father Wattson and all members of the Graymoor community joined the Catholic Church. The present religious group is known under the title The Franciscans of the Atonement. Members continue to do marvelous pioneer work in ecumenical endeavors, locally and nationally. Always true to their founder they steadfastly promote the unity which Christ longs for as reported by the evangelist John.
The urgency expressed by Jesus in John 17 should incite us to similar action. The Master gathered his faithful insiders for a final instruction saying: What I want you to do most of all is for you to be united, as “I and the Father are one.” (Jn 17:21)
That Gospel scene is similar to a family summit called by patriarch/matriarch to pronounce final bedside instructions or the last “ask.” If one has such an encounter, the memory stays forever. Thereafter you would often recall those last words of counsel. You repeat them; you try to live by the wisdom given. You make that parting message the anchor in your relationship with the deceased and treasure forever those sacred memories. Likewise, Jesus wants us to act on his parting words, without fail. “Do unto others as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:15)
Christians must pray consistently, frequently and together without ceasing, in our families and churches for enlightenment and direction repeating, “Thy will be done.”
Most Christians pray the familiar words: Our Father, Thy will be done,” but are we being honest in prayer? Do we believe the reality of those words? By God’s grace-life through sacrament we become his adopted children, all true brothers and sisters in Christ. “The love of God has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rm 5:5). Why then don’t we act together as in a true fraternity of love, respect and action? St. Pope John Paul II accurately stated: “Our divisions prevent our neighbor from hearing the gospel as they should.”
In 1995 the pope issued an encyclical letter marking the 30th anniversary of the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. There he reminds the church that ecumenism should be actively pursued at all levels in the church since unity “stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission.” He concluded, “Christian Unity is not just some sort of appendix to the Church’s activity.”
Tragically present times, perhaps more so than any other, desperately demand godly solutions. We are grievously stressed by global war; human trafficking, international crime and a country with outrageous statistics for homicide and youth incarceration. We need to reaffirm our motto: “In God We Trust.”
Pope Francis, always upbeat, encourages us to go forward in hope: “For God continues to sow abundant seeds of goodness in our human family.” Our pope skillfully expresses this and other hopes and dreams for the church, and for all humanity in his 2020 Encyclical Letter: “Fratelli Tutti.” He concludes with a prayer: “In the name of God who created all human beings…to live together as brothers and sisters…to fill the earth with the values of goodness, love and peace.”
The week of Prayer for Christian Unity invites all to respond to Our Master’s urgent plea for unity. That is, for Christians to unite in love as he and the Father are “one”.
The octave is a challenge to the entire church to open new pathways of ecumenical cooperation—for leaders to effectively preach John 17; for all members to participate and fulfill their allotted roles enthusiastically.
“There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion.” (Decree on Ecumenism #7)
Father John C. Kieran is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is Jan. 18-25.