Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

AUSCPUniversal Church News

Imagine for a few moments that you are Jesus.  Not Jesus Christ, the Lord, but simply the man, Jesus, in all his humanness.  

Things are looking grim.  Your enemies are closing in.  You are aware that there is very little time left.  You know one of your closest associates has gone to the authorities with a plan to betray you.  You realize that your followers are shaky in their convictions about your leadership.  You plan to share one last meal with them, but because of imminent danger the place has to be secretively selected, so as to assure that the gathering will not be disrupted.

This being the context, what would you have to say?  What words would you choose to share with your followers at this most critical moment?   What would you ask of them?  

Well, we don’t have to speculate.  We know exactly what Jesus himself confided to his disciples.  In fact there are three separate accounts.  Mark and Matthew are very condensed and much alike:  He warns of a betrayal and institutes the Eucharist.  That is all.  They conclude the Passover meal with a hymn and adjourn to the Mount of Olives. 

Luke is a bit more developed.  Jesus perceives in the group a persistent grasping for importance.  He urges them to abandon such aspirations and replace them with a humble determination to become servants. 

When we come to John, we find a vastly different account.  It begins with Chapter 13 and flows through to the end of Chapter 17.  There is the familiar story of the washing of the disciples’ feet.  As in Luke, we see the lesson of humility and service.  Then much of the remainder of the account is devoted to the themes of love and oneness.    

The ultimate longing of Jesus is summed up especially well as his address comes to an end: “I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (Jn. 17: 20-23)”.  

In response to the petition of Jesus, each year many churches of the world observe “The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”  The Week dates from January 18 through January 25.  Its theme is taken from the same address of Jesus, based on Jn. 15:5-9: “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.” In essence, if the work of the Church is to be fruitful, it must be based on Oneness, rooted in the love brought to us by Christ. 

Proposed for the eight days of the Week of Prayer in 2021, a “Journey of Prayer”

Day 1: Called by God: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (Jn 15:16a)

Day 2: Maturing internally: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15:4a)

Day 3: Forming one body: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12b)

Day 4: Praying together: “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends” (Jn 15:3)

Day 5: Letting oneself be transformed by the Word: “You have already been pruned by the word…” (Jn 15:3)

Day 6: Welcoming others: “Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16b)

Day 7: Growing in unity: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5a)

Day 8: Reconciling with all of creation: “So that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11)

Biblical reflections and prayers for the Eight Days by The Community of Grandchamp and the ecumenical experience of the religious life. Themes of Week of Prayer 1968-2021 and key dates in the history of the Week of Prayer. 

Observance of this commitment to pray for Unity dates as far back as 1740 to a Pentecostal movement whose revivalist message included prayers for and with all churches.  In 1820 the Rev. James Haldane Stewart published “Hints for the General Union of Christians for the Outpouring of the Spirit” and in 1840 the Rev. Ignatius Spencer, a convert to Roman Catholicism, suggested a “Union of Prayer for Unity”. 

In 1968 we witness the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity jointly preparing materials to be used for the Week of Prayer.  Since that date, every year a different group within the Christian community creates services to be used.  For 2021 the Monastic Community of Grandchamp chose the theme and prepared the materials, expressing the Grandchamp Community’s vocation to prayer, reconciliation and unity in the church and the human family.  See side boxes for resources.

As is evident from this brief outline, a great deal of prayer, thought, and effort has been devoted to the preparation of these materials, grounded in a long history of ecumenical effort.  I doubt that there is a Catholic parish that would not be greatly enriched by reflecting on the contents of this Booklet and adopting much of it for its Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  

The history of salvation began with the Fall: the triumph of human pride, setting man and woman against God and brother against brother, destroying Unity for ages to come.  But then the stage for restoring Unity came with the New Adam, who set the example for humble service and willingness to sacrifice to achieve Oneness.  

Unfortunately the Catholic Church too often has given “purity of doctrine and morality” priority over an unyielding struggle for Unity.  For example, in my own diocese the Archbishop and his Suffragan have in recent years withdrawn their dioceses from membership in the state Conference of Churches for reasons that were not made particularly clear.  The motivation appeared to include the fact that some members of the Conference are not sufficiently opposed to abortion and gay marriage.  

As long as we focus on and give precedence to the issues where we differ, scant progress will be made toward Unity.  Rather, why can’t we concentrate on the areas in which we can act together?  Homelessness, racism, climate change?    

Such an orientation certainly is evident in Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli tutti”, which he concludes with an Ecumenical Christian Prayer. 

An Ecumenical Christian Prayer

O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community.   

Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start.  

Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.  

It is a wonderful thing to pray together, but prayer without action is empty.  There is a feedback loop between action and prayer that we avoid at our peril.  Pope Francis is urgently calling our churches to increase the ways in which we act together so that our prayer will be enriched, and as our prayer becomes more truly spiritual, our actions will be the more empowered! 

The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” reminds us that the message of Jesus as he was drawn toward his death was to summon his followers to “abide in love” with the promise of “bearing much fruit.” There are two Ways, the Way of pride – leading to mutual adversity and separation, and the Way of humble listening, understanding, and joining in service that is the Way of love – that ends in fruitfulness, evidenced in Unity.  

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