One hundred ten years ago today (18 January 1908) the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was observed. Founded as the Church Unity Octave by the Rev. Paul Wattson, and initially observed only by the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, the week was dedicated to prayer for the unity of a divided Christianity.
But just eight years later, in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended the observance of the Week of Prayer to the entire Catholic Church.
Half a century later, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed itself fully to the ecumenical movement, the work of restoring unity between Christians.
In writing about this year’s observance of the Week of Prayer, I would like to reflect on some of results it has accomplished. Happily, these correspond to the work and mission of CNEWA, of which Father Paul was a co-founder.
Father Paul was always fascinated by the Churches of the East — both Catholic and Orthodox. After World War I Christians in the Middle East suffered greatly. In addition to the expected results of war — such as loss of life, destruction of property, famine and being driven from one’s home — something new was happening. In the lands which had been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Christians — Armenians, Assyrians and others — were targeted for extermination.
In a perverse way, the persecution of Christians was “ecumenical.” It made no difference if one were Orthodox or Catholic, all Christians were slated for extermination. The persecutors ironically grasped the unity between Christians better than did the Christians themselves.
In this situation, Father Paul saw CNEWA as a way to help Christians in the Middle East survive. It came at a moment of great division. In the early 20th century, relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were far from good. At the time of the first observance of the Week of Prayer, Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Middle East — separated since 1054 by mutual excommunications — barely communicated and deeply distrusted each other.
But from that period of hostility and division, what has been achieved in the last 110 years through prayer and dialogue is truly remarkable — and, even, inspiring.
One of the most amazing changes since 1908 has been in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. On an institutional level, Vatican II set the Catholic Church on a path of dialogue with the Orthodox churches. The encounter between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land on 6 January 1964 began a tradition of genuine friendship between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. A year after the encounter in the Holy Land, on 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI in Rome and Patriarch Athenagoras in Constantinople solemnly proclaimed that the mutual excommunications of 1054 were rescinded.
This work has born abundant good fruit. The Holy See and the Phanar (the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople) exchange high level visits twice a year. Catholic and Orthodox theologians work together and meet regularly, attempting to overcome theological differences between the two churches.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, who can be described as friends, have worked together on issues such as Christian responsibility for the planet. The pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment was written with input from Orthodox theologians and both the pope and patriarch have spoken in unison about the importance of the issue.
In the Middle East, where CNEWA works, the situation for Christians has become dire. Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians face the real possibility of extinction in the lands where Christianity was born. Pope Francis speaks of “the ecumenism of blood” in which Christians find themselves thrown together, persecuted not because they are Orthodox or Catholic, but because they are all Christians. The experience in the Middle East has led the churches to a deep realization that what they have in common is far deeper than that which divides them.
As we begin the 110th observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the challenges facing us are admittedly daunting. However, by reflecting on how things have changed since 1908 between Catholics and Orthodox (as well as Catholics and Protestants), we are filled with encouragement and hope.
There are signs that this annual Week of Prayer really has made a difference among those who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.