Once again the time has come for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). Started in 1908 as the Octave for Church Unity by Rev. Paul Wattson, an Anglican priest, the Week of Prayer has spread throughout the world.
It’s just one part of Father Paul’s remarkable legacy. He founded an order of Franciscans — the Friars of the Atonement, to which I belong — with the express intent of working for reconciliation and Christian unity. In 1909, the community was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church.
With that, his efforts to work for Christian unity moved to a broader context. The Octave was approved and encouraged for the entire Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. Today, it is observed by Christians of many churches around the world.
Central to Father Paul’s desire for Christian unity was his reading of a verse from chapter 17 of the Gospel of John: “That they all may be one…” From my youth I was aware of the quote from John 17:21 and the role it played in the founding of the Friars of the Atonement. It is a quote that evoked two questions in me. “Who are the ‘all’?” and “be one what?” The “all” is clearly that — everyone who is the Other, the Outsider. And Jesus himself explains the What as he continues the prayer. “One” is that great mystery of love and community; one is the Trinitarian life of the Godhead.
The Other can be not only different but unsettling, frightening, and even threatening. The Other — whether it be Orthodox or Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims or members of other world religions — can be something we are more comfortable avoiding than engaging. Long before Vatican II challenged the Catholic Church to engage the Other in dialogue, Father Paul Wattson was seeking out other Christians — Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican — to engage them in the mystery of becoming ”one.”
After the Second Vatican Council, 20 years after the death of Father Paul, his initial vision was expanded to include engagement with members of every faith. To be sure, the goals and methods of engaging other Christians are different from those of engaging Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. But true to the vision of Father Paul, no one was to be excluded, ignored or left out. From the very concrete and Christian event of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the inclusiveness of the “all” was taken very seriously.
As the External Affairs Officer at Catholic Near East Welfare Association — which Father Paul also co-founded — I work with Christians of every variety in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Southern India. The schools, hospitals and clinics we support welcome Muslims and members of other religions. Tragically, the Near East has become a dangerous part of the world — not only for Christians, but for all people who oppose violence in the name of religion and the oppression of the Other.
The vision of Father Paul as the founder of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and co-founder of CNEWA finds its expression in his desire to bring things together as one. And his legacy may now get even wider recognition. Recently, the Vatican gave approval to begin the process for the beatification and canonization of Father Paul.
In one of those coincidences that life often provides us, the masthead of CNEWA’s magazine, named ONE, answers the question of my youth “one what?” and intersects with a wider view of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
One God • World • Human Family • Church
To read more about Father Paul and his CNEWA connection, check out this profile from The Catholic Register.