Each year from Jan. 18-25, Christian churches in more than 120 nations observe a period of prayer for unity, often involving liturgies of the word or other worship services among Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox. This is one of the oldest and most widely observed ecumenical events in the world, with roots that can be traced back to the 1800s.
The first Catholic voice to propose a period for prayer for unity was Pope Leo XIII, who in 1895 called for a novena (nine days of prayer) just before Pentecost. This was a prayer of and by Catholics, appealing for the return of the "dissident brothers."
The next stage came with Fr. Paul Wattson, an American Episcopalian who became a Catholic and founded the Graymoor Friars in 1908, with a special interest in ecumenism. He proposed an octave, or eight-day period, of prayer for unity.
In the mid-1930s, Abbe Paul Couturier, a French priest, published an article calling for prayer that "the visible unity of the reign of God may happen, as Christ wants it and through the means that he wants." Before, this was a Catholic prayer for the return of other Christians. Now it became a prayer for unity in the various communities. Fr. Couturier saw this movement as an "invisible monastery" imploring unity.
The next stage came when the Second Vatican Council, in its decree on ecumenism titled "Unitatis redintegratio," provided a theological basis for prayer in common. The document stated "it is licit, and even desirable, that Catholics associate themselves in prayer with the separated brethren."
The theme of this year's week of prayer, from the Gospel of Matthew, sets before us a promise of Jesus: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
There is more that unites us than divides us -- this is the great discovery that lies behind the thrust of the ecumenical movement. The greatest uniting point of all is the presence of the risen Christ who promised his disciples he would be with them till the end of time.
Amidst our efforts to foster the unity of our own communities and of the unity of all Christians, we must be attentive to the importance of gathering ecumenically to pray in Jesus' name.
Ecumenical worship and social action go hand in hand, each nurturing and giving strength and depth to the other. Churches across Canada are providing a vibrant witness to the power of God's love in faithful proclamation, in their work together for social justice, peace and in social service.
What can you do to advance the cause of Christian unity? This week, arrange to visit neighbouring churches for worship. Take time to reflect on the signs of God's new creation at work in the life of your community. Find ways of celebrating what God is reconciling and making new.
In Rome's basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, Pope Benedict will preside at the celebration of vespers to mark the close of the week of prayer for Christian unity. This ceremony will be carried live on Salt and Light Television.