Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Week of Prayer for Unity & Intereligious Dialogue

During the week beginning on the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, January 18, and continuing through January 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Church celebrates a Week of Prayer for Unity and Interreligious Dialogue. Though originally designed and commonly understood to pray for Christian unity, in more recent years it has widened in scope to include interfaith involvement. 
This ecumenical week began in the little New York community of Peekskill, specifically on a remote hillside 5 miles away, called Graymoor, home to a small Episcopal religious community of friars and sisters, who were quite controversial and unpopular in the Episcopal Church. At a time when religious community members were often suspected as “advance agents” for a Roman Catholic takeover of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Graymoor Franciscans, “eccentrics”, as they were called, did very little to allay such suspicions.

Fr. Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White, co-founders of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, quite openly advocated for a reunion of Anglicans with Rome and recognition of the papacy. Most Protestants and even some Catholics were astounded by the idea. Because of their committed stance, the Graymoors were under enormous pressure from church leaders and editors to abandon their efforts. Fr. Paul was shunned in most Episcopal pulpits, and Mother Lurana had to literally send her sisters out begging just to keep the Society of the Atonement alive.
Nevertheless, Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana pursued their perceived God-given mission: to seek a coming together of divided Christian churches. The idea of a period of prayer for Christian unity came up in a conversation between Fr. Wattson and an Anglican clergyman in England, The Rev. Spencer Jones. In the autumn of 1907, Fr. Jones suggested an annual day of prayer for Christian unity. Fr. Wattson concurred, but simultaneously conceived the idea of a Church Unity Week or “Octave”, to be observed for eight days between January 18 and 25, the dates of the two feasts mentioned earlier. The first attempt at the observance, held in the small, gloomy Graymoor chapel in 1908, met with lukewarm response, at best. 
Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana, because of their pro-Roman leanings, finally asked to be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church, and in October, 1909, Pius X received the whole Society of the Atonement as a body. Eventually, the Octave became very popular, but almost exclusively in the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian bodies held observances of their own, more compatible with their theology and spirituality.
A number of historical movements towards Christian unity, from the 18th century on, preceded the Graymoors’ efforts.  In the 19th century, the desire for Christians to pray together was occasioned by the divisions which weakened the power of Christian witness. In 1846 the Evangelical Alliance was established in London and developed both international and inter-church connections. The Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians was founded in 1857 with Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox participation. The Popes had consistently urged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity, but only from the particular stance of return to the Roman Catholic fold. The Lambeth Conferences, particularly in 1878, during this period also promoted prayer for Christian unity.
In 1913 the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church issued a number of publications for Christian unity, and the preparatory Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for a special week of prayer for Christian unity. Faith and Order continued to issue "Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity" until 1941 when it changed the dates for its week to that of the January Octave. In this way, Christians, who for reasons of conscience, could not join with others in prayer services could still share in united prayer at a specific time. 

In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a French priest, addressed this problem by promoting prayer for Christian unity on the inclusive basis that "our Lord would grant to his Church on earth that peace and unity which were in his mind and purpose, when, on the eve of His Passion, He prayed that all might be one." A huge ecumenical step was taken in 1964 with the issuing of the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican Council II. The Decree was clear for Roman Catholics: "In certain special circumstances, such as in prayer services for unity and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable, that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren. Today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue belongs to all people of faith who wish, as Jesus did, "that all may be one". The formation of official ecumenical dialogues among Christians and between non-Christian bodies reinforces the value of such a yearly observance.

A dear deceased Trappist monk friend of mine, Fr. Brendan, OCSO, once sent me this quote: “The schisms, persecutions, and polemics of our yesterdays [today] begin to assume a certain unreality...As the Christian world once split on the dipthong, so have Christians killed each other for a definition. That they should quarrel and divide within the great area of mystery created by the Incarnation, which they share and live by, becomes increasingly unacceptable. The most elementary lesson of a faith held in common is to love, and so to understand one another...

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