December 19, 2014

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Common prayer among Christians promotes unity

Ut unum sint. That all may be one. At no other time of year is this longing of Christ for all Christians more evident than Jan. 18-25. This is the period of the Church Unity Octave.

Prayer among Christians seeking to express their longing for unity has been with us for more than a century.

The Church Unity Octave was first observed in January 1908. It begins with the feast of the Chair of St. Peter on Jan. 18, and concludes on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25. Those who observed it first were Anglo-Catholics (Episcopalians) and Roman Catholics, who gathered in a remote hillside chapel 50 miles from New York.

St. Pius X later gave his blessing to the Church Unity Octave. In 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended its observance to the universal Church. This recognition by papal authority gave the Octave its impetus throughout the Roman Catholic Church,” notes Franciscan Father Timothy MacDonald, associate director of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute.

But there existed a barrier to common prayer among Christians. Roman Catholics and other Christians believed that they could not, in conscience, pray together. This was a vestige of the Reformation and its early mutual Catholic/Reformer condemnations.

In addition, the popes of the 19th century, though open to prayer for unity, insisted that this prayer be for the return to the Roman Catholic Church of other Christians. The views of the leaders of the Church on this pastoral practice developed until common prayer with other Christians became possible in 1964.

The Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism” told Catholics that “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. Such prayers in common are certainly a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity, and they are a genuine expression of the ties which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren” (#8).

In 1993, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism.” It explicitly encouraged participation in the Church Unity Octave, which has become known as the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Today, the observance of the week of prayer belongs to all Christians sincerely interested in the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer “that all may be one.”

Sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer are the work of Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute in collaboration with the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

For more on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and its history, log on to

The next prayer service and it accompanying resources are based on a passage from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus asked the Samaritan woman: “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:7).

At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin will participate in a prayer service for Christian unity at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Catholics from across central and southern Indiana are invited to participate in the service alongside Christians from other traditions.

In addition, a resource of daily prayer and reflection for home or group use spanning the days of Jan. 18-25 can be found at

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism. He is also dean of the Terre Haute deanery and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes, both in Terre Haute. E-mail him at

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