Fifty-eight years ago this week, on January 25, 1959, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, less than three months into his pontificate as Pope John XXIII, shocked the world by announcing his intention to convoke “an ecumenical council for the universal church.” The seventy-eight-year-old pontiff made sure that Christian unity would be central in the deliberations of the Council. He wanted the Council to be, he said, “an invitation to the separated communities to seek again that unity for which so many souls are longing in these days throughout the world.”
“Good Pope John” frequently referred to the Second Vatican Council as a new Pentecost, as in his prayer that the Lord would renew “his wonders in our time, as by a new Pentecost” (per novum veluti Pentecostem mirabilia tua). He was well aware that the fire of Pentecost did not descend on the disciples in the Upper Room out of the blue. It was born in a prayer meeting. Thus it was no coincidence that Pope John first announced the Council at the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This annual cycle of prayer had deep roots in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions alike.
It was Paul Wattson, one of the founders of the Society of the Atonement, who first suggested in the first decade of the twentieth century that it would be good to observe an annual Octave of Prayer. He proposed beginning on January 18, which was then commemorated as the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair, and concluding on January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Peter and Paul, despite their notable differences, labored together to build up the Body of Christ. In this sense, they were invoked as patron saints of a new initiative of prayer for Christian unity. Wattson, who had been an Anglican priest, entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1909. In 1916, Pope Benedict XV sanctioned the annual observance of a week of prayer for unity.
The emphasis on believers praying together for Christian unity was given wider scope by that remarkable pioneer of spiritual ecumenism, Abbé Paul-Iréné Couturier. Couturier was a devout man of prayer himself, and he reminded believers from all traditions that throughout history all Christians have concluded their prayers by saying “through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.” These words, he said, were not a mere liturgical embellishment tacked onto the end of a prayer, but rather an expression of true spiritual communion. In 1935, Couturier called for a Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This would not be a prayer for all Christians to return to Rome, though doubtless many Catholics continued to pray in that direction. Rather, it was a prayer for the “unity that Christ wills, as he wills, and when he wills.” Full visible unity of all believing Christians was still the goal, but such unity would be achieved “as Christ wishes and by the means which he desires.”
Couturier helped to initiate the movement for Christian unity in two other ways, as well. First, he befriended and offered counsel to the Swiss Reformed pastor Roger Schutz in the early days of what would become the ecumenical community of Taizé. Later, Pope John XXIII himself welcomed Brother Roger and the “Calvinist monks” of Taizé to the Second Vatican Council and said of their community: “Ah! That little springtime!” Couturier was also the moving force behind the establishment of the Groupe des Dombes, an ongoing Protestant-Catholic theological dialogue dating back to 1936. The theological work of this group always included common prayers and the study of the Scriptures.
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism called for both public and private prayer for Christian unity and referred to such prayer as “the soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” Pope John Paul II took up this theme in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. There he noted the crucial role of “ecumenical” prayer among brothers and sisters in Christ who, though separated from one another, meet together in Christ and entrust to him the future of their unity and their communion. He found support for this teaching in the words of Jesus himself: “The Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father ‘that all may be one … as we are one’ (John 17:21-22), opened up vistas closed to human reason.”
Praying for Christian unity has included another theme developed in the Decree on Ecumenism: compunctio, remorse, repentance. In recent years, recognition of the need to repent for sins committed in the name of Christ has grown within all sectors of the Lord’s people. This recognition has led to a new focus on the “purification of memories,” which continues to shape ecumenical discourse. Who can forget the impact of Pope John Paul’s second sweeping confession during Lent in the Jubilee year 2000? “We humbly ask for forgiveness for the part that each of us with his or her behaviors has played in the evils that contribute to disrupting the face of the church. At the same time, as we confess our sins, let us forgive the faults committed by others toward us.” In Ut Unum Sint, the pope called on all Christians “to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today.” He then directly linked this conversion of heart to the New Evangelization so necessary for the flourishing of the Gospel in our time.
The continuing ecumenical impact of this emphasis is seen in the 2010 report of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, “Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ.” The historic background of this report is the Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists, whom today’s Mennonites acknowledge as their spiritual forebears, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The report offers an in-depth theological analysis of those articles of the Augsburg Confession—church condemnations—used to justify the persecution and even execution of Anabaptists. The report was a way for today’s Lutherans and today’s Mennonites to tell the sixteenth-century story together. It was discovered that some of the historic condemnations no longer applied, because they were based on erroneous judgments about what sixteenth-century Anabaptists actually believed and practiced. However, on other matters, especially baptism and its relation to the Christian life, substantial, church-dividing differences remain. In light of this ecumenical study, the Eleventh Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation took the historic step of asking the Mennonites for forgiveness, expressing compunction—deep regret and sorrow—for violence done against sixteenth-century Anabaptists in the name of Christ. This solemn service of remembrance and reconciliation concluded with the liturgical act of foot-washing, symbolizing what both communities seek to display toward one another and toward the world, namely, boundless love and unfailing service.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is still observed by Christians from many traditions throughout the world today. This is a good way for believers in Christ to acknowledge the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in leading God’s people toward that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires in prayer, word, and action. Such unity is not only about doctrine and church order—though these matters are crucial and should not be downplayed. The quest for Christian unity is a call to a new life, to lifelong metanoia, and to conversion in the deepest sense. Prayer is essential in every step of this process.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
For an expanded version of this essay, see “Unitatis Redintegratio, After Fifty Years: A Protestant Reading,” Pro Ecclesia, 25/1 (2016).