by Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon

Paul Irénée Couturier, the so-called founder of the modern Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, shared two things with his namesake, Irenaeus: his birthplace of Lyons, France and an abiding passion for the unity of Christians.1 For Couturier: "The quest of Christian unity can no longer be thought of as a reversion to the past, but rather as an integration, to be attained in the future, of all Christian values."2

Couturier took to heart the text known as The Testament of Cardinal Mercier, which contains the following insight:

In order to unite with one another, we must love one another;
in order to love one another, we must know one another;
in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.3

Although Paul Couturier is popularly known as the "father" of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Geoffrey Curtis attributes the concept to the World Evangelical Alliance which presented a "call to prayer to Christians all over the world in a New Year Week of Prayer."4 Curtis suggests that this was most likely in response to James Haldane Stewart's "invitation to Christians to set aside the first Monday of the year for prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit."5

For the origin of the idea of spiritual ecumenism, Curtis points to two sources. The first is the liturgical expressions in the eucharistic rites of the Roman and Eastern rites: "that our Lord will grant to his Church 'that peace and unity which is according to his will.'"6 And a similar prayer in the Book of Common Prayer in which:

God is constantly besought "to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord."7

The other source which Curtis points to are certain organized movements of prayer which he considers as "preludes" to the later "crusades of prayer for unity."8

Amongst these may be recalled the great movement of united prayer for the Holy spirit and Revival which passed from Scotland to America and swept back thence to England, Holland, Switzerland and America finding prophetic expression in the work of the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards (1705-58).9

Curtis suggests that this movement was responsible for:

drawing together Christians of different denominations in that missionary and evangelistic activity which did so much to bring about the ecumenism of our own times.10

The eventual institution of the Week of Prayer derives from a recommendation from the Lambeth Conference in 1878 for "the observance of a special season for [prayer for reunion] round about Ascension Day."11 A particular date was chosen for this observance by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1894. It was observed by the Church of England on Whit Sunday - Pentecost - in both 1894 and 1895. In 1895, the Roman Catholic Church in England joined their Anglican neighbours in this observance in obedience to the request of Pope Leo XIII. Leo XIII had already "enjoined upon Catholics throughout the world the first octave or novena of prayer for Christian Unity to be observed from the feast of the Ascension to Pentecost."12 In 1897, in the encyclical Divinum illud munus, Leo XIII established this novena in perpetuity.

It was not until 1908 that the octave was observed on the January dates with which it is commonly associated. Spencer Jones, a Church of England clergyman, and Lewis Thomas Wattson,13 Episcopal clergyman (and founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement), jointly initiated the observance as January 18 to 25, the feasts of the Confession (or Chair) of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul.14 In 1909, Pope Pius X approved the observance of the new octave, and extended its observance to the whole Roman Catholic Church the following year.15 Though the modern dates of the Week of Prayer were established in the U.S.A. in 1908, it was Paul Couturier in France who popularized its observance. In 1935, Couturier appealed for a universal week of prayer "for the unity Christ wills by the means He wills." It is for this that he is known as the father of the Week of Prayer. It was not until the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism (1964) that Roman Catholics were permitted, and indeed encouraged, to meet together with other Christians for common prayer for unity.

The dates of January 18 to 25 are still observed annually throughout the world. In Canada the Week of Prayer is observed between the two Sundays within which January 25 falls. In the United States and elsewhere, the January 18 to 25 dates are observed more rigidly. The advantage of the Canadian dates is that there are always two Sunday services during the observance. There has been some discussion of moving the Canadian observance to summer dates so as to avoid winter weather. This change has been resisted so as to allow Canadian churches to observe the occasion simultaneously with churches around the world.

Worship and educational materials have been prepared annually since 1968 by a joint committee of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This material is distributed worldwide in many languages, and is distributed with supplementary material by local ecumenical centres and national councils of churches.

There are a number of other forms of spiritual ecumenism as well. Pulpit exchanges occur between many churches from time to time, although mainly during the Week of Prayer. As well, Bible studies and prayer groups regularly include - and in fact seek out - members of other local congregations. Many churches have entered into "twinning" arrangements or covenants with other local churches. Each year, the World Day of Prayer is held on the first Friday in March. While originally a day of prayer for women and women's issues, the day has widened its appeal and its focus in recent years. More recently, the March for Jesus has been developed in evangelical circles, and is also growing in popularity in mainline churches. This observance is held globally every second year around Pentecost. Another evangelical contribution, the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church has become widely observed as well. In this last example, joining together in local communities to pray for the church around the world exemplifies the spirit of ecumenism that has allowed the wider ecumenical rapprochement over the past century.


1 Geoffrey Curtis, Paul Couturier and Unity in Christ (London: SCM Press, 1964).
2 Ibid., p. 40
3 Ibid., p. 48. The text was probably written by Dom Lambert Beaudoin. Quoted from L'Œuvre des moiness Bénédictins d'Amay-sur-Meuse, 2nd ed. (Amay, 1926), translator unknown.
4 Ibid., p. 53
5 Ibid. Curtis cites James Haldane Stewart, Hints for a General Union of Christians for Prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (1821).
6 Ibid., p. 52. Quoted from the Tridentine Rite.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p. 52
9 Ibid., p. 53
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., p. 56
12 Ibid.
13 Wattson adopted the name Paul James Wattson upon his conversion to Roman Catholicism. In 1909, Wattson and the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement were corporately received into the Roman Catholic Church.
14 Ibid., pp. 59-60
15 Ibid., pp. 59-61