January 18, 2008 marked 100 years since the first Christian Unity Week of Prayer was first held on January 18, 1908.
Over a century ago an American Episcopalian priest and an English Anglican vicar exchanged correspondence regarding a day of prayer for Christian Unity. Reverend Jones, the Anglican vicar, proposed June 29th, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Friar Paul Wattson, the Episcopalian, suggested a week of prayer between the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (then celebrated on January 18th) and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th.
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.
The Feast of the Chair, now celebrated on February 22, is not in honor of the grand Basilica in St. Peter’s Cathedral, designed by Bernini during the 17th century. Nor is it meant to pay homage to the remains of the chair behind it–once thought to have been St. Peter’s own chair–which is now believed to have been built around the 9th century.
The word “chair” in Latin is cathedra, from which we get the word “cathedral.” Specifically, cathedra referred to a chair with armrests, or a throne. But the word signified the power that went along with the throne of the Roman Emperor. Today we still say “the seat of power” to refer to an abstract position of power, not as a four-legged furniture piece. (Likewise, “chairman of the board” does not mean upholsterer.)
Thus the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is in effect in honor of the creation of the Papacy by Jesus and St. Peter.
Records of the Feast date all the way back to the 4th century, and were adapted from an ancient Roman tradition honoring the memory of the original patriarch of a dynasty, family or clan.
In 1908 Friar Paul Wattson felt this would be an appropriate date on which to start an Ecumenical week of prayer. The term Ecumenical Movement refers to “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken…to promote Christian unity.” (Unitatis Regintegratio, Vatican II)
The Society of the Atonement was founded by Wattson and Mother Lurana White in Garrsion, New York in 1898, one of its main missions being greater unification between the differing sects of Christianity. Wattson decided upon the name “Atonement” while reading Romans 5:11. The word atonement “seemed to stand out from that sacred page with a distinctness all it own…” When divided the word read ‘at one’ -ment.
Friar James Gardiner describes the first observance of Christian Unity Prayer Week:
“Ten inches of snow blanketed the Hudson River Valley and temperatures hovered in the low 30s. There couldn’t have been more than a handful of people–probably just the Friars and Sisters–who gathered each night in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels at Greymoor.”
Through Wattson’s correspondence with religious leader thousands of others joined in prayer at other locations.
The following year Wattson was told, “You cannot serve either the Papal Church or the Protestant Episcopal Church well if you try to serve both at the same time.
Friar Paul along with Mother Lurana and other members of the Society of the Atonement made the choice of submitting to the Catholic Church as a distinct religious community. The Friars and Sisters of the Atonement were recognized as corporate body, “the first such occurrence since the Reformation.” (http://www.prounione.urbe.it/fra-fri/e_friars.html)
The Christian Unity Octave was blessed by Pope Pius X. During World War I Pope Benedict XV encouraged the annual celebration throughout the Catholic Church. For its Golden Jubilee Pope John XXIII announced:
Encouraging you and your community to ever more strenuous efforts in the propagation of the Chair of Unity Octave, we urgently invite the faithful of every race and clime to join in this period of prayer.
Five years later the Second Vatican Council recognized that prayer was “the soul of ecumenical movement” and “welcomed ecumenical dialogue with non-Catholic Christians and with Orthodox Churches.”
The decree announced revolutionary changes that encouraged cooperation between separate churches, including:
“All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of the Body of Christ, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church…
“The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.
“Catholics are encouraged to join in ecumincal activity, and to meet non-Catholic Christians in truth and love…
“All Christians have a common purpose–to confess Christ before men. Practical expression must be given to this, by relieving the distress which afflicts so many of the human race: famine, illiteracy, shortage of housing and the unequal distribution of wealth.”
[posted January 18, 2008]