Pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17)
Jointly prepared and published by
The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity
The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches
The scripture quotations contained herein are from The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
To those organizing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
The search for unity: throughout the year
The traditional period in the northern hemisphere for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is 18-25 January. Those dates were proposed in 1908 by Paul Wattson to cover the days between the feasts of St Peter and St Paul, and therefore have a symbolic significance. In the southern hemisphere where January is a vacation time churches often find other days to celebrate the week of prayer, for example around Pentecost (which was suggested by the Faith and Order movement in 1926), which is also a symbolic date for the unity of the church.
Mindful of this flexibility concerning the date, we encourage you to understand the material presented here as an invitation to find opportunities throughout the whole year to express the degree of communion which the churches have already received, and to pray together for that full unity which is Christ’s will.
Adapting the text
This material is offered with the understanding that, whenever possible, it will be adapted for use at the local level. In doing this, account must be taken of local liturgical and devotional practice, and of the whole social and cultural context. Such adaptation should normally take place ecumenically. In some places ecumenical structures are already set up for adapting the material. In other places, we hope that the need to adapt it will be a stimulus to creating such structures.
Using the Week of Prayer material
For churches and Christian communities which observe the week of prayer together through a single common service, an order for an ecumenical worship service is provided.
Churches and Christian communities may also incorporate material from the week of prayer into their own services. Prayers from the ecumenical worship service, the ‘eight days’, and the selection of additional prayers can be used as appropriate in their own setting.
Communities which observe the week of prayer in their worship for each day during the week may draw material for these services from the eight days.
Those wishing to do bible studies on the week of prayer theme can use as a basis the biblical texts and reflections given in the eight days. Each day the discussions can lead to a closing period of intercessory prayer.
Those who wish to pray privately may find the material helpful for focusing their prayer intentions. They can be mindful that they are in communion with others praying all around the world for the greater visible unity of Christ’s church.
1 Thessalonians 5: 12a, 13b-18
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters… Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Introduction to the Theme of the Week of Prayer for 2008
The ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ for 2008 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of the ‘Church Unity Octave’. Behind this shift in terminology lies a history of developments in prayer for Christian unity, an overview of which is given in the opening section of this Introduction to the Theme. A second section introduces the biblical text and theme chosen for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2008. This is followed by a brief reflection on ‘spiritual ecumenism’ as a framework within which prayer for Christian unity can be helpfully understood. The introduction concludes with an outline of the structure for the eight days of the unity octave for this year.
An important anniversary
One hundred years ago, Father Paul Wattson, Episcopal (Anglican) priest and co-founder of the Society of the Atonement at Graymoor (Garrison, New York), introduced a Prayer Octave for Christian Unity that was first celebrated from 18 to 25 January 1908. Exactly sixty years later, in 1968, churches and parishes around the world received for the first time material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which had been jointly prepared by Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (Catholic Church).
Today the cooperation between Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic churches, parishes and communities in preparing for and celebrating the week of prayer has become a familiar practice. This simple fact is in itself a strong evidence for the effectiveness of prayer for unity. It gives us every right to speak about the history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as one of success, and a reason for great joy and gratitude.
Antecedents of the Week of Prayer
Taking the occasion of these two anniversaries to look at the history of the week of prayer, it is of course evident that praying for unity is not an invention of the last century. Jesus himself prayed to the Father “that they all may be one”; Christians have made this prayer their own in myriad ways ever since. In the midst of our divisions, Christians of all traditions have prayed with an awareness of their union with the prayer of Christ for the unity of all his disciples. The ancient daily liturgy of the Orthodox churches, for example, invites the faithful to pray for peace and for the unity of all.
The antecedents of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity date back to the middle of the 19th century. The importance and the need of prayer, and not least, of prayer for unity among divided Christians, was emphasized in a number of different church movements and circles – among them the Oxford Movement, the Evangelical Alliance and various women’s prayer initiatives. In his Irenic Letter to all local Orthodox churches in 1902 the Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III emphasized that the unity of all Christians is a “subject of constant prayer and supplication”.
Paul Wattson and Paul Couturier
When Father Paul Wattson conceived and implemented the octave of prayer - which is regarded as the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as it is currently celebrated - he saw unity as the return of the different churches to the Roman Catholic Church. This influenced his choice of dates for the octave, from 18 January, which was at that time in the Roman Catholic calendar the ‘Feast of the Chair of Peter’, up to 25 January, the Feast of the Conversion of Paul. After the Society of the Atonement had been corporately received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1909, Pope St Pius X gave the octave for unity his official blessing.
In the mid-1930’s, Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, gave a new orientation to the church unity octave. By this time, the observance of the octave had started to spread throughout the Catholic Church and in a small number of Anglican communities sympathetic to reunion with the bishop of Rome; but this approach was rejected on theological grounds by many Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church. Abbé Paul maintained the dates of 18–25 January, but changed the terminology; the ‘Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ which he promoted was to pray for the unity of the church “as Christ wills it”.
Faith and Order
We can also identify another stream of initiatives of prayer for Christian unity as part of the week of prayer’s origins. In 1915, A Manual of Prayer for Christian Unity was printed for ‘The Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America on the World Conference on Faith and Order’. The short introduction emphasized the hope that different communions each prayed for unity, but not necessarily that they physically prayed together. Neither was there an expectation that “liturgical churches like the Roman Catholic and the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church” would make use of their material, but rather, that they would draw on their own rich heritage and resources of prayers for Christian unity.
From 1921 onwards the Continuation Committee for the World Conference on Faith and Order published material for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity and suggested that it be held during the eight days ending with Pentecost. In 1941 the Commission on Faith and Order moved these dates to January to coincide with the Catholic initiative so that both streams would invite Christians to pray at the same time. From 1958 onwards the material prepared by Faith and Order was in large part coordinated with the Roman Catholic material prepared in Lyons, and from 1960 the material was discussed together in detail, albeit in a discreet manner, since these ecumenical endeavours were not yet officially encouraged by the Catholic Church.
Towards a common celebration of the Week of Prayer
It was on 25 January, 1959, at the conclusion of the prayer for unity octave, that Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council, which brought the Catholic Church energetically into the ecumenical movement. The Council also finally opened the door for official cooperation between the World Council of Churches’ Secretariat on Faith and Order and the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Unity. A joint consultation on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was held in 1966 resulting in the establishment of a joint working group on the material for the week of prayer. In 1968 the first product of that group was ready for use. Beginning in 1973, each year an ecumenical group from a different part of the world has been invited to prepare a first draft of week of prayer materials, which the international joint preparatory group then revises. To travel in this way around the globe underlines the truly ecumenical character of the week of prayer. This long history of joint preparation and celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity finally led in 2004 to the full joint publication of the material by Faith and Order and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The biblical text and theme chosen for 2008
The biblical text for this centennial Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is taken from 1 Thessalonians. The text “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5: 17) stresses the essential role of prayer within the life of the Christian community as its members grow in their relationship to Christ and to one another. This text is one in a series of ‘imperatives’, statements in which Paul encourages the community to live out its God-given unity in Christ, to be in practice what it is in principle: the one body of Christ, visibly one in that place.
The letter to the Thessalonians, dating from 50 or 51 AD and considered by most exegetes to be the earliest of Paul’s known letters, reflects Paul’s intense relationship with the Christian community in Thessalonica. Fresh from persecution in Philippi – where Paul and his companions Silvanus and Timothy had been attacked by a mob, beaten at the command of the town magistrates, and thrown into prison (Acts 17: 1-9) – Paul had established the church in Thessalonica in a few weeks of concentrated work before fresh attacks drove him on to Beroea and from there, to Athens (17: 10-15). Paul had high hopes for the church in Thessalonica; its growth in faith, hope and love, its reception of the word despite suffering, and its joy in the Holy Spirit all drew his admiration and praise (1 Thess 1: 2-10). Yet he was concerned. His hasty departure had not left him time to consolidate the work he had begun, and he had received disturbing reports. Some challenges were external, notably, persecution of the community and its members (1 Thess 2: 14). Others were internal: some were behaving in ways typical of the culture around them rather than of the new life in Christ (4: 1-8); some in the community had raised questions about those in positions of leadership and authority, including Paul himself (cf. 2: 3-7, 10); and some despaired at the fate of those who were dying before the return of Christ. Would they be denied a place in God’s kingdom? Was the promise of salvation, for them and perhaps for others, empty and void (cf. 4: 13)?
Fearing that his work had been in vain and “able to bear it no longer” (3:1) Paul, unable himself to return, had sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy had returned with news of the community’s strong faith and love, and its continued loyalty to Paul himself. 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s response to this good news – but also to the challenges facing the growing church. He wrote first to thank the community for its strength in the face of persecution. Second, for all his relief and joy at Timothy’s report, he recognized in it the seeds of division within the church, and thus hastened to address the diverse questions raised within the community about personal behaviour (4: 9-12), leadership (5: 12-13a) and the hope of eternal life in Christ (4: 14-5: 11).
One of Paul’s central aims was to build up the community in its unity. Even death does not break the bonds which unite it as the one body of Christ; Christ has died and risen for all, so that at Christ’s coming both those who have already fallen asleep, and those still living “may live with him” (5: 10). This brought Paul to the imperatives in the text (1 Thessalonians 5: 13b-18), which have been chosen from a slightly longer list of exhortations to form the basis for this year’s week of prayer. The passage begins with Paul’s plea that the members of the community “be at peace among yourselves” (5: 13b) – a peace which is not simply the absence of conflict but a state of harmony in which the gifts of all within the community contribute to its thriving and growth.
Strikingly, Paul did not offer abstract theological teaching nor did he speak about emotions or feelings. Just as in the famous text on love from 1 Corinthians 13, he called rather for specific actions, actual ways of behaving, through which members of the community reveal their commitment and accountability to one another within the one body of Christ. Love is to be put into practice and made visible.
The imperatives themselves, the ‘things that make for peace’, he lists as follows: ensuring the contribution of all and encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient with all, not repaying evil for evil but doing good to one another and to all, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances (5: 14-18a). The section chosen then concludes with the affirmation that, in doing these things, the community is living out “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5: 18b).
The appeal to “pray without ceasing” (5: 17) is embedded within this list of imperatives. This emphasizes that life in Christian community is possible only through a life of prayer. Further, it shows that prayer is an integral part of the life of Christians precisely as they seek to manifest the unity which is given them in Christ – a unity which is not limited to doctrinal agreements and formal statements, but finds expression in the things that make for peace, in concrete actions which express and build up their unity in Christ and with one another.
Christ’s prayer – and Christian unity
In our baptism we commit ourselves to the following of Christ and the fulfilment of his will. This will for his followers was expressed in a prayer for unity so that others would come to believe in him as the one sent by God. Prayer that joins Jesus’ prayer for unity has come to be referred to by some churches as an expression of ‘spiritual ecumenism’. This prayer is most intense during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but needs to flow out of this observance into our daily lives. We realize that Christian unity cannot be solely the fruit of human efforts, but is always the work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot as humans make or organize it. We can only receive it as a gift of the Spirit when we ourselves are prepared to receive it.
Spiritual ecumenism calls forth an exchange of spiritual gifts so that what is lacking in each of our traditions finds its needed complement; this enables us to go beyond denominational labels to the Giver of all gifts. The surprising thing about prayer is that its first effect is in us. Our own minds and hearts are shaped by prayer as we seek opportunities to translate that prayer into practice, the true test of its authenticity. Spiritual ecumenism leads us to a healing of our memories. We face those difficult events of the past that give rise to competing interpretations of what happened and why. As a result, we can go beyond those things which have kept us divided. In other words, the goal of spiritual ecumenism is Christian unity that leads us into mission for the glory of God.
If believers are to follow Jesus, they must work and pray for Christian unity. However, the churches have differing visions of the visible unity for which we are praying. For some, full visible unity is the goal, bringing churches together in common confession, worship and sacraments, witness, decision-making and structured life. Others look to a ‘reconciled diversity’, with the present churches working together to present a coherent witness to the world. For still others unity is found rather in the invisible bonds linking us to Christ and with one another, with an emphasis on personal ways of living one’s faith in the world.
In this context, prayer for Christian unity is a challenging prayer. It is prayer that effects change in our own personal identity as well as in our confessional identity. Ultimately it means that we will give up our way of seeing unity in favour of concentrating on seeing what God wants for his people. However this does not mean that we will divest ourselves of our uniqueness, for unity naturally expresses itself in diversity. It is unity in diversity which reflects the mystery of communion in love, as seen in God’s own being.
The eight days
The meditations for the eight days in this year’s material for the week of prayer build on the notion that prayer for Christian unity, spiritual ecumenism, is foundational to all other aspects of the search for unity among Christians. They offer a sustained reflection on the theme of prayer for unity, each drawing attention to one aspect or concern of such prayer, and making a connection to one of the imperatives which St Paul addresses to the Christian community in Thessalonica. The opening meditation presents unity as a gift and a call to the church, and ponders what it means to “pray without ceasing” for unity. Day 2 invites Christians to trust in God and to give thanks as we work and pray for unity, mindful that it is the Holy Spirit who is directing our ecumenical pilgrimage. The need for an ongoing conversion of our hearts, both as individuals and as churches, is the focus of the third reflection. Day 4 is entitled ‘Pray always for justice’, and challenges Christians to a Christ-centred prayer which leads us to work together in responding to injustice and to the needs of suffering humanity.
Patience and perseverance go hand in hand in Christian life, and Day 5 invites a prayerful attentiveness to the different paces and rhythms of our sisters and brothers as we strive for the unity Christ desires for his disciples. The meditation for Day 6 encourages prayer for the grace to be willing instruments of God in this reconciling work. Day 7 suggests that as we have learned to work together in responding to others in their distress, so too we might learn how to walk together in prayer, learning to appreciate the many different ways in which Christians turn to God in their need. The final meditation of the eight days takes stock of where we are on the Spirit-led journey to unity, calling us and our churches to recommit ourselves to pray and strive with our whole being for the unity and peace willed by God.
The Preparation of Material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2008
The initial draft of material was prepared by the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, New York, New York, USA, Father James Loughran, SA, Director, in consultation with Dr Ann Riggs, Executive Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA; Dr Keelan Downton, Doctoral Fellow; the Reverend James Massa, Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Ms Susan Dennis, President and Executive Director of the Interchurch Center, New York, NY, USA.
It represents the working relationship between the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, the NCCCUSA, the USCCB and the Interchurch Center in their annual efforts in the United States to promote the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. All those involved have taken special note of the 100th anniversary of the Church Unity Octave first observed at Graymoor, in Garrison, New York from 18-25 January 1908. The preparation of the theme and texts celebrate the history of 100 years of prayer while calling for a reinvigoration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, hence the theme, ‘Pray without ceasing’.
The material was adapted to its present form at a meeting of the international preparatory group appointed by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The international group met at Graymoor, NY, in September 2006, and its members wish to extend their thanks to the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement for their gracious hospitality, and to all who were involved in preparing the initial draft.
To index page of the 2008 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity