History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was first proposed in 1908 as an observance within the Roman Catholic Church by Fr Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Graymoor, New York. In November of 2014, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed the cause for Fr Wattson’s canonization.

Since the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, many other Christian denominations around the world have come to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and since 1968, the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have collaborated to produce materials for use over this eight-day period.  

Key Dates in the History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

ca. 1740 – In Scotland, a pentecostal movement with North American links includes prayer for and with all churches in its revivalist message

1820 – The Rev’d James Haldane Stewart publishes “Hints for the General Union of Christians for the Outpouring of the Spirit.”

1840 – The Rev’d Ignatius Spencer, a convert to Roman Catholicism, suggests a “Union of Prayer for Unity.”

1867 – The First Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops emphasizes prayer for unity in the Preamble to its Resolutions.

1894 – Pope Leo XIII encourages the practice of a Prayer Octave for Unity in the context of Pentecost.

1908 – The observance of the “Church Unity Octave” is initiated by the Rev’d Paul Wattson.

1926 – The Faith and Order movement begins publishing “Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

1935 – Abbé Paul Couturier of France advocates the “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” on the inclusive basis of prayer for “the unity Christ wills by the means he wills.”

1958 – Unité Chrétienne (Lyons, France) and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches begin co-operative preparation of materials for the Week of Prayer.

1963 - Father Irénée Beaubien, SJ, OC, founds the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism and encourages the observance of the Week of Prayer.

1964 – The “Decree on Ecumenism” of Vatican II emphasizes that prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement and encourages observance of the Week of Prayer.

1964 – In Jerusalem, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I prayed together Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17).

1966 – The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) begin official joint preparation of the Week of Prayer text.

1968 – First official use of Week of Prayer materials prepared jointly by Faith and Order and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity).

1968 – A joint committee of The Canadian Council of Churches and the Canadian Catholic Conference (now the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) begins to rewrite the international materials for Canadian use.

1969 to 1983 - Father Irénée Beaubien, SJ, OC (Canadian Centre for Ecumenism) was a member of the national committee charged with preparing and promoting the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

1975 – First use of Week of Prayer materials based on a text prepared by a local ecumenical group of Christians in Australia.

1994 – The Commission on Faith and Witness of The Canadian Council of Churches adapts and expands the Week of Prayer text to create a larger resource.

2004 – Agreement reached that resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity be jointly published and produced in the same format by Faith and Order (WCC) and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Catholic Church).

2008 – Commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.