The Abbé Paul Couturier began to promote public prayer for the Unity of Christians on the three days of January 20-22, 1933. He was inspired by the Church Unity Octave, which Father Paul Wattson SA, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (while still an Anglican) and his friend the Reverend Spencer Jones, Anglican vicar of St David's, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, began in 1908. Their intention was the reunion of Christendom around the See of Peter. The devotion received the approval of Pius X the following year, not long after Fr Wattson and his community became Roman Catholics, and was extended to the whole Roman Catholic Church by Benedict XV in 1916. Couturier came to see this as a foundation for something larger, something less centralized. He became convinced of the need for a Week of Prayer that was not simply about one body of Christians, but that could take account of all different kinds of Christians' spiritual longing for unity. Always a faithful Catholic priest, he discovered how prayer with and for other Christians, equally true to their own confessions, could unlock for all the spiritual treasures of separated churches, and promote the love, fellowship and understanding that would lead to unity of faith and life in Christ, through praying ever more closely his own high priestly prayer that all the disciples should be one.
In 1934 an Octave of Universal Prayer of Christians for Christian Unity occupied the days from the Feast of St Peter's Chair (the establishment of his first See in Antioch and the beginning of his ministry as a bishop) on 18 January to the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on 25 January. In 1936 it was first called by the title known today - the Week of Prayer, a Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians.
For many years, Couturier sent Tracts all over the world, so that more and more of those who shared his intense concern for Unity could join in one Spirit with all that was taking place in Lyon. Through his ministry of visionary guidance and tireless correspondence, the Week of Prayer was taken to heart by Christians in all churches. Many came to realize, as he did, that the Church is one and indivisible, and that the separation of Christians is not a fact of life, or a point of principle, but a grave scandal. Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky of Kiev had written that 'the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven', and the movement that the Abbé inspired has been tireless in its prayer to remove all that obscures the visible Unity of the Church.
The effects of this prayer can be detected in two momentous developments in the history of Christianity in the mid twentieth century, in the aftermath of the physical, moral and spiritual devastation of the Second World War. The first was the foundation of the World Council of Churches. The second was the complete renewal of the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. Both were foreshadowed in the Abbé's prayers in the preceding decades. Since 1968, the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity have been collaborating on new resources each year. They ensure that Couturier's work of prayer, embracing people of all churches and nations, still urges the need for the unity of Christians.
For full details, see the special websites at the World Council of Churches and the Vatican:
Details on resources designed for local use, are available or downloadable following these links:
Even fifty years after Paul Couturier died, there still remains the need to recover his vision of a spiritual transformation in the life of Christians. He saw the problem of unity was primarily a question of the right orientation of the interior life.
The following pages, containing his own prayers and thoughts, recall us to the Abbé's foremost ecumenical task:
Father, may we be one in Christ, according to his will, according to his means.