During the Cold War, it was alleged to be a target of the KGB, which

taught operatives how to utilize naive, “useful idiots” within liberal ranks to advance Soviet goals.

Yet the World Council of Churches has survived, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

“At least once a year,” the WCC offers on its website, “many Christians become aware of the great diversity of ways of adoring God. Hearts are touched, and people realize that their neighbors’ ways are not so strange.

“The event that touches off this special experience is something called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“Traditionally celebrated between 18-25 January (in the northern hemisphere) or at Pentecost (in the southern hemisphere), the Week of Prayer enters into congregations and parishes all over the world. Pulpits are exchanged, and special ecumenical worship services are arranged.

“Ecumenical partners in a particular region are asked to prepare a basic text on a biblical theme. Then an international group with WCC-sponsored (Protestant and Orthodox) and Roman Catholic participants edits this text and ensures that it is linked with the search for the unity of the church.”

Roman Catholic? Really?

A check with local parish priests verifies that the Catholic Church’s policy of not inviting non-Catholic clergy to speak from Catholic pulpits stands. However, priests throughout the U.S. have been reminded by their bishops that they are permitted to mention the Week of Prayer in their sermons and include the goals for Christian unity in their prayers.

The WCC website notes that the text from which sermons can be based has been jointly published by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the WCC “and has been sent to Roman Catholic dioceses” and “they are invited to translate the text and contextualize it for their own use.”

The Week of Prayer was the brainchild in 1908 of Spencer Jones, the Anglican Vicar of Moreton-in-Marsh Church in England and his friend and fellow Church of England clergyman Paul Wattson, together with Lurana White. In 1909, Wattson and White converted to Catholicism and cofounded the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. Wattson and White believed that Christian unity could only be achieved by the other churches returning to the Roman Catholic fold – which remains the official Catholic position.

The event caught on during the 1930s through the work of a French Roman Catholic, Paul Couturier, who did not believe that it was necessary for all Christians to become Catholic. He taught that “we must pray not that others may be converted to us but that we may all be drawn closer to Christ.”

Although the strain between the various branches of Christianity is difficult much of the time, “The desire for Christian unity – which is the real spark behind the ecumenical movement – originates in the heart of Christ,” notes an editorial supporting the Week of Prayer in the Catholic magazine St. Anthony’s Messenger.

Jesus’ fervent desire is expressed clearly in the prayer he uttered at the Last Supper. Speaking of the beloved disciples whom His loving Father entrusted into His care, Jesus prays, ‘Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are’ (John 17:11).

“A few verses later, Jesus expands this prayer with a rich addition: ‘I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in

me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me’ (John 17:20-21).

“Prayer is an important way to start any human project,” continues the St. Anthony’s Messenger editorial, “as the opening verse of Psalm 127 asserts: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” How much more does this apply to the urgent cause of building up the “House of Christian Unity”! Unless Christ helps build this house, we truly work in vain.”

This first celebration of Wattson’s Week of Prayer “took place in the chapel of a small Franciscan convent of the Episcopal Church, on a hillside 50 miles north of New York City,” notes the Messenger.