Today, 18 January 2022, begins for the northern hemisphere the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme for this year relates to the Gospel account of the Magi: ‘We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him’ (Matthew 2:2).

The history of this annual practice, for the Catholic Church, dates back to the 1800s when Pope Leo XIII encouraged a Prayer Octave for Unity around the time of Pentecost. In 1908, it was officially proposed as an octave by Fr Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Graymoor, New York.

According to the Vatican’s resource book, one of the reasons the Magi are a symbol of hope for unity is because, traditionally, the Magi have been seen as ‘a symbol of the diversity of peoples known at that time, and a sign of the universality of the divine call.’ They also reflect ‘humanity’s hunger for truth, for goodness and for beauty,’ and the fact that humanity ‘has been longing for God since the beginning of creation in order to give him homage.’

Recently, on this theme, Pope Francis said, ‘The Magi reached the goal because they sought it. Yet they sought it because the Lord, by the sign of the star, had first set out in search of them.’

On this pilgrimage towards Christian unity, the Pope said that it was vital we ‘keep our gaze fixed on Christ’ and continue ‘seeking God boldly and in concrete ways.’

Ecumenism in the Catholic Church

The breakdown of the unity of the church, the splintering schisms that have plagued the Body of Christ since the beginning, are always to be seen as a scandal. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Unitatis Redintegratio, says that division ‘openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature’ (§1).

To work for unity is also a ‘divine call.’ It must begin, however, with the heart:

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them’ (§7).

There are four elements of the ecumenical movement that the document outlines. Firstly, it should not be dishonest about the nature of our divisions. We should speak truthfully about them because unity must be grounded in truth. Secondly, there should be dialogue between the different Christian communions by those competent, so that each can gain a deeper understanding of the other. Thirdly, these different Christian communions should cooperate practically in their work for the common good of humanity. Fourthly, everyone across the Christian board should continually ‘examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church’ for the sake of renewal (§4).

Themes for the week

Each day of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has a different theme based upon relevant Scripture passages. The themes are these:

  • Day 1: ‘We observed his star in the East’ (Mt. 2:2): Raise us up and draw us to your perfect light.
  • Day 2: ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’ (Mt. 2:2): Humble leadership breaks down walls and builds up with love.
  • Day 3: ‘When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Mt. 2:3): The presence of Christ, turning the world upside down.
  • Day 4: ‘And you, Bethlehem . . . are by no means least’ (Mt. 2:6): Though small and suffering, we lack nothing.
  • Day 5: ‘Ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising’ (Mt. 2:9): Guided by the One Lord.
  • Day 6: ‘They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage’ (Mt. 2:11): Gathered in worship around the One Lord.
  • Day 7: ‘Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ (Mt. 2:11): The gifts of communion.
  • Day 8: ‘The left for their own country by another road’ (Mt. 2:12): Beyond the familiar routes of separation to God’s new paths.
The Epiphany (Stained glass from Amiens Cathedral) Fr Lawrence Lew OP (


Australia will observe this octave from 29 May - 5 June 2022, between the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost.

As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins in other parts of the world, however, let us keep in our prayers these themes, the ecumenical movement, and pray for the unity of the whole Church. Maybe we can also examine our hearts to determine whether we are faithfully and boldly living Christ’s will, and strive to do so by His grace.