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In the context of the Octave of Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) has become a wellestablished yearly event. Its history is linked to Ignatius Spencer (1840), the first Lambeth Conference (1867), the encouragement of Pope Leo XIII (1894) and above all Paul Watson, who was the first to celebrate an "Octave for Church Unity". From 1926 on, the Faith and Order movement has chosen its themes. Among Catholics, Paul Couturier was its first and tireless promoter (1935). 

The week has been prepared jointly by the "Centre L'Unité Chrétienne" in Lyons and by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Following the Second Vatican Council and its Decree Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), it has been prepared, from 1968 on, with texts provided by Faith and Order and by the Secretariat for Christian Unity. with occasional help from national bodies. The theme for 2001 - "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Light" (Jn 14:1-6) - originated in Romania.

On the Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul

25 January, the commemoration of the Conversion of Saint Paul, is the last day of the Week of Prayer; on that day the Holy Father all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities to gather with him for a common celebration of the word of God at the tomb of the Apostle, in the Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. 

After the experience of 18 January last,Awhen for the first time in history a Holy Door was opened jointly by the Successor of Peter, the Anglican Primate and a Metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in the presence of representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities from all over the world (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 12), this year's ecumenical celebration seeks "to demonstrate the determination of Christians to embark upon the new millennium in a spirit of reconciliation". The memorial of the Apostle Paul, whose martyrdom, like that of Peter, watered the initial growth of the Church of Rome, is thus a fitting occasion for an ecumenical celebration of the word of God. Here the Bishop of Rome will be joined by representatives of the different Churches and Ecclesial Communities of East and West in heartfelt prayer that the Spirit will grant the gift of visible unity to Christs followed. 

The fact that representatives of Churches and Christian communities of various traditions gather together at the burial place of the Apostle of the Nations only adds to the significance of today's celebration.

An ecumenical celebration of the word

First and foremost this is a celebration of the word of God which is completely centred on that word. Indeed, what unites the various Churches and Communities is the word of God, unconditionally accepted and proclaimed by all Christians. To proclaim that word sine glossa, without interference from human words, is to emphasize its living primacy, to welcome it and to proclaim it as the ultimate source of the mystery of salvation. 

The word of God proclaimed in today's celebration is the same word that Peter and especially Paul addressed to the Churches which were the object of their apostolic concern. It is the same word handed down to us in the Gospel, where Christ calls himself "the Way, the Truth and the Life"(Jn 14: 6).

A memorial service at the tomb of the Apostle Paul naturally calls for a special emphasis to be given to the reading of his Letters. It also brings to mind the unity of the many Churches which the Apostle founded and visited as part of his service to the Gospel.

It should also be noted that not only the readings, but also the songs, the bidding prayer and the blessing are drawn from or inspired by the Sacred Scriptures.


The initial rites

At the threshold of the Basilica, before the beginning of the entrance procession, the Holy Father, after meeting privately the representatives of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, greets the assembly with the words which Peter addressed to the faithful of the whole Christian world (2 Pet 1: 2, 3: 18). He then invites all present to pray, and in the name of the whole assembly he implores God's grace to enable us to listen attentively to his word and to sing his praise.

The solemn entrance procession with the Cross and the Gospel Book is accompanied by Psalm 19, a hymn to the Lord, the Sun of Justice. Verse 5, which is quoted in Romans 10: 18, serves as the antiphon: "The voice of the Apostles goes out through all the earth, and their message to the ends of the world".

The Gospel is then enthroned and solemnly incensed as a sign of veneration of Christ present in his word.

Proclamation of the word of God

In an introduction. the Holy Father invites all to listen to the Word of God in a select series of readings drawn from the Letters of the Apostle Paul. 

The first reading (Gal 1: 11-24) relates Paul's own account of his conversion. It is followed by a song in memory of the Apostle of the Nations.

Three other readings taken from Paul's Letters follow:

2 Cor1: 1-2; 5: 17-21; 13: 11-13: Reconciliation in Christ.

Eph1: 1-2; 2:13-22; 6: 23-24: Fellow citizens of the Saints and members of God's household.

Col1: 1-2; 3: 9b-17; 4: 18: Charity as the bond of perfection.

These are read by three members of the Delegations.

In each of the readings we hear, together with the salutation and the doxology, a central passage which evokes the longing for unity which ought to inspire Christians at the dawn of the third millennium.

This longing for unity in charity also finds expression in the ancient chant sung at ecclesial gatherings, Ubi charitas, the verses of which alternate with the readings from Saint Paul.

In harmony with the theme of the Week, the Gospel verse echoes the text of Jn 14:6. The deacon then proclaims the entire text of Jn 14: 1-6, which served as the inspiration for the prayers of all Christians throughout the past Week.

The Holy Father delivers the homily.

The Profession of baptismal faith follows, using the text of the Apostles' Creed.

The sign of peace and the hymn to charity

The idea of a celebration of God's word completely centred on that word is also seen in the exchange of the sign of peace. Paul's hymn to charity (1 Cor 13: 1-8) is sung in six stanzas, interspersed with the antiphon Maior est caritas (cf. 1 Cor 13: 13).

Prayer to the Father for communion in unity

The bidding prayer offered by the Holy Father and the members of the Ecclesial Delegations is also taken from the Gospel (Jn17: 1-25). The assembly responds by repeating Kyrie, eleison. The bidding prayer ends with the chant of the Pater noster. 


Concluding rites

The ecumenical celebration concludes with the Holy Father's Blessing.' The formula is that of the so-called Aaronic Blessing: Num 6: 24-26.

The ecumenical celebration of the word of God at the dawn of the new millennium is a cause for hope. May all Christ's followers be witnesses to his Gospel as they walk in the way of unity, in obedience to the will of the Father, in the light of his word of truth and life, and in humble and persevering prayer guided by the Holy Spirit.

As the Holy Father writes in his Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: "The ecumenical journey is certainly still difficult, and will perhaps be long, but we are encouraged by the hope that comes from being led by the presence of the Risen One and the inexhaustible power of his Spirit, always capable of new surprises" (No. 12).