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Contemplative approach recalls early Christian unity

  • January 7, 2021

For anyone who has ever thought they might have been happier as a monk or a nun, living the contemplative life, this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is your chance to try it out.

An ecumenical community of religious women in Switzerland organized and wrote this year’s prayers and study materials for the annual, week-long celebration of ecumenical unity (available at, which is observed Jan. 18-25. That contemplative approach to Christian unity is perfect for our uneasy times, said Canadian Council of Churches program co-ordinator Maria Simakova.

“Our own groundedness in God, our own silence, allows us to look outwards and seek unity in the Christian family,” Simakova said.

“Contemplative life is actually part of Christian life,” explained Fr. Luis Melo, Archdiocese of Toronto director of the Office for Promoting Christian Unity and Religious Relations with Judaism. 

For Melo, the Week of Prayer is all about restoring the unity Christ gave and the Church lived in its earliest days. Contemplative life connects us back to that early Church experience of unity, he said.

“The experience of monasticism goes back to the first millennium of the Church. We would say it was a time of greater unity,” he said.

Inspired by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp, Toronto’s main, online celebration of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, hosted by the Salvation Army on Jan. 24, will feature contributions from two communities of women — the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine and the Catholic Sisters of Life.

The spirituality of the Grandchamp community, which began with a group of Reformed, Protestant women before the Second World War, is part of a movement in monastic life that includes Taizé in France and Bose in Italy. They all have connections to the theologian, writer and contemplative L’Abbe Paul Irénée Couturier. Couturier imagined “an ever increasing multitude of Christians of every denomination were to form an immense network encircling the Earth, like a vast invisible monastery in which all were caught up in Christ’s prayer for unity.”

For Grandchamp founder Mother Geneviève Micheli, this “invisible monastery” wasn’t a pipe dream — it was a vital and urgent necessity. 

“We Christians, who know the full value of a spiritual life, have an immense responsibility and must realize it, unite and help each other create forces of calmness, refuges of peace, vital centres where the silence of people calls on the creative word of God. It is a question of life and death,” she wrote in 1938. 

For Melo, the Grandchamp connection is personal. As a former Vatican official working in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Melo has been on retreat at Grandchamp and has appreciated its work for unity through the years.

“So this is a very contemplative service,” Melo said of this year’s main liturgy. “It would have been very beautiful to celebrate it communally.”

People forget that St. Pope John Paul II used to call “spiritual ecumenism” the heart of the ecumenical movement, said Archdiocese of Regina ecumenical officer Nick Jesson.

“Ecumenism is sometimes misunderstood as a process of negotiation, or a whittling down of the Church’s teaching,” Jesson said. 

Rather than parsing agreements and dissecting theologies, ecumenism begins with prayer.

“The prayer for unity, that is at the heart of the eucharistic prayer but also at the heart of so much of the prayer life of all of the Christian traditions,” said Jesson.

Unity is actually the vocation of the Church and everyone in it. That vocational sense is hammered home by the Grandchamp community’s choice of John 15:1-17 as the key Gospel passage for this year’s celebrations, said Jesson.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells His disciples. “Those who abide in Me and I in them bear much fruit.” 

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has long been important to a faithful minority, but Simakova hopes it may reach more people with its online efforts in this COVID-19 era.

“As difficult as it is to organize online things, I’m hearing that a lot of people are doing Bible studies together and a whole cycle of prayer services, where once they would have done just one big worship service. Now they’re doing something smaller but actually extending it across eight days, as it is meant to be celebrated.”

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