As I put pen to paper, the second full week of a third coronavirus lockdown begins in the UK, so it is difficult for me not to resist thoughts of a Roman January and life before the pandemic. I look back with nostalgia to sitting at my desk in the library at the English College, negotiating the challenge of academic work and recalling the joys and blessings it brought. As I sit at my London desk my heart is full of gratitude for those with whom I shared my Roman journey, especially my professors and fellow students and those who helped me to appreciate the heartfelt desire: May they all be one.

            Rome is a very special place to live and affords many rich experiences, whether it be a sense of history, beautiful buildings, delicious food and delightful wine, to name just a few. Many hold it as the centre of the Church and in usual times arrive in their thousands hoping to catch a glimpse of the successor of St. Peter as they pass under the colonnades as they enter Vatican City State and then traverse across the piazza, making their way into the majestic beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica.

            Like many ‘Romans’ I delighted in seeing the present successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis. Living just a 15-minute walk from the Vatican, it was easy to pop down on a Sunday to receive the Angelus blessing and there were often opportunities to attend a papal liturgy. One such occasion was the culmination of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity when Christians from across the city and from many different Christian backgrounds gathered with Pope Francis for Vespers on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, held in the basilica named in his honour.

            For me this was always a teaching moment, not so much for what the Pope actually said in his homily, but in what it represented. Christians gathered together, with each taking part in the beauty of the ceremony, praying to the Lord for the gift of unity. I think that those present year by year realised the significance of what was happening, rooted in a desire for the unity of the Church but in the full knowledge that there is still more to do. The first step, however, is to recognise our common heritage as God’s children, celebrate what we hold in common and work in a genuine and honest way to overcome difficulties. The more we pray together, the more we allow ourselves to enter into a relationship with each other, the more that we will unite ourselves on the journey.

            Each year a theme is presented to us for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, based in the Scriptures and expressed in the prayer that we share during the week. This year’s theme “Abiding in Christ.” seems quite apt for a time of pandemic and we can be grateful to the religious sisters at the community of Grandchamp, Switzerland, for both offering and explaining it. Their tradition, based in a community of women dedicated to a silent listening to the Word of God, is just what we may all need now and offers us the space to be silent so as to hear afresh God’s holy Word.

            From their experience the sisters offer a pattern of reflection for these days, suggesting that from silent prayer we can sense solidarity with our brothers and sisters and from this flows the desire to serve each other. My experience of working with my colleagues from the other Christian communities here in the UK tells me that this is the way forward. As we work and pray together, there is much to be grateful for, not least the shared sense of our common humanity which impels us to serve our brothers and sisters and there are so many precious examples of this self-sacrifice transcending both ecumenical and interreligious boundaries.

            Perhaps this year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes on another emphasis at a time when we are all facing a virus that doesn’t discriminate by class or culture or religious background. We can all catch it. And the way to combat is to all work together to protect each other and to alleviate suffering when we can. As Christians, it will be in those quiet moments of prayer, like the sisters of Grandchamp and many other similar communities, that we will hear the voice of the Lord and receive the strength to do what he asks of us.


     Let us go back to the moment of prayer in St. Paul’s Basilica and the image of Pope Francis standing next to and praying with an Anglican archbishop, an Orthodox archbishop, a Methodist moderator and a huge gathering of other Christians. Surely this must be the focus for our unity, standing together to pray to the God whom we love, and then walking together to support the world that God loves. Powerful images can be beautiful, but perhaps they only really matter when they find an imprint in the heart.

            Let me end where I started at my desk in Rome, or is it in London now? Let us be grateful for those we meet on the journey and have the courage to walk with them as a brother and sister in Christ.

Fr Jan Nowotnik is National Ecumenical Officer at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.