Woburn churches mark Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

WOBURN -- Each year, the Holy See and the World Council of Churches publish resources to help Christians observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Since 2018, the churches of Woburn have taken turns hosting an ecumenical service for this occasion, which took place this year at St. Barbara Church on Jan. 29.

Father Thomas Powers, the late pastor of the Woburn Catholic Collaborative, helped to establish the Woburn churches' observance of this week. Although he passed away in May 2022, the local clergy have continued to carry on his spirit of ecumenical dialogue.

"He was very committed to this ecumenical service. He thought a part of the Catholic faith was to try to foster Christian unity, and he took it seriously," Michelle Parks, the pastoral assistant at St. Barbara's who helped organize the event, told The Pilot.

About 75 people attended the Jan. 29 service, held for the first time since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among them was Vito Nicastro, associate director of the archdiocese's Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Clergy present were Father Edmund Ugwoegbu, pastor of St. Barbara Parish; Deacon Ed Giordano of St. Barbara Parish; Pastor Bill Hoch of Woburn United Methodist Church, who delivered the homily; Pastor Karen Hodges of North Congregational Church; Rev. Dr. Yaliang Zhao of First Baptist Church; and Deacon Peter Gakuru from St. John's Baptist Church.

"Even though the service represented a very wide range of different churches, it turned out to be exceedingly harmonious," Nicastro said in a Jan. 30 interview.

The theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year was "Do good, seek justice," a reference to Isaiah 1:17. Following the program produced by the Holy See and World Council of Churches, the service included hymns, Scripture readings, personal testimonies, and prayers of intercession.

Nicastro said many of those in attendance considered "the personalization by the community" as the highlight of the event. For instance, one member of the Methodist church shared her testimony about being a foster parent.

"Because it was unique, and because it was embedded in the Woburn community, it helped to personalize and enrich the service for a lot of the people who were there," Nicastro said.

He thought that was one of the moments "when people experienced the joy of first meeting Christ in a person from your town that you may or may not know, and discovering the brotherhood and sisterhood that is already there because of our baptism and our faith in Christ."

Another thing the attendees realized, Nicastro said, was that praying for unity together was, in itself, a "unifying moment," since people throughout the world were using the same prayers and readings for the same purpose.

"By praying for unity all together, we experience a little bit of that unity, a tiny foretaste of it, knowing that the prayers we're using at this service are being used by the church next door, next town, next country, next continent," he said.

The service was followed by a collation in the church hall, where dozens of people stayed for hours afterwards chatting over refreshments.

While the unity prayer service helped to establish relationships between the leaders of Woburn's churches, they have also found other ways to maintain those connections. In 2022, the Christian leaders of Woburn began meeting for coffee each month, giving them a chance to catch up regularly.

"I don't know that many other communities that do something like that, where all the Christian churches' leaders are friendly and communicate on a monthly basis," Parks said.

Parks and Nicastro both spoke of the value of having those relationships in place when trauma or other kinds of events necessitate cooperation between the churches.

"If anything happens in the community, that's either really good or really bad, we already have that connection," Parks said.

Nicastro spoke similarly: "It makes all the difference in the world if the connections and trust are already in place."

When asked what advice she would give to other communities that want to strengthen ecumenical ties, Parks said, "It doesn't take a ton of time, but it takes a lot of commitment and dedication."

Information about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity can be found on the USCCB's website for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at www.usccb.org/committees/ecumenical-interreligious-affairs/international-week-prayer-christian-unity.