Episcopal leaders attend papal vespers service in Rome for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By Egan Millard
Posted Jan 26, 2023

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers and the Rev. Austin Rios at the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome on Jan. 25, 2023. Photo: Stephanie Spellers

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal leaders joined those from other Christian denominations at a service led by Pope Francis in Rome on Jan. 25 as part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Bishop Mark Edington and others from the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, as well as staff from the presiding bishop’s office, represented The Episcopal Church at the vespers service.

The papal service, held at the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a chance for Christians from different traditions to unite in common worship, said the Rev. Austin Rios. Rios is rector of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, a convocation church named for its status as the first Protestant church built within the walls of Rome. 

“All of the different churches are connecting in this place, kind of like the roads that lead to Rome,” Rios told Episcopal News Service.

This was his 10th time attending the papal service, traditionally held on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, in the church believed to be built over the tomb of St. Paul. Usually, Rios said, the pope greets the representatives from Protestant and Orthodox churches before and after the service, but because of the pope’s poor health, greetings were limited this year.

“But he did greet us after the service, so we were able to pass on the good wishes of The Episcopal Church to him and also to congratulate him on Argentina’s victory in the World Cup,” Rios told ENS.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was started in 1908 by Episcopalians with the specific goal of reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church. It has since become an annual ecumenical observance sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. 

By chance, the Jan. 25 vespers service happened to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, though that celebration isn’t being held until Jan. 29, Rios said. The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, was also in Rome to meet with convocation leaders and prepare for a revival in Europe in March.

“There’s a vibrant ecumenical life here, and we’re trying to help move it from surface niceties to a deeper connection and ministry. I think that begins by friendship, and I appreciated that Stephanie and the team and the visitors got to experience a little bit of that, and hopefully we can do more of that in the future,” Rios said.

“I had no concept of what it would mean or feel like to attend evening vespers led by Pope Francis, with the voices of Christians of every kind from so many nations,” Spellers told ENS. “These moments of unity and hope feel like a glimpse of the dream of God on this Earth.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.