Paul Couturier

Paul Couturier (1881-1953) was a Roman Catholic priest of the archdiocese of Lyon, the "primatial see of the Gauls", in France. For most of his priestly life he was a science teacher at the Institut des Chartreux, a secondary school for boys run by his fraternity of clergy, the Société de St Irénée.

First Encounters with non-Roman Catholics: Refugee Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholics

After the First World War, and in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, he was one of a number of local clergy and lay people who relieved the needs for food, shelter and resettlement of the tens of thousands of refugees from newly Soviet Russia empire in camps around the city. The encounter with Christians who were not Roman Catholics - not only Orthodox but Eastern Catholics too - made a profound impression on Couturier and began to shape his vocation to promote the reconciliation of humanity with each other and with God through the unity of all Christians.

Illustration  for
'the walls of separation
do not rise as far
as heaven'
Cosmic Vision of Christ and Humanity: Influence of Teilhard de Chardin

Owing to his work as a science teacher, he became aware of Teilhard de Chardin's fresh approach to Christian anthropology - human living in the divine milieu, through the dynamic, cosmic Christ, who sanctifies and constantly returns it to the Father into the communion of the persons of the Trinity, who never cease to be active and present in the world, transfiguring the life of human beings into the very life of God. This resonated strongly with the outward-looking and early ecumenically-minded disposition of Metropolitan Platon (Gorodetsky) of Kiev (1803-1891), which he had encountered among the Orthodox bishops and priests in the refugee camps: "The walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven".

Dom Lambert Beauduin and the Monks of Unity of Amay-Chevetogne

Dom Lambert Beauduin
In 1932 a friend surprised him with a suggestion that Couturier should visit a recently founded Roman Catholic monastery in Belgium, which aimed to repair the broken links between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, especially the recovery of union with the Russian Church now that the Russian state was atheist and persecuting the Church there. This was the community founded by Dom Lambert Beauduin, the Monks of Unity, now at Chevetogne but then based at Amay-sur-Meuse. It had been established with the blessing of the great Cardinal Mercier, primate of Belgium, well known as sponsor of the first programmed attempts at Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue and encounter known as the Malines Conversation, which took place between 1921 and 1927. Couturier arranged to make a retreat there and was intrigued to learn of the Anglican Church and Beauduin's then imaginative but unrealistic proposal for a new attempt at its reunion, with its own canon law and liturgy, with the Catholic Church - "The Anglican Church - united, not absorbed'. Amay, in common with a number of Benedictine monasteries at the time, was a centre for the renewal of the liturgical life of the Church. Couturier realised that the renewal and mission of the Church was impeded by disunity within Christianity and that the answer lay not so much in practical schemes and activities to amalgamate institution, or win people over to different viewpoints, as in reborn spiritual life and deeper sanctification on all sides, nourished by prayer, devotional reading of the Scriptures and intensified focus on the celebration of worship, especially the Eucharist.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 'as Christ wills it': a new dimension to the Church Unity Octave

By the time he returned to Lyon, Couturier had decided to encourage prayer for unity in this spirit. He was aware of the Church Unity Octave established by Fr Paul Wattson SA, which had been promoted by Pope Benedict XV throughout the Church during the Great War as a plea for peace and unity at the disastrous heights of the conflict. But he perceived that its underlying assumption, that unity could only be achieved with a "return" to Rome of those separated from it, was not a point from which Orthodox, Anglicans and Reformed Christians could start out. Besides, it had just been renamed "the Chair of Unity Octave", even more strongly conveying contemporary Vatican policy that unity with other Christians was essentially their "return" to the See, or Chair, of Peter - with unreserved acceptance of Roman Catholicism. Prayer for unity in the spirit of Christ on the night before he died, "that they all may be one" (John 17.21) - a common unity of the whole Church, all Christians together, not a monopoly of unity just for some - could never be concerned with one group of Christians prevailing over another.

Besides, he also saw that the Catholic Church of his time had a sense of being confined by its attitude toward the passing of history and the changing world around it - one the one hand a "perfect society", but on the other a fortress, both outwardly defensive and inward looking. This lay behind exclusive claims that, in a sense, left the Catholic Church isolated and needing nothing from the world, or other Christians. It was to be another thirty years before the Second Vatican Council concluded that the essential communion of unity in the Church derived not from allegiance to an institution but from common baptism.

So Couturier proposed using the Octave as a season for "universal prayer" for the unity of Christians. Members of each tradition, true to their own church life and without compromising the integrity of their respective Churches or communions, could nevertheless unite in spirit at the same time through prayer for greater holiness, closer union with Christ, deeper repentance for past hurts and continued divisiveness, and for a mutual giving and receiving of riches and perspectives on faith, discipleship and spirituality, as gifts of God to the whole Church which had hitherto been withheld within one church tradition or another, unavailable to the others because of the effects of separation.

Unity of Humanity in Christ: Prayer for different Christians, prayer for different faiths

Cathedral of St John, Lyon
In 1933 within the Church Unity Octave he obtained permission to hold a triduum - concerts of sacred music from different traditions, lectures and addresses - in the Cathedral of St John at Lyon. The following year he extended this to a whole octave - not a Church Unity Octave, with its overwhelmingly Roman Catholic ethos, but an "Octave of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians". Within a few years, Couturier abandoned the word "octave" as too culturally Roman Catholic and opted instead for "week", so that no one need feel excluded. From 1936 he started to set aside each day of the Week of Prayer as a day to pray for each of the major groupings within Christianity: Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran and others, not as separate churches seeking organisational reunion - or organisational conversion, but for the sanctification of the members of each group, towards the unity of all Christians as desired by Christ and - because of the entire Church's urgent mission before the world - towards the "unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ". From 1946 he also included on various days of the Week prayers for the sanctification of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and all believers in the one God. He personally sent out tracts with meditations on Christian unity and his suggestions for prayers every year to tens of thousands of people all over the world. His integrity and single-minded Catholic loyalty, as well as his remarkable vision of the present unity of Christians beyond the limitations of this world, won him friends in all corners of the Christian churches and indeed in other religions.

Yves Congar OP
Criticised for seeming to challenge the policy towards the Orthodox Church and the Anglican and Protestant Churches of the day, he escaped censure, unlike many of his contemporaries with an ecumenical awareness - including Lambert Beauduin himself and Yves Congar - because his instincts were entirely consistent with the prayers in the liturgy of the Church - "look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and grant her unity according to your will", the ancient prayers for all the baptised in the Good Friday Liturgy, and the prayer of Christ himself in St John's Gospel. He also avoided pressing for any particular outcome to prayer for unity, or criticising any settled Church policy or plan. Thus he developed the sentiment of the prayer for peace at every celebration of the Roman mass from "according to your will" to include "according to your means". His conviction was that the cause of disunity was not institutional and could not be remedied by altering organsitions or pressure to convert or change allegiance. The cause of disunity, separation, schism, division between Christians is sin. His primary concern was therefore penitence and spiritual growth. He wrote, "Humility, the fruit of prayer, opens all barred roads". If the barriers of pride and sin could be taken down through repentance, then Christians could know and love each other more. They could learn and receive from each other. Thinking of separate churches "united, not absorbed", a unity of spirit, could grow into a unity of mind. A unity of mind could grow into a unity of body - visible unity. He trusted absolutely that this could be achieved by the sovereignty of the One God in Three Persons, made known to us in the One Son, Jesus Christ, the perfect unity of true God and true man, if only Christians would learn not to defy Divine Providence in giving to humanity but one Church. Unity in the Church would thus be revealed like the incarnation, not "according to the will of the flesh", but as Christ himself had prayed, "according to his will, according to his means".

The Invisible Monastery

Couturier invited Christians of all groups, traditions and Churches - still at the time forbidden to pray together - nevertheless to unite privately in prayer beyond the Church divisions of the world in heaven, where from the Father's perspective there is only one Church and it is perfectly united, not in broken pieces: "the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven". This caught the imagination of all kinds of Christians around the world, and Couturier called it the "Invisible Monastery". It was asked to meet every Thursday, commemorating the night before Jesus' death and of his great high priestly prayer in which he pleaded for the unity of all his disciples. For decades many churches and individuals have lit a special Thursday Candle to signal concerted prayer for unity.

Spiritual Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio

Within just over a decade after of his death in 1953, Couturier's ideal of Spiritual Ecumenism was expressly included in the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. Pope St John XXIII had already adopted Couturier's Week of Prayer as that of the whole Catholic Church in 1959, two years after the World Council of Churches; and in 1966 Paul Wattson's Chair of Unity Octave and the Week of Prayer at last converged in a spirit of which both founders would have been proud, in the light of the renewed teaching on the nature and purpose of the Church expressed in the new Dogmatic Constitution on the Church issued at Vatican II, Lumen Gentium.

The Couturier and Wattson traditions of prayer for Christian unity complementary

1966 was also the year in which the bearers of the two traditions - Paul Watton's community of the Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, New York State USA, and the Centre Unité Chrétienne founded in Lyon to continue Couturier's work - agreed with the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches on working together in future on the joint preparation of the resources for observing the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. From 1972 the Catholic side of the collaboration has been led by, first, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and, more recently, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, with the support of the Friars of the Atonement's Centre Pro Unione in Rome and the Centre Unité Chrétienne in Lyon. And from 1975 onwards the preparations for the annual materials have been made commissioned jointly by the WCC and the Pontifical Council from an ecumenical panel in a "local" country or region. Promoting the Week of Prayer and indeed prayer for unity itself had come a long way since Paul Wattson's initiative in 1908 and Paul Couturier's almost single-handed twenty-year drive from 1933.

Spiritual Emulation: Ut Unum Sint

Many of Couturier's aspirations and principles found renewed momentum in Pope John Paul II's great encyclical letter on Christian Unity, Ut Unum Sint, issued in 1995, just over 30 years after Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism. It repeated but also deepened the insistence on intense prayer for unity, coupled with repentance for the sins of past divisions, and the harm and bloodshed they caused. Here too was an astonishing echo of Couturier's insight that humility opens the roads that are barred: no more would the Roman primacy seek to impose itself on other Christians, their churches and communities. Instead Pope St John Paul sought advice from other churches on how the papacy, as the Petrine ministry, could be exercised in the future as an instrument serving all the Churches, of common faith, communion, diakonia and proclamation in which all could be confident and all could unite.

The encyclical also encouraged Catholics alongside their fellow Christians in other parts of the Church to share in each other's gifts and riches, receiving those treasures from the Holy Spirit bestowed on different traditions and churches, but of which the Church as a whole had been deprived as a consequence of disunity. Couturier had called this "spiritual emulation". Much of his ecumenical inspiration - charity, peace, humility, penitence, the idea of the whole community rather than individual or sectional interests - came from his deep internalisation of the Rule of St Benedict as an oblate of the Monks of Unity at Amay. In chapter 72, on the good zeal of monks, St Benedict writes, "earnestly competing in obedience to one another, no one person is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else." So for Couturier it was meant to be for Christians living separately in the world in different churches and groupings and traditions, but actually called to live as one Church by the Father in heaven. And what is true of individual Christians seeking the revelation of their unity is even more evident for the churches to which they belong. Couturier had a hope that, if Christians and their churches practised spiritual emulation and were conscious that they lived not so much in the world as in heaven, the milieu divin, they would experience a "parallélaboration", a movement increasingly alongside each other, in Christ and towards Christ, a convergence in unity upon him as he himself eternally moves into unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This profound understanding of Christian unity in the heart of the life of God himself is also taken up in Pope St John Paul's letter.

Spiritual Ecumenism for the 21st century: Receptive Ecumenism

In 2003 Cardinal Walter Kasper, as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, visited England and together with Archbishop Rowan Williams called for a rediscovery of spiritual ecumenism in this spirit as the way forward to visible unity. He issued a Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism to give encouragement and advice on how to put into wider practice in 2007. He has also been at the forefront of a re-invigorated Catholic approach to Christian unity - "receptive ecumenism" - to be taken forward on the foundations laid by deeper prayer and spiritual ecumenism. After years of making solid friendships between the Churches and communities within the one Church of Christ, searching dialogues, constructing effective collaboration on all kinds of spiritual, evangelistic, social and pastoral programmes, receptive ecumenism faces the persistence of the various Christian churches' separate traditions, structures and direction. Instead of imagining how to establish systems enabling the structures to find ways to be at one with each other, it asks, "What with integrity do we need to receive from the other Christian traditions that we are lacking or could enrich our own tradition on the way to visible unity?" Again, this insight owes a great deal to the vision of Paul Couturier. Evidently, this vision and its work are living to this day.

Receptive ecumenism is now the endorsed and adopted for the Anglican & Roman Catholic International Commission in its third phase, and thus marks three stages towards ecumenical convergence and unity: "initiating reception" - instances of spiritual ecumenism and mutual emulation; "local reception" - instances where official ecumenical texts and agreements have brought about practical changes in the life and operation of Churches on the ground, for common witness, common Gospel proclamation and  common service in the world; and "formal reception" - where Church authorities formally declare what has been received, embraced and put into life and practice.

To find out more about Paul Couturier's life, work and thinking, visit the Paul Couturier website.
To find out more about Receptive Ecumenism, visit the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham.