A Life's Work


Paul Irénée Couturier lived from 1881 to 1953. He was a French priest and worker for Christian Unity. Born and educated in Lyon, the great city where in 1274 the divisions between East and West had for a time been healed, after a time in Algeria, he was ordained in the Society of St Irenaeus in 1906, a company of mission and teaching priests. After spending three years studying physical sciences, he joined the staff of the Society's school, the Institut des Chartreux, founded in the Maison des Chartreux, the dissolved Carthusian monastery, where he remained until 1946.

The Institut des Chartreux, the school
where the Abbé taught science,
at worship today in the old chapel
of the Carthusian converse brothers
As a result of an Ignatian retreat in the 1920s, Fr Albert Valensin SJ encouraged him to take up some relief work among Lyon's 10,000 Russian refugees.This introduced him to Orthodoxy - and also Eastern Catholics from Russia and Ukraine - and a hitherto unknown world of spirituality, theological expression and Church life. Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky (1803-1891) of Kiev's saying, that 'the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven', became a principle of Couturier's ecumenical outlook.

The Invisible Monastery

In 1932 when he was staying with the Benedictine Monks of Unity at the Priory of Amay-sur-Meuse (which moved to Chevetogne in 1936), an introduction to the
work of Cardinal Mercier aroused his interest in the ecumenical movement. This  formed a second important step towards the realisation of his ecumenical vocation. Strongly influenced by the teaching of the founder, Dom Lambert Beauduin, he placed the prayerful celebration of the Church's liturgy - not as a private devotion, but the work of all the Church, lay and ordained - at the heart of his spiritual life. He became an oblate of Amay, taking the name Benoît-Irénée to acknowledge his two prime sources of inspiration. In the years to come he found this spirituality, which had so revived his own Church and the active participation and mission of Catholic lay people, could also embrace Christians of other Churches. All Christians, he believed, could unite in regular prayer and devotion, each according to their own tradition and insight, for the sanctification of the world and the unity of Christ's people. So was born the idea of "the Invisible Monastery", a spiritual holy place and community, beyond the earth's "walls of separation", where God's vision of his Church's unity could be realised and celebrated in prayer, praise, mutual love and humility, for the sake of the world.

Spiritual Ecumenism

The Chapel of the Prêtres de St-Irénée
Couturier was deeply struck that Jesus' prayer on the night before he died -"that they may all be one" - was not simply for his disciples' unity, but that they might be one as the Father and the Son are one, so that the world might believe. He realised that the unity of Christians was therefore a reality in heaven, in God himself, and that overcoming the worldly Church's divisions through penitence and charity would be offer a renewed faith to the whole world. Furthermore, Christian disunity stood in the way of the Church's mission and made its proclamation of life in Christ unbelievable. So merely human efforts, methods and timetables would not in the end avail: what was needed was a "Spiritual Ecumenism", that prays for the unity of Christians "according to his will, according to his means".

Spiritual Emulation

The power of prayer, and its potential for overcoming separation and the wounds of centuries, lay at the heart of all groups of Christian believers, and so he came to see that, as people grow in sanctity in their different traditions, they grow closer to Christ. If Christians could then be aware of each others' history, spirituality, traditions of faith and worship, their hurts and their glories, they could thus grow closer to each other. The foundations, he realised, would need to be humility, reparation and no little suffering. But if Christians could imitate each other - not just go to each others' services, but receive from each others' spirituality and traditions and see them as their own - the path to holiness in one Church could be adopted, and enhance the path to holiness in others too. This "emulation" has been described as "vying with one another" to advance on the path to holiness and to Christ - not mutual admiration, not unfriendly rivalry. but a "race that is set before us" in which we spur each other on beyond our own small worlds to fresh understanding, to new awareness of Christ and his Church, to a closer bond with him and his people. In the last fifty years we have seen the Abbé's prayer that Christians could all pray the Lord's Prayer together realised. Catholics have adopted many great Protestant and Anglican hymns and chorales. Anglicans and other non-Roman Catholics have taken to heart the Retreat movement, and also embraced the importance for the Eastern Churches of Icons. The Orthodox are influential, integral members of the World Council of Churches; all now share in a renewed common love of the Scriptures. These are fruits of spiritual emulation.

The Cathedral of St John, Primatial Church of the Gauls,
scene of the first renewed Week of Prayer in 1934
The Beginnings of the Week of Prayer

In January 1933, during the Church Unity Octave, Couturier held three days of study and prayer in Lyon. The Octave had been founded in 1906 by the Reverend Spencer Jones (vicar of Moreton-in-the-Marsh) and Father Paul Wattson of the Friars of the Atonement (when still Anglicans) to pray for the reunion of Christians with the See of Rome. Another pioneer was Fr Ignatius Spencer, the first to promote prayer for Unity on Thursday after the pattern of the Lord's own high priestly prayer the night before he died - he even succeeded in bringing Cardinals Newman and Manning together to write a prayer which was even sanctioned by the English Catholic bishops to this end, though (as it was in Latin) he recommended for lay people that Catholics pray the Hail Mary and Anglicans the Lord's Prayer. After the Friars became Roman Catholic, the observance was extended to the whole Roman Catholic Church in 1916. But Couturier wanted to build on the Octave something which could embrace in prayer those who were unlikely ever to become Roman Catholics but who nevertheless desired the end to separation and the achievement of visible unity among all Christians, including the Roman Catholic Church. In 1934, Couturier's new form was extended to a whole week, an Octave of Prayer from 18th to 25th January - from the feast of St Peter's Chair at Rome to the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. From the first, prayer was specifically offered for the unity of all baptised Christians "according to Christ's will, according to his means", rather to the prescription of the Church Unity Octave. Thus Orthodox and other religious bodies as well as Anglicans were included. From 1939 the Octave was observed as the "Week of Universal Prayer". Thus the modern Week of Prayer for Christian Unity had been born.

This title, incidentally, could be a misnomer, since Couturier did not believe in ecumenism as a phenomenon in its own right; nor did he believe in the amalgamation of separate earthly bodies of Churches. One of the "marks of the Church", unity is an ever present fact of life which has to be uncovered, not constructed. So he always called it the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians, Christians by whose prayer and convergence in holiness, each loyally according to his or her own tradition and Church discipline, the Unity of the one Church would at last become visible.

The annual celebrations in Lyon, with important speakers and high level ecumenical participation, became famous, attracting attention throughout Europe as a significant breakthrough. They coincided with the important theological work of Yves Congar, whose thinking in the field was to become so influential in Vatican II's renewed teaching on ecumenism. Couturier engaged in a growing and vast correspondence in connection with his ecumenical work, produced and distributed innumerable tracts on prayer for unity for his Week, and was in close touch with those who would lead the Churches of Europe in rebuilding society after the defeat of Nazism and Fascism at the end of the Second World War. In 1936, he organised at Erlenbach in Switzerland the first inter-confessional spiritual meeting, mainly of Catholic clergy and Reformed pastors, which was to meet in fellowship for many years and directly contributed to the foundations of the World Council of Churches. He also arranged interdenominational meetings at the monastery of La Trappe des Dombes and at Présinge. The Groupe des Dombes, a theological dialogue between Catholic and Reformed clergy and lay academics continues to this day.

Two visits to England in 1937 and 1938 completed the Abbé's initiation into ecumenism with his discovery of Anglicanism, not least through his encounter with the Anglican religious communities and with the sacramental and liturgical life in a episcopally-ordered Church of the Reformation. Anglicans, he hoped, would have a special role in realising the ideals of emulation and the Invisible Monastery from their own experience as a Church with many different, even divergent, traditions in a country with many separated Churches, including his own Roman Catholic community.

The scheme for the Week of Prayer which he devised held all these contacts and friendships together, in a prayer that all Christians, all humanity, should be sanctified and converge in Christ along paths of charity and mounting expectation with the consummation and revelation of Christ's truth in the unity for which he prays.

The Divine Milieu - The Unity of God, the Unity of Humanity

A third influence on Couturier was Teilhard de Chardin. Both men were scientists, and Teilhard's vision of the unity of creation and humanity expressed in the unity of Christ and the life of the Church appealed both scientifically and spiritually to Couturier.

A reasoned consequence for him was that the unity of Christians was the sign for the unity of humanity, and that praying for the sanctification of Jews, Muslims and Hindus, among many others, could not fail but to lead to a new spiritual understanding of God where Christ could at last be recognised and understood. Couturier felt this keenly as he was partly Jewish and had been raised among Muslims in North Africa. It is worth noting that among Couturier's voluminous correspondents were Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as every kind of Christian, all caught up in the Abbé's spirit of prayer, realising the significance and dimensions of prayer for the unity of Christians. Coincidentally, years later Mother Theresa spoke of the considerable number of Muslims who volunteered and worked at her house in Calcutta: "If you are a Christian, I want to make you a better Christian - if you are a Muslim, I want to make you a better Muslim". It cannot be denied that what those Muslims were seeing in Mother Theresa was Jesus Christ himself, just as the Abbé attracted so many to prayer across previously unbridgeable divides by his humility, penitence, and joyful charity in the peace of Christ.

2003-2004 marked the 50th Anniversary of the launch of the Week of Prayer in Morocco, as an act of charity and prayer among the people of Islam, a significant milestone in the experiences of today as much as then. Couturier had been mindful of his time long before as a French Catholic among Muslims in Algeria, but it was his disciple and collaborator, Fr Maurice Villain, who realised this old ambition of his mentor to take the cause and prayer of Christian unity as an offering of the charity and truth of Christ to humanity and its sanctification beyond the historical Christian world. In 1952, a year before his death, the title of Archimandrite was bestowed on Couturier by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Maximus IV, leader of the Catholics in Arab lands, in recognition of his work for ecumenism.

A Life's Work

During the war, largely on account of his extensive international contacts, Couturier had been imprisoned by the Gestapo. This broke his health, but he identified his suffering and heart disease as a cross which he was being called to take up in the service of the unity of Christians. He continued to write letters, to pray the liturgy of the Church, to make arrangements for the Week of Prayer, and to sustain friendships and contacts around the world which could lead to unity. He lived to rejoice in his friends' foundation of the World Council of Churches in the aftermath of a broken and chastened Christendom after World War II. And, although his own Church did not join the new body, his hope that Rome could lead an appeal for convergence was heard by Pope Pius XII, and doubtless informed the new outlook of the forthcoming but as then unforeseen Second Vatican Council.

He died in Lyon on the 24th March 1953. At his funeral, the Archbishop of Lyons, Cardinal Gerlier, hailed him as the Apostle of Christian Unity. His immense spiritual vision, his work and his prayer continue to inspire.

Address by Pierre Gerlier, Cardinal Archbishop of Lyons at the Funeral of the Abbé Paul Couturier, 27 March 1953, the Church of St Bruno des Chartreux

At the close of the ceremony the Cardinal ascended the pulpit. He made it clear that he was aware of departing from the custom of the diocese by which no word is spoken at the funeral of a priest.
If I make an exception, and it will be, as you may guess, a brief one, it is not in order to place the Abbé Couturier above his colleagues, for he would have been the first to protest against such treatment. It is because of the nature of the apostolate to which he dedicated his whole life, the greatness of the cause which he served with his whole soul. The presence in this congregation of many of our separated brethren would suffice to bring this out. It is not only as a friend, a devoted friend, that I speak, but above all, as Archbishop of Lyons, that I wish to offer to the departed the sorrowful homage of my admiration, my affection and my thanks.
Abbé Paul Couturier was the apostle of unity – the undaunted worker for the unity of all Christian people.
Union, unity, the consolidation of the human community – this is the great aspiration of the world today, and it is found at all poles of thought. Nowhere is it felt more intensely than in the sphere of religion. There is no sterner commandment in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose prayer it was that they may all be one. It is the great scandal of the world that Christians are divided. All those who love Jesus Christ, those also who for love of Jesus Christi love their brethren, are homesick for the unity of Christians such as our Saviour wished.
There is no question here of a sentimental unity realized in equivocation, but the only unity which could be true – unity realized in candour, loyalty and truth….It was to this task that dear Père Couturier dedicated his life, with a devotion, a fervour, a charity that were truly wonderful. Of course, I do not forget all that he has done (as a teacher) in this Maison des Chartreux, which was very dear to him; nevertheless the great work of his life was, as I have said, his apostolate for unity. He pursued it with an ardent generosity which sometimes gave rise to certain anxieties in those who had the deepest concern for the doctrinal aspects of the problem, but these same people have always been unsparing in their profound admiration and grateful affection for him.
Abbé Couturier has greatly honoured this diocese. He has been a magnificent servant of the Church. The Church, with my humble voice, thanks him.
May we treasure his spirit; may we always follow the example of his radiant goodness, to which there are innumerable witnesses, and which gained an influence, full of sweetness and authority, over so many souls. Many of these are not within the fold of the Catholic Church, yet they tell us with overwhelming force that he was their light and their guide.
We shall never be able to forget what he has done for the unity of Christians. Our Holy Father recently told me how much he has the unity of Christians at heart, and that it should be the object of our ardent prayer to him who alone is able to grant that it comes to realization as he wills.
He whom we mourn was a precursor, an example. His work will be continued in the same spirit.
I sorrowfully salute the sister of the deceased who was the companion and support of his life, and whose anguish at this ceremony can today be enlightened by so great a hope. Amen.
A few minutes later, at the sanctuary steps, Pastor Roland de Pury, speaking in the name of the religious communities of Taizé and Grandchamp, as well as of the Abbé’s Protestant friends in general, paid tribute to the memory of ‘a great brother’:
He leaves us the example of tireless patience and charity, resolute in the pursuit of that end at once so clear and so mysterious: the unity of all those who have for their only Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


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