March 24 – Paul Couturier

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Paul Couturier, reformer of the Church

 With the Uniting Church’s commitment to ecumenism, the story of Paul Couturier and his commitment to seeking the unity of the church, is a welcome story and we are the richer for knowing it.

Fr. Paul Couturier was one of the great pioneers of the ecumenical movement. His vision and understanding of Christian unity were echoed in the documents on ecumenism in the second Vatican Council, and paved the way for the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1947.

He was born in 1881 in Lyon and ordained in the Society of St.Irenaeus in 1906, a company of mission and teaching priests. A graduate in physical sciences he became a teacher at the Society’s school where he remained until 1946.

 As a result of an Ignatian retreat in his early twenties he was encouraged to take up some relief work among Lyon’s many Russian refugees, which in turn, introduced him to Orthodoxy and a hitherto unknown world of spirituality and Church life.

Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky (1803-1891) of Kiev had a saying, that ‘the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven’, which became a principle of Couturier’s ecumenical outlook. Strongly influenced also by the teaching of Dom Lambert Beauduin, he placed the prayerful celebration of the Church’s liturgy at the heart of his spiritual life.

Couturier believed that all Christians 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 community, beyond the earth’s ‘walls of separation’, where God’s vision of his Church’s unity could be realized.

Couturier was strongly influenced by Jesus’ prayer on the night before he died. He believed Jesus’ concern was not simply for his disciples’ unity, but so that the world might believe. He realized that the unity of Christians was therefore a reality in heaven and that overcoming worldly divisions through penitence and charity would be to offer a renewed faith to the whole world. Merely human efforts would not prevail.

Couturier believed that as people increasingly embody their different traditions, they will grow closer to Christ. If Christians could be aware of each others’ spirituality and traditions, they could grow closer to each other.

In January 1933, during the Church Unity Octave, Couturier held three days of study and prayer. The Octave had been founded in 1906 by the Reverend Spencer Jones and Fr. Paul Watson of the Friars of the Atonement (when still Anglicans) to pray for the reunion of Christians with the See of Rome. After the Friars became Roman Catholic, the observance was extended to the whole Church in 1916.

But Couturier wanted to build on the Octave something that 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.

In 1934, Couturier’s new form was extended to a whole week, and the modern Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was born. The annual celebrations in Lyon, with their important speakers and high level ecumenical participation, became famous, attracting attention throughout Europe.

In 1936, the Abbé Couturier organized 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. Two visits to England in 1937 and 1938 completed his initiation into ecumenism with the discovery of Anglicanism.

During the Second World War, largely on account of his extensive international contacts, Couturier was imprisoned by the Gestapo. This broke his health, but he identified his suffering as a cross which he was being called to take up in the service of the unity of Christians. He continued to pray the liturgy of the Church, to make arrangements for the Week of Prayer and to sustain friendships around the world.

He lived to rejoice in the foundation of the World Council of Churches in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although his own Church did not join the new body at that time, his hope that Rome could lead an appeal for convergence was heard by Pope Pius and doubtless informed the forthcoming Council. He died in Lyon on 24 March 1953.

 Peter Gador-Whyte