It was 1923. Thousands of Russian refugees had fled to the French city of Lyon in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. They had lost so much, but there was one thing they all held onto as they huddled in their makeshift camp: their Orthodox faith.
In the midst of this distressing environment came a short, unassuming Catholic priest named Paul Couturier. He helped them find shelter, employment, food, and schooling. He also forged close friendships with them and grew to love the beauty and strength of their faith. So it was, in a quiet, hidden way, that the seeds of a groundbreaking movement were sown—a movement that has shaped the Church ever since.
The Scandal of Division. Paul Couturier was born in Lyon in 1881. After a financial setback, his family lived in Algeria for nine years, introducing their son to diverse religious influences from a young age. This early exposure undoubtedly influenced his decision to become a priest in the Society of St. Irenaeus—a missionary and teaching order. He became a science teacher for the society’s local school and worked there in relative obscurity for almost twenty years.
But all that changed when Couturier’s spiritual director suggested that he join relief efforts for the Russian refugees. That work brought him in close contact with the Orthodox clergy who had become natural leaders among their fellow refugees. Over the next ten years, an unusual friendship began to develop.
Couturier felt a deep spiritual kinship with these Christians from a foreign land, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were separated from each other. This scandal of a divided Christianity broke his heart and awakened in him a desire for unity. What could possibly bridge the religious divide?
Deepening the Ministry of Unity. The answer lay in his deepening friendships and ongoing service alongside the Orthodox. As one Orthodox leader observed at the time, “The walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven.” Couturier sensed that greater unity was indeed possible and that it would come as people on both sides of that wall grew closer to heaven. And so he began his lifelong project of engaging with people of the Orthodox faith. He started to build relationships with them based on a shared love for Jesus and for those in need. These were the early seeds of the movement known as “ecumenism”—promoting unity and cooperation between Christian churches.
Paul Couturier’s work was not unappreciated—nor one-sided. One Orthodox priest, in a letter thanking Couturier for his help, wrote, “Christian charity will reunite us all around our one and only master and shepherd, Christ our God.” But Couturier wanted more than deeper relationships; he wanted to understand the causes of division so that he could develop a strategy for unity. In 1932, he spent a month with the Monks of Unity, a group initiated by Pope Pius XI to promote Christian unity.
During his retreat, Couturier read the work of James Wattson, an Anglican convert to Catholicism who wanted all Anglicans to reunite with Rome. Reading Wattson in light of his own grassroots work, Couturier saw that unity could not be simply an intellectual, theological achievement. People’s hearts needed to be touched just as deeply as their minds. Couturier called this “spiritual ecumenism”: the conviction that relationships could progress without full theological communion and perhaps one day would lead to it. Couturier had come to a bold conclusion, unheard of at the time—one that many would look upon with great suspicion.
The “Geometry of Ecumenism.” Couturier left his retreat hoping “not that ‘the others’ may be converted to us, but that we all may be drawn closer to Christ.” As he searched for a way forward, he developed what he called a “geometry of ecumenism.” He pictured a spiritual journey in which two people ascended from opposite sides of a pyramid and came together at the top. As each person pursued union with Christ through their own tradition, they would necessarily grow closer to each other. In the end, as each person is united with Christ, all will be united with one another—in Christ.
Couturier wanted to translate his breakthrough into a more formal set of actions for Catholics. But he felt the existing Catholic prayers for unity focused too much on praying that Orthodox and Protestants would return to union with Rome. So in 1933, he composed a “Triduum of Prayer for Unity” and invited people in Lyon to join him in prayer. In the years that followed, the triduum grew into a full octave—eight days—to be observed every January as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The Slow March Forward. Couturier envisioned unity as an “invisible monastery” where like-minded believers would join in prayer regardless of location or denomination. He lived this out by forging prayerful relationships with Christian leaders throughout Europe. He organized discussion groups, attended prayer services, and wrote extensively. And he began to be noticed.
As World War II loomed, Couturier’s travels drew criticism, so his religious superiors forbade him from attending ecumenical gatherings. Instead of rebelling, he embraced the limitation to his work, saying, “Our march toward unity has just taken a great step forward! God has permitted a setback!”
Indeed, this limitation opened a new path: correspondence. In fact, Couturier’s letters to various people in the last years of his life are widely seen as paving the way for the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism and every ecumenical initiative that has come out of Rome since then. When Couturier died in 1953, the Archbishop of Lyon went so far as to call him the “Apostle of Christian Unity.”
A Prophet of Unity. Beginning with his work with the Russian refugees, Paul Couturier developed a vision of unity in Christ that far exceeded “lowest common denominator” thinking. It wasn’t a matter of ignoring our differences but of living our faith as fully as possible. As an Orthodox friend once described him, Couturier was “a living paradox, Catholic to the very depth of his soul . . . the friend of Protestants, of Orthodox, of Anglicans.”
Couturier’s message of ecumenism seems all the more prophetic today. It is hard to believe that merely sixty years ago, a Reformed pastor who was Couturier’s dear friend was barred from speaking inside the church at his funeral; the pastor delivered remarks on the steps outside the church instead.
By contrast, today we see changes to canon law allowing Catholics to work with Christians from other denominations to serve the poor and participate in prayer services. We see ecumenical prayer communities such as Taizé and Sant’Egidio rise up and prosper. We see theologians talking together and producing such fruit as the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. We see recent popes seeking reconciliation for the failings of Catholics in the past. Truly, as Pope Francis said in a recorded message to a conference of evangelicals in February 2014, “The miracle of unity has begun!”
Hallie Riedel is an editor for The Word Among Us.