How often God works in unexpected ways! Paul Couturier did not discover his full vocation until he had lived for more than half a century.
At a time in his life when most people would be settling into their calling and even beginning to look toward retirement, this humble, aging priest with no influence or connections to speak of became one of the twentieth century’s greatest apostles of Christian unity. Yves Congar, another renowned ecumenist, once said that Couturier gave the ecumenical movement “its heart of love and prayer.” Congar went on, “It was [Couturier] who, spiritually, founded that immense movement which, today, bears the ecumenical hope of the world.”
Paul Couturier was born in Lyons, France, on July 29, 1881, into a family of middle-class industrialists. He received the upbringing and education typical of the people of his day until, at the age of nineteen, he decided to dedicate his life to Christ in the priesthood. He entered the Society of St. Irenaeus and was ordained in 1906. Even early on in his priesthood, “Abbé Paul” had a deep reverence for the Mass and a profound sense of the power of prayer—qualities that matured and burned within him for the rest of his life.
After ordination, Abbé Paul was assigned to teach science at the Institut des Chartreux, the college that his society ran. Couturier held this position for forty years, even as he became increasingly involved in the work of ecumenism. Further, though the priests of St. Irenaeus normally lived together in community, Abbé Paul’s situation called for something different. His only sister, Marie Antoinette, was in poor health and could not live alone, and so he was allowed to live with her in a simple flat in the city. Every evening, when all his brothers in the Lord gathered for the evening meal and fellowship, Paul went off to his sister’s apartment and looked after her.
A New Vocation Awakens
When he was in his early forties, it was suggested to Couturier by a retreat master that he expand beyond his work as a teacher and help care for refugees who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Through this work, Couturier came to know many Orthodox Christians who had established a Russian colony in Lyons.
For twelve years, Couturier gave these destitute Russians whatever time he could spare from his duties as a teacher. This ministry of charity awakened in him a desire to see all Christians come together in love and mutual service. The words of one Orthodox archbishop from Kiev found a home in his heart: “The walls of separation do not reach the sky.”
In 1932, Couturier’s visit to a Benedictine priory in Belgium that was dedicated to Christian unity only confirmed what was growing in his heart. It was there that he discovered the writings of Cardinal Désiré Joseph Mercier, an early ecumenist who wrote: “In order to unite, we must love one another; to love one another, we must know one another; to know one another, we must go and meet one another.” This was already happening in Couturier’s life, and he longed to see it happen to all Christians.
At the priory, Couturier also became aware of the limitations of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which had been established with the aim of asking God to guide Anglicans back to Roman Catholicism. Couturier adapted the octave to encompass the unity of all Christians and refocused it on Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper. He made John 17:21—”Father, that they may all be one”— its spiritual anchor. In 1933, Couturier launched this revised observance in Lyons, and from that point on, he devoted his life to promoting the week of prayer throughout the world. He wrote articles, distributed tracts, and invited guest speakers—all with the goal of encouraging Christians to pray together for the unity that he knew Jesus so desired.
United with Christ in Prayer
In an era when it was still uncommon for Christians of different denominations to associate with one another, Couturier felt that not only should they pray for one another, they must pray with one another. And they should pray “that the unity of all Christians may come, such as Christ wills and by the means he wills.” Couturier understood that each person has his or her own vision for bringing the church back together, but he knew that it is only as we all prayerfully listen to God that we will understand his way toward unity. Praying this way would also allow Christians to come together without trying to win one another over to their own denominations.
Faithful to his own Catholic tradition, Couturier called the church his “well-beloved Mother.” Yet he had a sensitive understanding and sympathy for other Christian traditions and was quick to see the truths contained in them. He realized that it was not just doctrinal differences that kept Christians separated. Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all had painful memories of suffering and humiliation at one another’s hands, and attitudes of hostility and suspicion had hardened over centuries.
Couturier felt that these mindsets separating Christians could only be overcome by repentance. He was convinced of the need for Christians to do penance for their pride and lack of charity and to ask forgiveness for the sins that their churches committed against other Christian brothers and sisters. In his own prayer, Couturier was moved by the image of Jesus hanging on the cross in agony, his body torn and broken. Even today, Jesus continues to suffer the pains of his body on earth—the church torn by division and enmity.
A Circle of Love
Through his efforts to foster what he called “spiritual ecumenism,” Couturier developed a wide circle of friendships. He had the warmth and ability to stretch out his hand across denominational boundaries and bring others to share in the cause so close to his heart. He visited England twice and established strong friendships among Anglican clergy and the Anglican monks from the Community of the Resurrection. In 1940, he was also visited by Roger Schutz, the founder of the ecumenical community of Taizé in France, and he returned the visit in 1941.
While Couturier encouraged serious discussion of ecumenical issues, he always insisted that any dialogue be surrounded by an atmosphere of mutual prayer to avoid tension or sterile debate. His contact with a group of Reformed pastors led to the establishment of the Groupe des Dombes which, beginning in 1937, brought together French and Swiss priests and pastors in an annual retreat for prayer and ecumenical discussion.
All the friendships Couturier established grew deeper through a voluminous correspondence. With some friends, he created an “invisible monastery,” a spiritual communion of people who, without knowing one another, nevertheless committed themselves to praying together for Christian unity.
All these activities and relationships did not prevent Couturier from giving as much time and money as possible to promoting the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As a result of his efforts, the observance was gradually embraced throughout France and beyond. Today, the theme and biblical texts for the world-wide annual Week of Prayer are prepared by a joint committee of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order.
A Far-Reaching Apostolate
Long frail and diabetic, Abbé Paul’s health was further undermined by a brief imprisonment in Lyons by the Gestapo during World War II on suspicion of conspiracy. Nonetheless, he energetically carried on his work throughout the late 1940s. Even after he developed a grave heart condition in 1951, Couturier continued his correspondence and celebrated Mass daily in the small chapel he had set up in the flat that he shared with his sister. The Mass plunged him into Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the center of his faith. It was there that Couturier lived his ecumenical ideal most profoundly—in union with Jesus, the Reconciler of Christians.
When Couturier died on March 24, 1953, at the age of seventy-two, photographs, letters, lists of prayer intentions, and mementos of friends were found on his altar. His wide heart had brought all these people and their needs before the Lord daily in Mass. On the walls of his room hung Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant crosses, Russian icons, and a poster advertising that year’s week of prayer. Here was a man absorbed with the desire for Christian unity, a man whose entire life was focused on the goal of bringing together the scattered children of God.
By helping so many people see the need for healing in the body of Christ, Paul Couturier did much to prepare the way for the great work of Vatican II and the ecumenical ventures undertaken since then. May his prophetic words find a place in our hearts this new millennium:
A great miracle is beginning to be performed on the threshold of a new epoch. It is the beginning of the transformation of broken Christianity into a Christianity truly one according to the unity willed by Christ. . . .
Born of heroism, ecumenism . . . will be maintained and will go forward only if it is sustained by heroic prayer . . . strenuous prayer which will ascend ever more fully and fervently from the multitude of Christians of both the old and the young churches. . . . He who should fail to contribute to this gigantic labor to which the Holy Spirit is calling all baptized members of Christ would be guilty of betrayal.
This account of Fr. Paul Couturier’s life first appeared in The Word Among Us and is included in the book I Have Called You by Name: The Stories of 16 Saints and Christian Heroes (The Word Among Us Press, 2000).