Coincidences, Anniversaries and Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18-25 January, urges Christians to be aware of the need to pray and work for Christian unity. The week was founded by the Rev. Paul Wattson, who was instrumental in the creation of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Someone once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” The year 2024 is filled with interesting coincidences, perhaps described more clearly as convergences.

Tomorrow begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Founded by the Rev. Paul Wattson (1863-1940) in 1908 as the Chair of Unity Octave, its goal is to urge Christians to be aware of the need to pray and work for Christian unity. At that time, relations among the various churches and Christian communities were nonexistent at best, hostile at worst.

Now known as a Servant of God, a formal step in the Catholic Church toward sainthood, Father Paul also founded the Society of the Atonement, a religious community whose mission is to promote Christian unity and “at-one-ment,” first among Christians and then among all human beings. The Society of the Atonement, which he cofounded with Sister Lurana White, is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2024.

After World War I, Father Paul was moved profoundly by the suffering of Eastern Christians caught up in the violent dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and a disintegrating Middle East. He collaborated with Bishop George Calavassy (1881-1957), exarch for Greek Catholics living in Constantinople — the capital of the empire — to address the immediate needs of displaced Armenians, Assyro-Chaldeans, Greeks and anti-Bolshevik Russians seeking refuge there. Together, they recruited an English military chaplain working among the refugees, Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle, to raise emergency relief funds in the United States.

Russian refugee children on Proti Island, near Constantinople, receive food from the American Red Cross, 1920. (photo: American Red Cross via Library of Congress)

In December 1924, Father Paul, Msgr. Barry-Doyle and a number of laymen established “the Catholic Near East Welfare Association” as their instrument to assist the displaced Christians of the “Near East.” Msgr. Barry-Doyle’s “Call of the East” program packed concert halls and raised considerable funds for the plight of the displaced.

Less than two years later, Pope Pius XI united several Catholic initiatives with similar goals — including Father Paul’s CNEWA, of which he was vice president — into a single agency of the Holy See, retaining the name Catholic Near East Welfare Association, thereby centralizing and strengthening the various efforts for the Eastern churches throughout what was then called the Near East.

Thus, while one of Father Paul’s foundations — the Society of the Atonement — celebrates its 125th anniversary, another, CNEWA, remembers its origins 100 years ago, even as it prepares for its centennial as a papal initiative in 2026. At the same time, CNEWA’s award-winning magazine, ONE, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The notion of “at-one-ment,” so dear to Father Paul 125 years ago, is reflected in the magazine’s name, which publishes four times a year.

These triple anniversaries cannot be a mere coincidence at a time when the world is torn apart by war, extremism, violence and social discord, the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. The “at-one-ment,” fervently preached by Father Paul, and the message of “ONE God, world, human family, church,” proclaimed on the masthead of CNEWA’s flagship publication, have perhaps never appeared so distant an ideal as now.

The theme of the 2024 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is, “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). It is an appropriate yet frighteningly damning theme at the same time.

Christians are at war with each other in Ethiopia and, since Russia’s invasion in 2022, in Ukraine. War between Hamas and Israel is killing Christians, Muslims and Jews in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The number of men, women, children, elderly and infirm dying from violence in many places in the world is perhaps greater now than at any time in the past two generations.

The anniversaries of these efforts professing a vision of “at-one-ment” — the oneness of God, the world, the human family and the church — are not naive. If they were, they would have been unsustainable over these past 125 years.

However, the mission of oneness underlined in these anniversaries is not a call to celebration. This is not the time for celebration. These anniversaries are rather a challenge, a wake-up call, a paradoxical nonviolent battle cry. The hatred, the bigotry, the blood lust and addiction to violence and oppression must stop — and must stop now. These things are not of God; to attempt to justify much less sanctify them is blasphemy.

One speaks of “celebrating” and “commemorating” an anniversary. I would suggest we commemorate these anniversaries. While we are grateful to God for 125, 100 and 50 years of service, there is little feeling for self-congratulation. Rather, they are reminders of the challenges and struggles ahead. It will not be easy — and there have been serious setbacks — but we are aware of that.

In commemorating, we also recommit ourselves to a core belief that achieving oneness may not be easy and may not always be successful, but it is ultimately the invincible work of God, who is the one Creator and Father of us all.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

Related Content:

Recent Posts

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español