People, Look East: Reflections on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022

Initially, when asked to do a piece relating to the Rev. Paul Wattson, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022 and CNEWA, it seemed like a classic example of “too clever by half.” However, the attempt proved more interesting and fruitful than expected.

Servant of God Paul Wattson, popularly known as Father Paul, together with Sister Laurana White, cofounded the Society of the Atonement (Graymoor) in the Episcopal Church. From the outset, the community of friars and sisters dedicated themselves to the work of Christian unity. In 1908, Father Paul initiated the Church Unity Octave (18-25 January), which has evolved into the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed in most churches.

The following year, in 1909, Father Paul, Sister Laurana and the young community came into full communion with the Catholic Church. It is important to underline that this was done without any rancor. Father Paul and the community continued to hold the Anglican Communion in affection and his successors continue to maintain warm relations with it. However, Father Paul saw full communion with the Catholic Church as the next step in his personal and communal vocation to promote Christian unity.

It is not clear what knowledge, if any, Father Paul had of the sui juris Catholic Eastern churches before or immediately after his becoming a Catholic. That was to change radically, however, in the years after the end of World War I. The fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1922 unleashed incredible suffering and persecution for millions of Christians who had been subjects of the sultan. The overwhelming majority of these Christians were Orthodox or Eastern Catholic. Father Paul became intensely involved in aiding them. He did this by fundraising and educating Christians in the West about the existence and plight of these often-unknown communities of faith.

His efforts took concrete form when he cofounded the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in 1924 with Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle and Greek Byzantine Catholic Bishop George Calavassy. Two years later, the Holy See recognized their efforts and, in March 1926, Pope Pius XI refounded it as a papal agency, placing it under the Dicastery for Eastern Churches.

CNEWA President Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari meets with Mar Abris Youkhanan of the Church of the East during a CNEWA pastoral visit to Iraq in November 2021. Mar Youkhanan serves as the bishop of Erbil and patriarchal vicar. (photo: Michael La Civita)

Even after the situation of Christians in the Middle East had somewhat improved, Father Paul maintained a keen interest in these churches — playing a key role for example in the founding of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in southwestern India. One gets the feeling the very existence of these Catholic Eastern churches provided him with an insight into Christian unity that he may not have had — or had so clearly — previously. If, as an American Episcopal priest, Father Paul’s experience of the Catholic Church was primarily or exclusively of the Latin rite, the Catholic Church and the catholicity — and “unity” — that he had experienced would have been rather uniform and monolithic.

His experience of and — one must note — his fascination with the Eastern churches provided Father Paul with a much broader understanding of the catholicity of the Catholic Church. If the catholicity of the Catholic Church had led him to become a Catholic, his experience of the Catholic Eastern churches greatly expanded his understanding of what that catholicity meant.

The rich and, for the Latin-rite Catholic, sometimes bewildering diversity of the Eastern churches makes it clear that “ut omnes unum sint” — “that they all may be one” — most definitely does not mean “that they all may be uniform.” The catholicity of the Catholic Church does not merely tolerate diversity, but sees diversity as one of the “marks of the church.” 

A broader understanding of catholicity and, hence, Christian unity has a profound impact on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In a sense it makes the Week of Prayer more challenging. When Christian unity is seen in terms of communion and catholicity, it is more evasive than would be a quest for mere uniformity. The quest demands openness and great spiritual maturity and sensitivity. It demands a courage to face the different and the other and to be willing to “test the spirit” (1 Cor 12:10) in whatever direction it might lead.

Pius XI affirmed CNEWA’s role not only to aid the Eastern churches, but to educate Christians in and of the West about them. The theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022 is “We Saw the Star in the East, and We Came To Worship Him” (cf. Mt 2:2). The theme and prayers were chosen in cooperation with the Middle East Council of Churches. 

The experience of Father Paul, CNEWA’s mission to teach about the Eastern churches and the Week of Prayer theme indicate the challenge is not merely to become informed about the Eastern churches, but, as with Father Paul, to be broadened by their existence. If our notion of Christian unity is one of uniformity, if catholicity means little more than marching in lockstep, we are misguided. CNEWA’s call — as well as the theme of the Week of Prayer — for “People, Look East!” is an invitation and a challenge to open our minds and spirits to a far richer understanding of what it means to be truly Catholic.

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