When the Catholic Church begins its annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Jan. 18, it owes its origins to Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
The former Episcopal priest, who would later become a Catholic priest, was approved in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to have his cause for canonization opened. Father Gabriel O’Donnell, a Dominican priest from Washington, D.C., was chosen as the postulator for Father Wattson’s cause.
While he has only begun to scratch the surface of the voluminous works and writings of Father Wattson, he said one thing has impressed him.
“He had this inspiration to spend his life promoting Christian unity,” Father O’Donnell said. “His fidelity to this idea and his determination to work toward this, despite every kind of obstacle, is impressive.”
Born in 1863 in Millington, Maryland, Father Wattson (born Lewis Thomas Wattson) was the third son of an Episcopal minister, Rev. Joseph Newton Wattson.
As a student, his father was expelled from the seminary as he was thought to be a “secret Jesuit” due to reading and sharing Catholic tracts among his fellow seminarians. This episode haunted his father for the better part of his ministerial career, as he was sent to serve in poverty-stricken areas, which was seen as a punishment for his “Roman tendencies.”
“This was personal for him,” said Father Joseph Scerbo of the Society of the Atonement, who has written extensively on the life of Father Wattson. “Not only was his father misunderstood, but so was he. He embraced that cross from his earliest days in formation.”
Despite this, Father Wattson followed in his father’s footsteps and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1886.
A decade later, he met Sister Lurana Mary White, an Episcopal nun who was moved to connect with Father Wattson after hearing him give a homily. These two were of the same mind that a religious order was needed to live out the spirit of poverty exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi.
“The two of them had a love of St. Francis and his commitment to poverty,” Father Scerbo told Our Sunday Visitor. “She was the closest person (at this time) to Father Wattson. The relationship that they shared was very powerful and beautiful.”
In 1900, they began the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, professing vows as a new Anglican religious order. Both the men and women’s communities resided on a small parcel of land called Graymoor in Garrison, New York.
“Here were two people who really loved each other and the Church and raising up a community that would bind and heal the broken levels of trust in the Church,” Father Scerbo said.
The order adopted a coarse, grayish-tan-cloth habit in the spirit of St. Francis and quickly began their work of repairing the breach that had occurred in the 16th century during the Reformation.
“(Father Wattson’s) feeling was that the Church should be one so that the world would come to believe in Christ,” said Father Jim Loughran, who serves as the director of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute. “In particular, Father Wattson was interested in the unity between the Anglican Church (known as the Episcopal Church in the United States) and the Roman Catholic Church. He really believed that the Church could be reunited under the unity of the pope.”
Father Loughran added that Father Wattson was not the only one who hoped for unity. He collaborated closely with the Rev. Spencer Jones, an Anglican vicar in England. Rev. Jones suggested simply a day of prayer for Catholic unity, to which Father Wattson proposed to make it an octave.
“Jones came up with the day of prayer,” said Father Loughran, “but it was Father Paul who insisted it should be a week of prayer from Jan. 18 (feast of the Chair of St. Peter) until Jan. 25 (The Conversion of St. Paul).”
In January 1908, the first celebration of the Church Unity Octave was held. Less than two years later, Pope Pius X approved the Catholic Church to corporately receive the Society of the Atonement into full communion with Rome. Father Wattson was then ordained a Catholic priest in 1910.
In February 1916, Pope Benedict XV officially approved the Church Unity Octave for the universal Church. Five years later, the octave was recognized in all U.S. dioceses.
“This certainly brought him great joy,” Father Scerbo said.
In those years before the Second Vatican Council, the Church Unity Octave had specific prayer intentions for each day. For instance, on the second day of the octave, the Church prayed for the reunion of the East and the West; on the fifth day of the octave, the Church prayed that Protestants in America would come into union with the Chair of St. Peter.
“You have to realize that Father Paul was a pre-Vatican II Catholic, and so his understanding of unity was a return to Rome,” Father Loughran said. “That fell out of practice all together (after Vatican II). Instead, we now pray that all Christian churches can find a way to unity.”
In 1993, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism and greatly encouraged participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Equally important, according to the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute’s website, was when Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote on prayer in common in his “A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism,” he specifically mentioned that “the celebration of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity worldwide is an initiative of singular importance to be encouraged and further developed.”
Leaving a legacy
According to Father Loughran, the theme of unity was behind all of Father Wattson’s many apostolates.
He began a monthly magazine devoted to Christian unity and the missions called The Lamp. From its beginning, Father Loughran said that the role of his magazine was to boldly proclaim that Christian unity would absolutely take place. He based this belief on the fact that Jesus had prayed for unity at the Last Supper.
Father Wattson founded St. Christopher’s Inn, a refuge for homeless men. As well, he produced the Ave Maria Hour, a radio program that broadcasted stories about the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He began the Union-That-Nothing-Be-Lost, which was founded in 1903 to disperse donations to other charities. Finally, he co-founded the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which continues to be a papal agency that delivers aid to the Middle East, Northern Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
“We (the Society of the Atonement) continue all of these works today,” Father Loughran said. “ Whether he was writing about it in The Lamp or helping the hobos at St. Christopher’s Inn, he was working for a oneness. While we hope for reconciliation among (Christian) churches, we also hope to reconcile human beings.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.