Paul Wattson

At-one-ment - the origins of the Friars

When Lewis Thomas Wattson was rector of the Episcopalian Church of St John in New York, he became convinced that a preaching order like the Paulists was what the Anglican Church needed. Looking for inspiration on how this should be realised, in 1893 he opened his Bible and his eye fell upon the word "atonement" in St Paul's letter to the Romans (Roman 5.11). Thus, at a time when ecumenical efforts and concerns were far from prominent, began his vocation for the reconciliation of Christians and the Churches to which they belong - their 'at-one'-ment, their unity in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Father. Further study revealed to him the meaning of John 17.21 - "That all may be one as you, Father, are in me and I am in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you have sent me": Christian Unity and Christian Mission are inseparable and must walk hand in hand.

By 1897 he was leading a group of Episcopalian priests in Omaha, Nebraska, with all this in mind, when he received a letter from Lurana White, a novice with the Episcopal Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus in Albany, New York, asking if he knew of any Anglican community which required the public profession of poverty, in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. Wattson told her of his deep sense of vocation to establish a Society of the Atonement, for unity and mission. They met the following year and their different vocations converged - the Society, for men and women, would be Franciscan. In December 1898, Lurana White began the community near an abandoned church at Graymoor, New York, St John's in the Wilderness, inspired by the words of Christ to St Francis, "Build up my Church, for it is almost falling down." After a novitiate with the Order of the Holy Cross, Wattson came to Graymoor the following year, taking the name Paul at his profession.

The Church is Universal

From the outset the Friars and Sisters witnessed to the belief that there was but One Church of Christ and that while each part or "branch" (the various Christian denominations and Churches) are manifestations of that one Church, they suffer because of the division of Christians, and their separation from the See of Rome as the centre for the Church's unity established since the time of St Peter. Indeed the Roman Catholic Church too, although in full communion with the See of Rome, suffers because of the separation of other Christians from it. In the preceding decades, especially in England, there had been energetic moves and high hopes towards Anglican and Roman Catholic reconciliation, but these had been dashed by the Vatican's adverse judgment on the status of Anglican orders, as well as a dose of unreality to the various proposed means for reunion. So a pro-Roman ecumenical policy was a difficult witness for an Anglican religious community at the time, however much people were agreed that Christian unity involved the whole Church and that separation was ultimately indefensible.

Years later, commenting on Anglican distinctiveness, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury would say that the Church of England had no doctrine of its own but that of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church of Christ, a position which significantly aided the generous response of Pope John XXIII and the ecumenical orientation and vocation of the entire Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. So, while Wattson's and White's convinced acceptance of the principles of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction were shocking to most Anglicans at the time, they were in some ways ahead of their time. They believed that the judgment on Anglican Orders would in time be reversed after future review in the light of new theological and historical data as yet to emerge. And indeed papal infallibility and jurisdiction came to be reviewed in the new context created by the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Church Unity Octave - Corporate Reunion

Nevertheless, as the twentieth century began, the community of friars and sisters became increasingly isolated in their witness, a witness that the catholicity of the Episcopalian Church to which they belonged, if it was genuinely the catholicity of the whole Church, had to come to terms with the reality that this "whole Church" includes the Roman Catholic Church, with its centre of Unity in the ministry, authority and leadership of the Bishop of Rome as successor to the Apostle Peter. So they promoted the idea of "corporate reunion" as the vocation of the Episcopalian Church, the Orthodox Church, other Christian denominations and, by inference, the Roman Catholic Church too.

At around the same time in England, the Reverent Spencer Jones, vicar of St David's Church, Moreton in Marsh in Gloucestershire, was active in the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom. This had been a society formed by Anglicans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics in 1857 with the permission of Cardinal Wiseman, but under Cardinal Manning Catholics were commanded to take no further part. So it had continued as a remnant without Catholics, still hoping and praying for visible, corporate union. In 1900 Jones gave an address to the Association which Lord Halifax asked him to work up into a thesis for publication - England and the Holy See. Issued in 1902 this soon came to the attention of Paul Wattson. Jones and Wattsonbegan a correspondence on views that were very close to each other. In 1903 Wattson began his own publication work with a monthly magazine dedicated to the cause of Christian Unity, The Lamp. Then in 1907, Wattson and Jones, with Mother Lurana White, published The Prince of the Apostles. As Vincent McNabb, the famous Dominican, wrote in reviewing it, "The most important fact is not what is said but who have said it ...; and ... we find the title page the weightiest page in the book." It seems to have been a revelation to the Roman Catholic world that other Christians, despite their separation, could envisage the office of Pope in this way. Evidently seeds were sown in the Catholic Church as to how to respond.

Wattson and Jones began to plan for an annual Day of Prayer for the objectives they had set out in their book. At first, Jones suggested June 29th, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as the most appropriate, but Wattson suggested instead a more extended devotion, lasting the week between the Feast of St Peter's Chair - the inauguration of his episcopal ministry at Rome - and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, January 18th to 25th. Wattson lost no time in writing to people to support the idea of a Church Unity Octave. Two thousand agreed to observe it in the Unites States alone, and it simultaneously began at the Society's house in Graymoor and at St David's Church, Moreton in Marsh in England, with Spencer Jones.

Catholic Unity for the Friars

By the middle of the following year, however, it was clear that the Society's position within the Anglican fold was untenable. At the time, their pro-Roman witness and ideas were questioned, because of their lack of communion with the Roman Catholic Church that they presented as the ideal, and it was doubted how authentically Anglican they could be. The Society's visitor, Bishop Kinsman of Delaware, met Wattson and Mother Lurana in May 1909 to hear how the community could advocate and live in a position of loyalty both to the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church. In the July he wrote to Wattson with his reflections on what they had said. He felt that, if Wattson wished to live as a "consistent and contented" Anglican, he should give up belief in a divinely established papacy, or else he should make an "unqualified submission" and be a good Roman Catholic. Recognising Watton's desire for integrity, indeed 'at-one-'ment, he said, "If I were in your position, I should choose the latter alternative." So on October 1909, Wattson and another friar, Lurana White and two sisters, two novices and ten lay associates were received into the Roman Catholic Church. They were enabled to do this corporately, and thus their witness to the corporate reunion of all the Church was honoured in this small way. They were constituted as a distinct religious community, allowed to keep their name, and encouraged to retain as their twin purpose: prayer and work for Christian unity and mission. In the same year, Pope Pius X, who had personally ensured that the new community would be made welcome and given generous assistance, sanctioned the Church Unity Octave for observance within the Catholic Church, alongside the Ascensiontide Novena of prayer for Christian Unity, established by Pope Leo XIII not long before in 1897 in the aftermath of the unsuccessful discussions between Anglicans and the Vatican.

In 1910 Wattson was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, and in 1916 Pope Benedict XV extended the observance of the Church Unity Octave to the whole Catholic Church at the height of the First World War, as a means to promote peace and reconciliation among all people - 'at-one'-ment again.

The Octave becomes the Week of Prayer
Paul Wattson died in 1944, having established his community as a significant force in the development of the Catholic Church in his country, as well as in the growing ecumenical movement worldwide. His work included founding St Christopher's Inn, a shelter for the homeless, the Union That Nothing Be Lost, a charity to assist missionaries and their work in the home territory, radio programmes, and a seminary in Washington DC. The year before he died, he recognised the need for the Octave to develop, so that people outside the Catholic world could also join in the prayer for Christian Unity, endorsing Paul Couturier's efforts to broaden appeal at the same time as maintain Wattson's focus on the universality of the One Church of Christ. With the World Council of Churches adopting the Week of Prayer in this spirit, in 1965 the Vatican too endorsed the efforts of the Friars and the assistants of Paul Couturier to explore how the Week, its themes and resources could in future be devised together with other Christians. The Wattson Octave and the Couturier Week it inspired thus achieved their own Christian Unity - and the collaboration between Catholics and the World Council of Churches continues to this day.

Wattson's Work Continues 

Paul Wattson's ecumenical work is perpetuated in the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute in New York State and at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome, both run to this day by members of the Society he and Lurana White founded. For more about Paul Wattson and the work of the Society of the Atonement today, visit the website of the Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor and the Centro pro Unione in Rome.