Father Paul Wattson and the Quest for Church Unity

By Patrick Hayes

Early one morning last summer, I walked out to the precipice of a “holy mountain.” I looked out and saw the fog lifting from an immense and undulating forest below, like incense from a thurible. I knew I was walking on holy ground and I soaked up the silence, interrupted only by the stray bird on the wing. In this sweet-smelling, bounteous setting I was a pilgrim. There at the ledge was the grave of Father Paul James Francis Wattson, founder of the Society of the Atonement, a group of friars that established themselves for the strict purpose of uniting the branches of the Christian family.

Fr. Wattson’s life is less well known than his legacy and it is deliberate that his grave should rest in a somewhat remote corner of the property at Graymoor, the Atonement friars’ headquarters in Garrison, N.Y. The career of Fr. Wattson is subordinate to his singular ambition to fulfill the Lord’s command that “all may be one” (John 17:21) – words that today emblazon the friars’ coat of arms (ut omnes unum sint) and motivate their ministry. From their outpost on this holy mountain and in centers around the globe, the Atonement friars are responsible for inserting the “Church Unity Octave” into the liturgical calendar.

It began first in the United States at Graymoor in 1908 and was later called the “Chair of Unity Octave” to emphasize its Petrine dimension. It has now given way to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which since 1966 has been a joint project of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Week of Prayer is marked in churches around the world each January 18-25.

The role of the Church Unity Octave was not merely to repair relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, but was an active and prayerful attempt at returning the Anglican world to pre-Reformation bonds with Rome. The idea for this festival of unity emerged in the simple exchange of words between friends. It is easy to pinpoint the exact date, too. On Nov. 30, 1907, Fr. Wattson was writing out replies to letters he had received the previous day. Among his correspondents was his friend and fellow priest, the Rev. Spencer John Jones, the Anglican rector of St. David’s Church, Moreton-in-Marsh, England. Fr. Jones suggest ed that a special sermon be given on Christian unity in every church in the Anglican Communion on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, to restore unity in the one Church of Christ. Fr. Wattson agreed and asked his correspondent what he thought of “inaugurating a Church Unity Week beginning with S. Peter’s Chair at Rome, January 18, and ending with S. Paul’s Day.” Fr. Jones picked up this idea and helped promote it throughout Europe; Fr. Wattson reached the multitudes everywhere else.

Behind this expression of Fr. Wattson’s thinking lay a longstanding commitment which was in gestation since his boyhood. Born Lewis Thomas Wattson in Millington, Md., in 1863, he was the son of the Episcopal rector of the little parish of St. Clement’s, whose only notable feature was the white Communion table, a gift from Queen Anne. Fr. Wattson’s father, Joseph, had been expelled from General Theological Seminary, and sometimes labeled a “Jesuit in disguise,” but was brought into the ministry through the graciousness of Bishop William R. Whittingham of Baltimore.

The elder Fr. Wattson was never able to escape the whispers of his leanings toward Rome. Many at the time considered any rapprochement toward Roman Catholicism a blasphemy, and such openness was roundly condemned by people like the Rev. A Cleveland Coxe, rector of Grace Church, Baltimore. Writing in an introduction to Frederick Meyrick’s Moral Theology of the Church of Rome (Baltimore, 1856), Fr. Coxe made no bones about his stance: “Papal Rome, like Rome Imperial, has but one instinct, and that is – Empire. Its undying part is the iron will, by which all humanity must be crushed into subjection.”

We know that young Fr. Wattson read this kind of literature, just as he observed the whispers surrounding his father, whom he revered. Lewis would go on for schooling out of state at St. Mary’s Hall in New Jersey and then to St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College) before entering General Seminary. He was ordained in 1885 and, after a brief parish assignment in Maryland, he became the rector of St. John ‘s Episcopal Church in Kingston, N.Y. He remained there for the next ten years.

Biographers later would describe the young priest as a “High Churchman” and one endowed with an “extraordinary preaching ability.” But they also noted how he seemed somewhat reclusive, almost given to a monastic lifestyle. His early spirituality, deeply imbued with biblical literalism, is seen as giving way to his growing interest in religious life, especially Franciscanism, which prized personal poverty as given in a common rule even while working to eradicate poverty in society. In his sermons, he spoke from the heart, almost never reading from notes, and balanced his words with his deep knowledge of Scripture. Invitations soon began to pour in for Fr. Wattson to come and preach beyond his own congregation. As a way of spreading his thought, in May 1894 he began to publish The Pulpit and the Cross.

These two-fold venues – the pulpit and the press – allowed Fr. Wattson to communicate his ideas of engagement with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1895, he understood the doctrine of papal supremacy – delineated in the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Aeternus at Vatican I (1870) – as both a test of American democracy and itself a religious problem. All Roman Catholic bishops in the United States were agents of a foreign bishop, he contended, and so had “no lawful jurisdiction” on these shores. He often wrote on sacramental questions and papal authority, always respectfully critiquing the position held by Rome. Why couldn’t Roman Catholics see their errors? Or was it Fr. Wattson and his tribe that were somehow misunderstanding?

A combination of questioning and a search for a deeper interior life came to a head in 1895. That summer he was approached by a group of unmarried Episcopal men living a semi-monastic life in Omaha. They wondered whether Fr. Wattson would agree to be their superior. He gave it three years before returning to New York, even more confused than before.

Fr. Wattson’s reputation caught the attention of Lurana Mary White, who first contacted him in 1896. She was then living in a diocesan community of Episcopal women in Albany – the Sisters of the Holy Child – and had also been hoping to form a sisterhood that would embrace corporately and individually the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Searching for a community of this sort proved difficult in the United States and so she joined the Sisters of Bethany in London.

After a year’s novitiate, and having accepted the brown habit and cord of the Franciscans, she entered a new phase of her spiritual life. Before returning to America in 1898, she made a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi where, she later wrote, she became “guilty of a pious act of duplicity.” While touring St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, she left her party long enough to kiss the foot of the statue of St. Peter.

She brought Fr. Wattson to her family home in upstate New York, where a kind of mutual epiphany occurred. Forming a spiritual alliance that would last all of their lives, in December 1898, Mother Lurana took possession of a piece of property to begin a new religious community. In the spring of 1899, the two would launch their new venture – the Society of the Atonement – from an abandoned farmhouse and chapel on a hilltop in Garrison.

Over the course of the next ten years, a steady creep toward Rome was in evidence. His study of religious life was augmented by a year’s trial in the Fathers of the Holy Cross at Westminster, Md., and in 1900 he also accepted the habit of a Franciscan friar, taking the name Paul James. Fr. Wattson soon found himself back in New York, building up Graymoor and touring nearby churches. In 1901, he was invited to preach before an Episcopal congregation in Long Island and chose as his topic “The Reunion of Christendom and the Chair of Peter.” It was difficult to hear him over the noise of those vacating the church. Undeterred, in 1903 he began to publish The Lamp, a magazine advocating greater ties with Rome through the acceptance of papal infallibility. Another publication, The Antidote, specifically set an apologetic tone to counteract the anti-Roman vitriol of The Menace, a Midwestern publication that had nearly 1.5 million subscribers.

In his work to allay suspicions over foreign encroachments in the United States, Fr. Wattson also defended those Anglicans who were scorned for trying to close the breach with Rome. Fr. Wattson looked upon the squabbles within Anglicanism less as an opportunity to grouse and more as a chance to show pastoral solicitude. Fr. Paul had a strict policy never to utter a word against Anglicanism, but chose instead to highlight the Anglican Communion’s values, the eloquence of its members, and the beauty of its sacramental life. He carried this policy throughout his life, teaching not mere tolerance but love.

This is all the more remarkable given that both Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana, along with 17 other members – sisters, friars, and laymen – were received corporately into the Roman Catholic Church on Oct. 30, 1909. In 1910, after a year’s work at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, Fr. Wattson was ordained by Archbishop John Farley of New York.

“Coming over” had not been easy, but it was not a decision made in haste. Archbishop Farley communicated his own misgivings to Rome – he did not like the manner of the foundation, let alone its message. Though the corporate conversion of Fr. Paul and his companions was done through the formal rite, including an abjuration of their Anglicanism, the founder of the Society of the Atonement had made it clear that the renunciation would not be negative. There would be no curse, but a solemn recognition of the truth of personally held convictions. Fr. Wattson had written in The Lamp in 1907 that “I could not bear those people who say that the Anglican Church is a mockery.”

Even after becoming a Roman Catholic priest, he never publicly repudiated his Anglican orders. Only after dialogue with officials in the Roman hierarchy, including the prefect of the Congregation for Religious, Genarro Cardinal Falconio, and the Secretary of State to the Holy See, Cardinal Merry del Val, was the way paved for his reception. This high-level contact proved fortuitous, because through their assistance Fr. Wattson was able in turn to present his hope for the Church Unity Octave directly to Pope Pius X, who blessed the initiative, and later Pope Benedict XV, who extended the observance to the universal Church in February 1916. In 1921, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia proposed to the hierarchy that the octave be observed throughout the United States – a resolution that, for the first time in the history of American Roman Catholicism, received unanimous consent.

Roman Catholics in the United States were catching up with their Anglican brethren. The Lambeth Conference had by the late 1870s proposed a season of prayer for Christian unification and in the 1890s the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that fitting prayers be spoken on Whit Sunday. In the United States in 1913, the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church published a pamphlet of prayers commending church unity on Whit Sunday. By 1915, a full-scale manual of prayers was drawn up. Fr. Wattson’s own ecclesiastical superior, now Cardinal Farley, was reluctant to entertain his proposal for fear of confusion among the faithful or, worse still, communio in sacris.

By contrast, Farley’s successor, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Patrick Hayes, was among the first prelates in the United States to advocate for the Unity Octave. Archbishop Hayes, it might be noted, was notoriously scrupulous in avoiding any engagements with Protestants, but he saw in this movement an opening that was ecclesiastically legal, satisfying of Jesus’ own command, and productive of good will. His instinct in approving the work of Fr. Wattson proved important for the future of the Week of Prayer, for without the archbishop’s approbation, the friar could not have continued in as successful a fashion as he did. Throughout his tenure, the archbishop ‘s relation to the Church Unity Octave was as a “participant observer” – frequently allowing Fr. Wattson the use of the pulpit at the Cathedral of St. Patrick to promote the cause of unity.

Not everything was so sunny, however, for Fr. Wattson. He experienced several difficulties with members of his new fraternity, and this would prove a mild distraction compared to his legal woes. As the superior of the convent of sisters, he had charge of their welfare. The convent’s property was owned by three women – all good Episcopalian ladies of Garrison – who had permitted the sisters’ growth but never signed over a deed. Trustees of St. John ‘s Episcopal Church, which had stood as a ramshackle chapel on the property before the arrival of Mother Lurana, evicted the sisters in 1910, one year after they had become Roman Catholics.

Mother Lurana chose to follow the longstanding Franciscan principle of offering no resistance, thinking it better to be homeless than to be the source of conflict. Fr. Wattson saw the matter differently and vowed to pursue it in court – a decision that carried on for the next seven years. An agreement was struck, however, when Fr. Wattson met Hamilton Fish II on Election Day in 1917. Fish was not only a well-known politician in the state of New York; he was also the senior warden of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Garrison. When Fr. Wattson explained his legal troubles, Fish offered to broker a settlement, which was finally won in March 1918, by an act of the New York legislature. As a side note, all of the original owners of the property became Roman Catholics and two are buried in the sisters’ cemetery at Graymoor. But the lesson of the story is simple: cooperation in the Christian household always brings a greater yield and is one more visible token in praise of God’s glory.

The 1920s and ’30s were building years for the order, which constructed a seminary, a printery, shrine chapels, and St. Christopher’s Inn, a treatment center. The numbers of sisters and friars burgeoned. Always the message was the same: unity is the hallmark and sustenance of the work. But as Fr. Wattson began to slow (he died in 1940), his allies in the nascent ecumenical movement picked up the charge. In Belgium, Dom Lambert Beaudoin founded in 1925 a Benedictine community that took shape at Chevetogne for the express purpose of praying for unity – originally with the Orthodox, but now with all Christians. From the Archdiocese of Lyons, France, Father Paul Couturier (1881- 1953) spread the message of prayer for unity “as God wills it and by the means that he wills.” Fr. Couturier changed the tenor of the prayer, however, away from reunion of all others with Rome by reflection on a once shared past to a more concerted effort on the part of all Christians to work toward future unity par cum pari – literally, on equal footing. This, he said, could only be done together; it could not be expected that non-Romans would simply see the light. This plea was heard by Trappistines in Grottaferrata, Italy, and some began, in the late 1930s, to devote their prayer lives to building religious bridges. When temporal unity finally occurs, it will rest on the storehouse of supernatural graces stocked by so much fervent prayer.

Fr. Wattson’s Spirit and Ordinariates

The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “You Are Witnesses of These Things” (Luke 24:48). Coinciding with the Scottish centennial celebration of the World Mission Conference at Edinburgh, widely acknowledged as an ecumenical milestone, the theme strikes at the soul of collaboration between churches: what we memorialize together, what we work on, what we anticipate through God’s grace. Whether we speak in a prophetic voice, like the Paul Wattsons of a prior generation, there is always a call to set aside a passive stance and move. Action of some sort never negates a stillness of mind and heart, but flows from it.

Achieving that quietude comes from asking ourselves sometimes difficult questions: What do I believe? To whom shall I turn? Who am I?

What is impressive about the path Fr. Wattson took is not so much his rather spectacular conversion or the issues attendant upon it, as much as the authenticity of its genesis, together with its manifold fruits. Roman Catholics cannot ignore the abiding fealty Fr. Wattson had toward the purest elements of the Anglican spirit, since part of that is its desire toward the vocation of unity. In an era of ordinariates, Roman Catholics will do well to observe how a new injection of Anglican culture into their midst will serve to heal and make whole again a body broken for too long.

In speaking of ordinariates today, canon lawyers refer to “extra-territorial” sees or “non-territorial particular churches,” which serve as instruments for service to the people of God that have, for purposes of identification, no visible boundaries but a clear governance structure that is necessarily flexible to meet extraordinary circumstances. One reason for the recent Anglicanorum Coetibus, the apostolic constitution of Pope Benedict XVI establishing personal ordinariates for those Anglicans entering a new relation with the Roman Catholic Church, is to supply a flexible response to legalistic questions. Both communions will do well to study whether the ecclesiological principles articulated in the constitution will be in service to the great challenge of ecumenism in our time, particularly as it conforms or departs from the legacy of visionaries like Fr. Wattson.

Among these principles is a recognition of the action of the Holy Spirit working as “a principle of unity” to establish the singular “Church as a communion.” What appears to some to be a wayward cluster of Anglican congregations may actually hold promise as a vehicle for tutelage and mutual understanding, on all sides, in rendering a new vista for ecclesial unity.

Patrick J. Hayes has a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America and has taught at Fordham University and St. John’s University in New York. He is at work on a study of Roman Catholics in the New York Archdiocese between 1865 and 1938.


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