The great Jubilee of the birth of Christ and the onset of Christianity's third millennium that we will celebrate a scant three years from now will undoubtedly be a joyous event. But, as Pope John Paul II has cautioned in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente and elsewhere, the year 2000 is also an occasion for sober reflection and repentance.

Nowhere is that spirit of sobriety more appropriate than in the area of ecumenism. With a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity upon us once again (Jan. 18-25), where does the search for Christian reunion find itself at century's end?

It's not that there haven't been some remarkable developments in recent decades—beginning with Vatican II, which launched with such promise and optimism the latest worldwide push for unity among the followers of Christ.

However significant recent ecumenical gains are—the last 30 years' harvest of theological accords on some of Christianity's most contentious issues, for example—these have to be balanced by a number of sobering realizations.

Prayer eases the divisions

For one thing, the second millennium of Christianity, for all its achievements, has been an age marked by unprecedented divisions and rifts in the Body of Christ: the split between Christian East and West, the troubled heritage of the Crusades; the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation; the Inquisition; the wars of religion—to name but a few of the major developments that continue to shape the Church as she moves across a new millennial frontier.

It's safe to say that unraveling the fractious heritage of the past 1,000 years will require more than a few accords worked out by ecumenical scholars—however remarkable these efforts have been, and are. What's more, at century's end, even the ecumenical “successes” of the past 30 years, with some exceptions, seem stalled. Large international interfaith forums like the World Council of Churches find themselves faced with financial crises and institutional uncertainty. Promising dialogues such as the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox deliberations have slowed over issues like papal primacy and the role of the Eastern Catholic Churches, while once-fruitful Catholic-Anglican discussions have log-jammed on the Anglican decision to ordain women to the priesthood.

It's not necessarily a bleak picture, but it is one that begs for a return to first principles. And there's no principle more fundamental to any Christian endeavor than prayer, which is at the heart of a kind of ecumenical endeavor we don't hear much about these days: “spiritual ecumenism.”

Fostered in the early years of the century, principally in Europe, and influential in Catholic circles right up to the time of Vatican II, spiritual ecumenism, in the words of one of its main proponents, Father Paul Couturier (1881-1953), is an ecumenism based on common prayer, charity, friendship, mutual forgiveness and humility. For Couturier, the search for spiritual unity must undergird, and, indeed, precede unity on a doctrinal or hierarchical level.

Far more than a program, Couturier saw such efforts as nothing less than a mystical participation in Jesus' so-called High Priestly Prayer that closes the Last Supper discourses in John:

“… I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” Jesus prays, “that they all may be one as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17, 20-22).

In fact, Couturier's vision had a great deal to do with the spread of the so-called Unity Octave, now called the Week of Prayer for the Unity of all Christians, commemorated on the days between the feasts of the Chair of Peter (Jan. 18) and the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25).

It's not too much to say that the ecumenical vigor of the past generation may well have its roots in the quiet movements of prayer for unity that were spearheaded by this tireless French priest and a vast network of hidden spiritual associates.

The idea of the Unity Octave itself goes back to an American Episcopalian clergyman, Father Paul Wattson (1863-1540), an ardent champion of the return of the Anglican Churches to Rome. He founded a religious community, the Society of the Atonement, to work and pray for this end. In 1908, Wattson organized the first Prayer of Unity Octave. Ayear later, he and his community were received into the Roman Catholic Church. The promotion of the Unity Octave became his life's work, an effort crowned with success when Pope Benedict XV approved its use worldwide in 1916.

Couturier's monastic allies

Couturier met his calling in the context of pastoral work with Russian Orthodox refugees in Lyon in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. After a visit to the Belgian monastery of Amay-sur-Meuse, founded at the request of Pope Pius XI in 1925 for the purpose of promoting unity between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Couturier adopted the cause of the Unity Octave—but with a significant change of emphasis.

For Wattson, prayer for unity meant praying for separated Christian Churches to return to Rome. What Couturier saw— surely, a radical vision for the 1930s—was that all Christians needed to learn to pray together for unity after the model of Christ's own prayer. It's a sentiment that today finds an echo in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Concern for achieving unity involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. But we must realize that this holy objective—the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ—transcends human powers and gifts. That is why we place all our hope in the prayer of Christ for the Church.…” (822).

Not surprisingly, Couturier found the greatest response to his plea for prayer and sacrifice for Christian unity in the monastic world.

In this regard, the Italian Cistercian nuns of Grottaferrata deserve special mention. Led by a pioneering abbess, Mother Pia Gullini, the small contemplative community allied itself with Couturier's aims in the late 1930s. But the community did more than pray for Christian unity. In a gesture that would raise eyebrows today, several of the Trappistine Sisters offered their lives to God, including the willingness to die, that the will of God might be done in all Christians.

Victim souls

Legitimate questions can, of course, be raised about the notion of “victim souls.” We're more sensitive today to the theological shortcomings of such ideas, and even the abuses to which such practices can give rise. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II's 1963 beatification of Sister Maria Gabriella Sagghedu, a 24-year-old Grottaferrata Sister who died of tuberculosis in 1938, a year after offering her life for unity, highlights the uncomfortable fact that, as the Pope put it, “[in order to] foster the spiritual life and promote great ideals, one must be ready to pay the price personally.”

Is it an accident that, in the wake of Sister Maria Gabriella's death, many European Catholics, coming to pray at her tomb, adopted the cause of Christian unity, or that among these pilgrims were Protestants Roger Schultz and Max Thurian, who founded the ecumenical monastery of Taize?

Who knows? But with a century of unprecedented ecumenical advance behind us, it's worth recalling that, as Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism states, “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion. For it is from newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way.… This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the ecumenical movement.…”

Gabriel Meyer, a Register Contributing Editor, is based in Los Angeles.