Life's Oblation

A Living Martyrdom : the Reality of Disunity

Paul Couturier
Fr Paul Couturier
Apostle of Unity
In an extraordinary meditation Paul Couturier, who brought the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - and Catholic ecumenism - to new birth in 1933, anticipated the thinking of Pope John Paul II's thoughts on the ecumenical power of the Catholic and Protestant martyrs in Ut Unum Sint. He wrote this for a Bible study in Lyon:

Grant that all Christians may love one another without reserve.
You alone can bring this to pass. 
Grant that we may love you with an unbounded love.
The things which we have in common - your Book, your Baptism,
our faith in you, in your incarnation, in your redemption, and indeed many other beliefs,
all this unites us indissolubly,
making us in you, and through you,
children of your Father. 
But the things which separate us
unite us even more closely - though in a different way -
than the things which we have in common.
For the things which separate us are the causes of intense suffering,
the suffering of being separated in our thoughts concerning your Church.
And there is nothing that draws us together
and unites us more closely than suffering.

O Christ, make us suffer so intensely by reason of our separation
that your prayer within us may penetrate us,
may take possession of us,
have free course in us,
and ascend to your Father.

Some might say that this piety of embracing suffering for the sake of ecumenism in so forthright a way is inappropriate to the spiritual insights of the present day, looking back with no nostalgia for the days of pointless spiritual guilt, physical mortification, inhuman and Jansenist preference for unpleasant effort in order to merit relief and the hearing of prayers. But others might say that today the Christians of Europe tend to be like the rich people who 'cannot pass through the eye of a needle' and who have forgotten their sense of sin, the harm it does, the graces it prevents, the defiance it stands for. They have even forgotten how to feel genuine and heartfelt sorrow. CS Lewis was initially fond of saying that suffering was God's megaphone to a deaf world, but this is not what Couturier genuinely felt. He knew spiritually about the great movement toward God which calls upon all not to shrink from sanctification - not simply for oneself, a mere technique, but for others. It was a real sense of urgency, anxiety, but most of all compassion that alarmed him, as Christians placed their barriers up before the power of the living Christ drawing all things to himself, as the world they were thus insulating from the very blessing of its creator. Couturier's tract every year read:

A First Fact 
We have a Christian world, of (many millions of) people, divided into at least four groups - Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Anglicans. There are many millions more who are not Christians, yet the Body of Christians is meant to realize the unity of all humanity under the Creator. Divided, it fails to express this unity. 
This division has resulted in rivalry or opposition, or at least divergences, in the proclamation of the Gospel in mission situations. 
This leads in turn to astonishment, or bewilderment, or hesitation among those who are being evangelised in non-Christian countries. 
It also causes surprise, and rejection of the gospel, in so-called Christian countries.
It means suffering and frustration on the part of those who are seeking the truth. 
It weakens the spiritual power of Christianity to lead and inspire the world. 
It intrudes ugliness and disharmony into the work of Christ by the separations that exist among Christians. 
It means the Body of baptised Christians is not seen to be worshipping the Trinity together. 
It means the mutilation of the work of God. 
It holds back the ‘anxious longing of the whole creation for the manifestation of the sons of God’. 
A Second Fact 
We are face to face with a new historical phenomenon, unique in the history of Christianity. Proceeding from all Christian confessions, independent but parallel to one another, immense spiritual forces of intercession now converge in a single immeasurable distress over the separation of Christians, and a single intense desire:the coming of the visible Unity of the Kingdom of God: according to Christ’s will, according to his means.  
A Certainty 
Conceived in the movement of hearts which turn towards their one Saviour Jesus Christ, how could the union of all Christians fail to be achieved one day in the perfect atonement of Unity? There is certainly no question here of Unity sold at reduced prices, based on a ‘lowest common denominator’ of faith. 
It is rather a question of the Unity for which Christ prayed and continues to pray eternally. For any other unity would be a treachery which all Christians would reject with horror.
In other words, the Church - one to God, but endless dividing itself up before the world - is standing in the way of the world’s view of God. To God, with all its separations, it is of such limited use. So perhaps the English translation of "the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" is wrong. The unity is there, and the Church is one. There does not exist a work of God yet to be completed called 'Christian Unity', as though this were something that could exist as a phenomenon in its own right. Couturier called it the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians: Christ is one, the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic - but it is individual sin as Christians, and our sort of esprit de corps of sin as separate communities of Christians, that paints a different picture. Discussions in the World Council of Churches and various national bodies have highlighted this same problem - the manifestation of unity through various bodies and councils, belonging to no one church group, but risking standing apart from and even over against all - far better to speak of Churches Together, as in England, Wales and Scotland. And so perhaps a better shorthand for the 'Week of Prayer for Christian Unity' would be 'Christians Together', placing the responsibility firmly where it originates in the Christian's own sin and reluctance to co-operate with divine grace.
So the sorrow and intense suffering of which Couturier speaks is real contrition, it is true emotional pain, it is genuine sensing of human un-fulfilment, it is bitter disappointment ('and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing', poignantly wrote Bianco da Siena), it is a knowing regret. Couturier also spoke of the costliness and physical price. His own health broke under the pressure of his work - he believed many expended their lives in the service of unity, and was convinced that God had used the power of some people’s death and suffering - even terminal illness - as a treasury from which to draw in order to endow the movement for Christian unity.
Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu
Blessed Maria
Gabriella of Unity
One such person who responded to Couturier's request for prayer for unity, dedicating her life to it and recognised as suffering and dying in union with Christ's own sacrifice for the sake of the reconciliation of Christians within the one Church, was Maria Sagheddu, better known as Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity.
Follow the links below to read her story, and also to find out more about Paul Couturier.