9 November 2015
Rev. Paul Watson, S.A. (1863-1940). (photo: Graymoor Archives)
On 22 September 2015, in a moment rich with significance for CNEWA and for Christian unity, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York — and CNEWA’s chair — formally opened the cause for canonization of the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A., (1863-1940), CNEWA’s co-founder. Father Paul will now be formally known as “Servant of God,” and further investigation can begin into his life and work. Once his heroic virtues are established, he may be declared “Venerable”; evidence of one miracle attributed to him can result in beatification; a second miracle may lead eventually to the pope declaring him, formally, a saint.
For Father Paul, this is the latest milestone in a long journey of faith that has left an enduring imprint on Christianity around the world. It’s a journey that began, in fact, in the Episcopal Church. Long before he helped launch CNEWA, Father Paul was an Episcopal priest, a co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and a champion of Christian unity and helping the poor.
The Society of the Atonement, consisting of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, was founded in the Episcopal Church in 1898. In 1909 the entire community sought and received communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Significantly, Father Paul and his community did not leave the Episcopal Church motivated by anger or rejection; rather he saw his “journey to Rome” as the logical continuation of his commitment to the unity of all Christians. This passion for unity manifested itself his preaching and writings. But even more importantly, this commitment led him to found the annual Chair of Unity Octave, eight days of prayer for Christian Unity from 18-25 January. This observance, which started at Graymoor, Garrison, New York, was recommended to the universal Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV. The Church Unity Octave over the decades evolved into the Week of Prayer of Christian Unity, which is now observed by Christians throughout the world.
In a world in which the ecumenical movement was just beginning and did not enjoy wide acceptance, the attitude of Father Paul toward non-Latin rite and non-Catholic churches was unique. In the early 20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had recently experienced the loss of a quarter million Eastern Catholics because of the insensitivity of Latin Catholics to the legitimate practices of the Eastern Catholic churches. The attitude towards those Eastern Catholics who remained was often one of ignorance and distrust. Relations between Catholics and Protestants were hardly better.
Father Paul regarded other churches not as heretics and enemies, competitors or targets for proselytization, but as friends and fellow travelers on the road to the unity Christ wished for his church. He saw it as his task to be the Lamp that helped them on this journey.
His attitude toward other churches and his concern for the poor brought Father Paul in increasing contact with the Christians of the Middle East and India. After World War I, the situation of Christians in the Middle East was dire. Genocide was the order of the day for Christians in the lands of the Middle East. Millions of Armenians and hundreds of thousands of Christians from other Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches were either slaughtered or driven out of their homes as refugees.
Father Paul and the Rev. George Calvassy (later a bishop) of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church sought a way to alleviate the sufferings of all Christians in the Middle East. Their attempts took many different routes, some of them dead ends, but their efforts along with others resulted ultimately in the founding of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in 1926. Pope Pius XI formally recognized CNEWA as a pontifical organization and placed it under the direction of the archbishop of New York.
The Eastern Churches — Catholic and Orthodox — were dear to the heart of Father Paul. Many bishops from these churches visited Father Paul at Graymoor to ask his help and express their gratitude for any assistance they received.
Father Paul died on 8 February 1940. His pioneering work for Christian unity today might be considered ahead of its time, and even prophetic. He did not live to see the Second Vatican Council and its decree on Christian Unity; he did not see the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity become a world-wide event promulgated by both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. But his prayers, vision and passion laid the groundwork for vastly improved relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and helped CNEWA become a significant force for humanitarian and pastoral aid in a Middle East — a troubled land that is once again in our own day a place of genocide and exile.
CNEWA is proud that one of its founders is now continuing his journey — this time on the road to sainthood.
You can read more about Father Paul in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE.