Rev. Paul Wattson had one great insight that drove him. That single flash of wisdom resulted in missionary projects, pioneering media work, millions of dollars raised for charity, a new religious order, a breakthrough journey from the Anglican tradition to the Catholic Church and, most famously, the Church Unity Octave which grew gradually into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
This year Wattson’s brain-child is being celebrated around the world in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches from Jan. 18 to 25.
Wattson expressed his profound insight into the centrality of unity in sermons, magazine articles and radio broadcasts by breaking the word “atonement” into three parts. He called it “AT-ONE-ment.”
“Actual AT-ONE-ment with God, which transcends the intimacy which has ever existed between God, their Creator, and the holy angels since the first hour of their sinless existence,” Wattson wrote in The Lamp in April, 1927. “This was the unity in its perfect consummation, which Christ besought for his elect at the Last Supper.”
No one in modern church history has done more to remind Catholics of how basic unity is to Christ’s own prayer, preaching and sacrifice on the cross. Now, 75 years since Wattson died in 1940, the Archdiocese of New York has launched a cause for his sainthood.
Born the son of an Episcopalian priest in Maryland in 1863, Wattson’s vision of church unity began at an abandoned Episcopal chapel in 1899. The tumbledown, desecrated, tiny church of St. John’s in the Wilderness was discovered by three loyal Anglican women who had been inspired by the story of St. Francis rebuilding San Damiano. The women cleaned up the chapel, bought the land around it and persuaded their Episcopal bishop to rededicate the church. Graymoor was born in quiet, green splendour just over an hour by train up-river from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
Wattson’s first act at Graymoor, on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1900, was to make a cross out of an old cedar tree and carry it up the hill to the chapel. Franciscan spirituality permeated the new community that gathered around Wattson and Mother Lurana White. In 1908 Wattson and White made the decision to become Roman Catholics, along with the Anglican Franciscan friars and sisters they had gathered around them. In 1909 the Society of the Atonement became the first religious community received corporately into the Catholic Church since the Reformation. A year later, Wattson was ordained again, this time as a Catholic priest.
That journey alone was extraordinary, but Wattson had barely begun.
As the Ottoman Empire broke down amid the First World War, Greece and the Balkans were filled with refugees. The Russian Revolution compounded the problem by casting out another population of refugees. Shocked by the fate of so many Christians about whom most North Americans knew nothing, Wattson found himself allied with Greek Catholic Bishop George Calavassy. He set about raising $1 million from subscribers to The Lamp (more than $20 million in 2014 dollars) to extend the corporal works of mercy to homeless Greeks and Armenians expelled from Turkey and Ukrainians and Russians on the run from the 1917 Russian Revolution. That effort eventually became the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which today still raises money to help persecuted minorities in the same region.
As he was raising these vast sums, Wattson led the way in establishing a kind of beachhead for Catholic media. Not only did The Lamp have thousands of subscribers all over the United States and Canada, Wattson produced and starred in The Ave Maria Hour. This syndicated radio program remained on-air from 1935 to 1969.
By 1916 Pope Benedict XV had extended the Church Unity Octave to a universal observance within the Catholic Church.
Though it remained an exclusively Catholic practice until the Second Vatican Council, Wattson’s idea paved the way for Catholics to become aware of their obligation to pray with Christ for unity, said Atonement Friar Damian MacPherson.
“There was a certain conscious effort on the part of the church to recognize its need to pray for Christian unity, even though they didn’t engage the other Christian bodies,” MacPherson said. “The ecumenical agenda was on everybody’s plate, so to speak.”
Wattson’s spiritual insight into “AT-ONE–ment” is still important, because it reaches deeper than a mere corporate merger between churches trying to undo the Reformation, said MacPherson.
“The understanding of ‘AT-ONE-ment’ really communicates unity at all levels,” he said. “First with the individual, to be at one with one’s self, and also to express that oneness across the land. That spirituality does indeed enhance the whole approach to the call for Christian unity.”
At the CNEWA, the organization is very conscious of carrying on Wattson’s legacy, said CNEWA communications officer Michael La Civita.
“He saw that through corporal works of mercy — what we now call the ecumenism of the heart — we would arrive at a better ecumenism,” La Civita said.
The Wattson ethos comes through not just with having an Atonement Friar on staff — scholar and ecumenist Rev. Elias Mallon — but in the very name of the CNEWA’s award-winning magazine, One.
“Of course Father Paul’s vision of oneness, the fact we are one church, believers in one God, members of the one human family in the one world — all of that. Yes it sounds hokey, but it absolutely influenced our decision to rename the magazine One,” La Civita said. “It’s a unique charism.”
All saints are unique, and they all speak to us in the universal language of the church — the language of love, mercy, reconciliation and redemption.