Although the Second Vatican Council is widely recognized as signaling the Catholic Church’s newfound openness to the ecumenical movement, currents of thought realizing the scandalous divisions within Christianity were wounds that needed to be healed long predated the 1960s. One such strand led to the Groupe de Dombes, a regular gathering of Catholic and Protestant theologians in Eastern France since 1937. The group was originally led by Paul Couturier, a major figure in the history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The group, focused on the “spiritual ecumenism” of conversion and shared prayer, has close ties to the famed Taize community, and is the longest-established continuous forum of Catholic-Protestant exchange in the world. Church leaders have made clear that a “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 whole ecumenical movement.”
Theologians like Paul Murray of Durham University, Bernard Sesboüe of Lyon-Fourvière, and Catherine Clifford of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, have written extensively on the history and influence of the Groupe de Dombes. The call for a commitment to move beyond the painful memories that have long separated Christians is articulated in church documents such as Ut Unum Sint and Unitatis Redintegratio.
The Dombes community seeks to live out this call and offer more to the quest for Christian unity than professional, theoretical dialogues. They aim rather to provide space for a prayerful, practical shared witness to lives committed to Christ in various historical and ecclesial contexts. The publications they have written together (almost exclusively in French) have covered such varied topics as ministry, conversion, Scripture, apostolicity, sin, the Holy Spirit and the Lord’s Prayer. All of these are read through the lens of a collective life in Christ, without shying away from the challenges and barriers that have made full, visible, permanent union between the denominational branches of Christianity not yet possible today. The exchanges are rooted in a retreat and liturgical encounter, more concerned with the life of the churches than the ivory towers of academic discourse.
Before his suffering and death, Jesus himself prayed that his followers may all be one, as he and the Father are one (Jn 17). It’s obvious that today this unity among those who invoke his name mandates reconciliation and the healing of memories. The vocation to pray and live a life devoted to this “family reunion” is demanded of all Christian followers of the 21st century. Pride and polemics and prejudice must be overcome, so that we can all receive the many and various gifts Christians have to offer one another.
Of course, what unites us as believers who recognize the Lordship of Jesus and the eternity of the Trinity outweighs those things that divide us. The conversation and fraternal bonds of those who continue to meet through the ,i provide the world with a shared witness of this truth.
The study of theology (and of ecumenical matters) must always take seriously the historical contexts and doctrinal, juridical and structural developments which have helped mold the path upon which we now find ourselves and walk as disciples. But intra-Christian dialogue must always recognize that the Lord accompanies us like those on the road to Emmaus, breaking open the Scriptures and our own flawed approaches to “religion,” until our hearts burn within us and beat together as one. As Bishop Dennis Sullivan has so often put it, our shared life in Christ needs to inform and form us, so as to transform us as men and women, and, derivatively, as members of too long estranged ecclesial families.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.