Presentation of the Groupe des Dombes

At the end of every summer for the last eighty years, Catholic and Protestant theologians have been meeting together to pray and to reflect on theological issues.

In 1936, Abbé Paul Couturier, who, three years previously, had relaunched the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was looking for an illustration for the forthcoming Week. Having discovered the picture of a stained-glass window of a Protestant church in German-speaking Switzerland, he asked his friend Laurent Rémillieux, a priest who spoke German, to go to the church and see if he could get hold of a better reproduction.  So Abbé Laurent Rémillieux went to Herzogenbuchsee, north of Berne, (Switzerland), and there, as he entered the church, he found a Protestant pastor praying for Christian unity…

That at least is the legend of how the Group began. In fact, a friend of the Herzogenbuchsee pastor, Pastor Richard Baümlin, had founded the St. John Fellowship in order to learn about “all forms of Christian faith, whilst continuing to love and serve one’s own church as much as ever” and to ask for unity in prayer. In 1937, Abbé Rémillieux was invited to an Easter retreat the Fellowship was holding at Erlenbach and on his return he gave an enthusiastic account of it to Abbé Couturier.

A joint retreat for Swiss Protestant pastors and French Catholic priests (and also Victor Carlhian, a lay friend of Abbé Couturier and Abbé Rémillieux), was immediately organised for the following summer. Faced with the difficulties of operating in two languages, French or Swiss pastors would quickly come to form a French-speaking dialogue group. Soon afterwards, the War separated the members of the young Group and made it necessary for separate meetings to be held in Switzerland and France. But by now these retreats had provided the Group with a basis for its way of working : “our theology must stream with prayer”, as Abbé Couturier said.

In 1952 Abbé Couturier was ill and was not able to be at the meeting at Dombes Abbey.  He died the following March. Father Maurice Vilain succeeded him as the Catholic Co-President of the Group.  After the death of Abbé Couturier, the Group began to draft short “theses” to reflect its theological discussions.

The theses

1956   –   The State of Original Sin

1957   –   The Mediation of Christ and the Ministry of the Church

1958   –   The Church, the Body of Christ

1959   –   Pastoral Authority in the Church

1960   –   The Apostolicity of the Church

1961    –   Priesthood and Ministry of the Church

1962   –   The Priestly Act of Christ in the Priestly Activity of the Church

1963   –   no thesis

1964   –   no thesis

1965   –   The Doctrine of the Holy Sprit

1966   –   no thesis

1967   –   “Intercommunion”

1968   –   The Apostolic Succession

1969   –   The Church and the Holy Spirit

1970   –   The Church, the Communion of Saints

From 1960 to 1971 the Group alternated its meetings between Taizé and Dombes Abbey.  Many young people come to Taizé, and this was to have an effect on the Dombes Group : faced with the question of “intercommunion”, the young people asked the Group to explain to them clearly what the problem was and what could “move”.  This request was to give rise to the first Dombes document “Towards a Common Eucharistic Faith ?” (1972).

From 1971 up until 1997, the Dombes Group met every year at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dombes.

The Group had now got into its stride and, needing to follow up the questions posed by the first document, it went to work and published another document : “For a Reconciliation of Ministries” (1973). In this document the following points came to light :  all ministry has a collegial dimension (§ 21), a personal dimension (§ 22) and a community dimension (§ 42). The importance of this point would be confirmed in the Group’s later thinking, but also by their effects in other places where dialogue was taking place.

The Group developed and completed its thinking in a third document three years later : “Episcopal Ministry” (1976).

Through these three publications the Group’s method of working can be seen taking shape : 1) proposals based on theological reflection are followed by pastoral proposals ; 2) doctrinal reflection is increasingly based on historical research.

Undaunted by the difficulty of the task, the Dombes Group launched into another topic, which gave rise to a fourth publication : “The Holy Spirit, the Church and the Sacraments” (1979).

In 1981 their discussions focused on another delicate theme and they had to negotiate some very choppy waters before managing to produce a document entitled “The Ministry of Communion in the Universal Church” (1986).  This text was published a few months before Jean-Paul II’s visit to the Lyon area1987 :  This, the Group’s fiftieth anniversary, had to be a very special year.  VIPs from the Churches and the Ecumenical Movement came to celebrate and evaluate the event with this “private” (ie unofficial) group, the oldest extant French-speaking group to be engaged in ecumenical dialogue.  From this anniversary there were to be two concrete outcomes :

– a publication gathering together all the writings (theses and documents) of the Dombes Group : “For Communion between the Churches” (1988) ;

– a publication in which the Group gave an account of its method of working and of where it had got to in its thinking : “For the Conversion of the Churches” (1991).  In 2005, Cardinal Walter Kasper was to say : “There is no ecumenism without conversion, and no future at all without conversion.  The best thinking that I know of on this topic can be found in the Dombes Group document entitled ‘For the Conversion of the Churches’.”  This document was a significant step for the Dombes Group as regards both the substance and the method of its work :  a) the substance, by suggesting the distinction between “Christian conversion”, “church conversion” and “denominational conversion” ;  b) the method, by specifying four stages, 1/ questioning,  2/ historical research, 3/ the testimony of Scripture, 4/ proposals for conversion.

“What theme shall we tackle that will allow us to use the fruits of our own experience of dialogue ?”  That was the question in 1991. This question resulted in a lengthy labour on a theme which had not really been tackled up till then in our ecumenical dialogues but was nevertheless a very sensitive one for the ordinary people in our Churches : Mary. This would produce the publication “Mary in the Plan of God and the Communion of Saints” (a first volume in 1997, a second in 1998, then both in a single volume in 1999). Four theological questions were highlighted in this document :  1/ the ‘co-operation’ of Mary in salvation ; 2/ the perpetual virginity of Mary ; 3/ the two dogmas defined by the Catholic church, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption ; 4/ the invocation of Mary.

In 1997 the Group met at Dombes Abbey for the last time. For 60 years the Dombes Group had been hosted by the Trappists. The community had grown old and there were fewer monks. La Trappe was no longer able to host the Group. The Group, which had written in 1987 that it had “permanently settled at the Cistercian Abbey of Dombes” had to seek the support of another contemplative community. The choice fell on the Abbey of Pradines, held by benedictine nuns, near Roanne, and they very willingly accepted. So since 1998 the Dombes Group – which has kept its name, with the agreement of the monks – has been hosted for a few days each summer by the nuns of Pradines. This move to the Benedictine Sisters’ brought with it a change in the composition of the Group –  for the first time it now welcomed women among its 40 members.

In this new setting, for seven whole years the Group pondered deeply on the complex theme of ‘doctrinal authority in the Church’ and produced one of the longest of its documents : “ ‘One Master’.  Doctrinal Authority in the Church” (2005).

And so the Group pursues its path of prayer, reflection and conversion in the service of the Churches with which it maintains relations that are informal, (it is an unofficial group), and fraternal, (each member, Catholic or Protestant, is fully committed to his or her own Church).

Pierre Lathuilière