Jesuit Father Irénée Beaubien, who founded what is considered the world's first centre for ecumenism, passed away May 15 at the age of 101.

Fr. Irénée Beaubien remembered as a pioneer for ecumenism

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2017

MONTREAL – Fr. Irénée Beaubien, the Jesuit who founded what is believed to be the world’s first centre for ecumenism, is being remembered as a progressive theologian and a pioneer.

He died in Richelieu, Que., on May 15 at the age of 101.

In 1963, Fr. Beaubien opened the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal, widely regarded as the first of its kind designed to promote interdenominational relations. He is also credited as being a driving force, working with the United and Anglican Churches, in expanding the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from being a solely Catholic affair into an international ecumenical event.

“He made a marvellous contribution to extending the boundaries of the Church’s mission,” said Fr. Thomas Ryan, a former director of the Centre, now head of the Paulist North American Office for Interfaith Relations in Boston.

Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth called Fr. Beaubien “a pioneer.”

“He was in on the ground floor of ecumenism when these conversations were taking place in private, before Vatican II when it was not the official Church line.” said Mancini, who worked with Fr. Beaubien in the 1970s.

“It was a big deal in those days. He was very affable, very persuasive. In the secular world he would have been an effective politician. He could put a positive spin on things.”

Fr. Beaubien’s success was largely rooted in prayer and his abilities as “a good listener, very sociable, and an effective organizer,” said Ryan. “I was blessed to have him as my mentor for three years before he handed me the baton of director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.”

Ryan said that Fr. Beaubien understood that the core Gospel message is that man is “reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”

“Irénée grasped that the Church of Christ cannot effectively witness to that good news if its members are divided amongst themselves,” Ryan said.

After devoting 21 years to Christian unity, Fr. Beaubien, then 68, founded Sentiers de Foi to reach out to alienated or no longer practicing Church members, Ryan recalled.

“That speaks volumes about his missionary zeal and his commitment to serving the people of God,” said Ryan.

Fr. John Walsh, a leader in Montreal's ecumenical circles, described Fr. Beaubien as an incredible human being and "an incredible humanist.”

“He had a deep faith, a broad understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and an all encompassing approach which impressed everyone he met,“ said Walsh.

Irénée Beaubien was born in Shawinigan, Que., on Oct 20, 1916, the third of 11 children in a barber’s family. An athletic and physically fit teenager, he dropped out of school to work as a lumberjack to support the family during The Depression.

After a spiritual retreat in 1936 he decided to become a Jesuit. During his formation he was sent to College St. Boniface in Manitoba where he coached the hockey team before being ordained in 1949.

Returning to Montreal, Fr. Beaubien was sent by archbishop Paul Emile Leger to Milwaukee on a pilot project to explore the idea of opening relations between Catholics and Protestants. At Leger’s encouragement Fr, Beaubien started the Catholic Inquiry Forum, which brought Catholic priests and Protestant ministers together for informal meetings. Those meetings were the genesis of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.

During Canada’s centennial, Fr. Beaubien was the director of the Christian Pavilion at the Expo 67 fair in Montreal. He was then named by Pope Paul VI as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian unity. He ran the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism until 1984.

Fr. Beaubien received the Order of Canada in 2012 and was presented with the Cross pro ecclesia et pontifice, a papal honour bestowed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

In recent years, Fr. Beaubien lent his support to the idea of holding intimate “communion” meals in which bread and wine and the word were shared as a way of promoting Christian unity.

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