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That little springtime (Frère Roger of Taizé)

30 November, 1999

Frère Roger of Taizé was a unique inspiration in ecumenical action and in interacting with the youth of the world. Fr John Murray PP gives his impression of the man and his achievement.

It was a culture shock at first. Twenty-two years ago I brought a group of fifty young people from our northern diocese to the village of Taizé in France. The wooden pallets for beds, the simple food and the ‘interesting’ toilets challenged our pampered bodies, but the babble of languages and the spirit of prayer which permeated the place lifted our spirits – despite ourselves. And then there was Frère Roger.

We saw him sitting at the front of the brothers as they meandered in to the huge chapel after the bell had tolled to summon us all to prayer. The brothers took their prayer seriously – three times a day – and they took time at it. The chapel highlighted the different emphases of the three main Christian groups – the icons for the Orthodox, the Eucharistic presence for the Catholic and the Word for the Protestant.

Roger sat and prayed silently, a magnet for our eyes and our thoughts. Sometimes after a meeting he would mingle among the many hundreds of young people and sometimes he would meet a smaller group – usually from one country – over a cup of Taizé tea. Always he was genial and gracious, a smile never absent from his serene face. You knew you were in the presence of a saint.

But who was Brother Roger? He had been born in 1915, the son of a Lutheran pastor and a French Protestant mother. His own interest in spiritual matters began at an early stage. When he was twenty-five, he visited the little village of Taizé with the idea of founding a Protestant monastic community. He had already been attracted by the ideals and work of St. Benedict.

Roger bought two derelict houses and used them to help the victims of the war which was raging at the time. It was a perilous location so close to the border between Occupied France and the part that was free. He even
at one time had to flee from the Gestapo. However he returned in 1944 with some other like-minded men and set up a community. He said at that time, ‘I discovered my Christian identity by reconciling within myself my Protestant origins and my faith in the Catholic Church’.

Five years later, the brothers would take their first monastic vows and Roger drew up the first rule of Taizé which was summed up in the words: ‘Preserve at all times an interior silence to live in Christ’s presence and cultivate the spirit of the Beatitudes – joy, simplicity and mercy.’ Although the community was regarded with suspicion by the mainstream Churches, its numbers grew from twelve in 1950 to sixty-five in 1965 and to more than 100 members today.

In 1969 Cardinal Marty, head of the French bishops, authorized Catholics to join it. Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, nuncio in France and later Pope John XXIII, visited the community on one occasion and spoke warmly of ‘that little springtime’. When he became Pope, he invited Roger and another brother, the theologian Max Thurian, to attend the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul visited Taizé in 1986, compelled, as he put it, by ‘an interior need’.

What was special about Roger? All his life he devoted himself to the reconciliation of the Churches. Part of his appeal may have been his dislike of formal preaching while encouraging a spiritual quest as a common endeavour. For instance during one Taizé gathering in Paris in 1995 he spoke to almost 10,000 young people who were sitting on the floor of a great exhibition hall. `We have come here to search,’ he said, ‘to go on searching through silence and prayer, to get in touch with our inner life.’ The winter gatherings became a feature of the Taizé ‘style’ as thousands would meet in one or other of the capitals of Europe and engage a theme of prayer and reflection. Rome, Paris and Berlin were never quite the same after 20 to 25,000 young people descended on their streets and sang and danced their way to the various meeting points. Roger’s own charism of creating beautiful language and moving prayers enabled the Taizé newsletter which preceded each winter or summer event to be a source of inspiration for so many.

Sadly, as we know, Roger’s life was to end tragically. On 16 August 2005, in full view of 2,500 horrified young pilgrims, he was stabbed during the evening prayer service by a young schizophrenic woman from Romania. He died shortly afterwards.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s council for Christian Unity, concelebrated the requiem Mass with four other priests of the community. ‘Yes, the springtime of  ecumenism has flowered on the hill of Taizé,’ he said in his sermon. The community had already forgiven the young woman.

Roger’s successor, Br Alois, echoed all their sentiments: ‘With Christ on the cross we say to you, Father, forgive her, she does not know what she did.’ The community of Taizé continues to thrive, still attracting hundreds of thousands of young people from across the continent of Europe and beyond. It remains a testimony to the young man who came there in 1940, a man with Protestant roots, an Orthodox vision and a Catholic heart. In this month of Christian unity we would do well to remember his legacy.