Cover story -- Taizé
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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

Where unity is lived

After founder's death, Taizé carries on ecumenical vision

Taizé, France

In addition to stunning French wines, the soil of Burgundy also seems to periodically produce monastic revolutions. It was here that Cluny rose to dominate the Middle Ages, and it’s in roughly the same spot, just a few miles away, that the Community of Taizé, founded by Swiss Protestant Br. Roger Schutz in 1940, has become the soul of the modern ecumenical movement.

As Taizé faces the challenge of life without its legendary prior, who died Aug. 16 at the age of 90 in a knife attack by a deranged 36-year-old Romanian woman, it’s a good moment to take stock of the improbable rise of this band of brothers -- who, many ecumenical observers believe, are a living embodiment of what the push for Christian unity is all about.

To the first-time visitor, Taizé looks anything but a massive worldwide success story.

Perched on an isolated hillside, Taizé is about one hour outside Lyon in southern France. The heart of the complex is the Church of Reconciliation, where Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox come together three times a day for prayer, led by an ecumenical community of some 100 brothers (both Protestants and Catholics) in simple white habits. What goes on inside may stoke the imagination of millions of believers, but from the outside it looks like little more than a mess hall at a Boy Scout jamboree. The rooms where Taizé’s brothers offer Bible study and catechesis are exceedingly Spartan. There’s a small welcome center and a gift shop, an area with tables and benches for meals, and beyond that, the rest of the grounds are basically filled with tents.

From a visual point of view, there simply isn’t much “there” there.

The contrast with the magnificence of nearby Cluny is, in many ways, precisely the point. The pride and temporal ambitions of institutional Christianity helped to fuel its ruptures over the ages, between East and West in 1054, between Protestants and Catholics in 1517, and so on. The simplicity of Taizé is thus of a piece with its spiritual message -- humility rather than vanity, contentment rather than competition.

There is still debate about Taizé, but Schutz and the community he founded are nevertheless seen by millions of Christians as prophets of the ecumenical dream, already living the full, visible unity that official structures struggle to realize.

* * *

Some 100,000 pilgrims arrive at Taizé each year, most of them young, to spend at least a week with the brothers and with one another. They represent all Christian backgrounds, the majority Catholic or Protestant, though with sizeable Anglican delegations throughout the year, and a growing stream of Orthodox. (Four busloads of Romanian Orthodox are now coming every week, a brother at Taizé said in mid-September, with growing numbers of Russians, Serbians and Ukrainians as well).

The young people eat together, camp out together, play together, study the Bible together, sing together using the famous chants of Taizé and pray together. The brothers gather three times a day for common prayer, joined by the pilgrims.

At night, services are held by candlelight. The music, based on ancient mantras but developed by Schutz, involves simple melodic phrases sung over and over until they become a meditation, sometimes continuing under and through the prayers in what Schutz called “a pillar of fire.” In between the chants come long spells of silence when, as Schutz put it, “with a childlike trust, we let Christ pray silently within us.”

It would be a mistake to construe the Taizé experience, however, entirely in terms of religious activity. There’s also much play and laughter, often keeping young pilgrims going well into the night. Claudia Epler, a 20-year-old German Protestant, said that Taizé is in that sense like a spiritual spring break -- though, she adds, without the free-flowing booze.

“After all, it’s not Majorca,” she laughed.

The young have been flocking to Taizé since the 1950s, something made all the more remarkable for the fact that Taizé has never advertised, and never recruits. Some critics charged that the streams of young pilgrims amounted to a personality cult around Schutz. In response, Schutz rarely gave interviews or major lectures, and tried to stay out of theological controversies.

Yet the more Schutz tried to remain anonymous, the more his legend grew.

There is no other place in Europe where young people arrive in such numbers for extended stays. French intellectual Marguérite Lena wrote: “History may one day judge that ‘Europe’ was constructed not just in Rome, Strasbourg or Brussels, but also in that tiny village in Burgundy where European youth from East and West, as well as from other continents, never tired of going.”

* * *

Schutz was determined to play the ecumenical game by the rules, meaning the community has always observed the restrictions of the various Christian bodies on intercommunion.

Each day, the Eucharist is provided to pilgrims, but always in their own traditions, meaning separately. Catholics receive the Eucharist inside the church at the entrance of a small chapel, while Protestants are in another location. On Saturday evening, Catholics can attend a Mass in the village church, while Protestants are free to organize their own services. As the number of Orthodox pilgrims has grown, their liturgies are also celebrated.

The brothers at Taizé say they see this arrangement as a temporary stop on the path to full intercommunion.

“We’re not satisfied with it,” said Br. Émile, a French Canadian from Ontario who serves as a point of contact for the press. Émile, a Catholic, has been at Taizé since 1975.

“We’re on our way to something else,” he said.

Leaders from the Christian churches tend to trust Taizé because Schutz never wanted to build a movement, so the young people who come here do not become part of Taizé clubs or associations, and they’re not “converted” into any other brand of Christianity.

That lack of an agenda is why, for example, even leaders as notoriously sensitive to Western “proselytism” as Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox church, has no problem sending Orthodox youth to Taizé, along with an annual message of support.

* * *

Schutz was born in a small Swiss village in 1915, the son of a rather severe Calvinist pastor.

After World War II broke out, the young Schutz felt called to carve out a life based on reconciliation and unity. He and a small band followed an ideal of community, a sort of monastic “rule,” that Schutz had laid out in 1941.

Taizé was on the border between occupied and Vichy France, and saw a constant stream of refugees, including Jews fearing arrest. Schutz welcomed all comers, in some cases saving lives. Despite threats to his own safety, he stayed in Taizé until November 1942, when all of France was occupied by the Germans.

Schutz returned in 1944, and found that two prison camps had been erected by the French resistance outside Taizé for German prisoners. Schutz asked for permission to bring the Germans to Taizé for a Sunday meal and prayer. He said later that the experience of offering comfort, first to refugees fleeing the Germans, and then to the Germans themselves, was a powerful lesson in reconciliation.

Schutz is thus a sort of spiritual analogue to the great political architects of postwar Europe, men as such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi, who lived through the carnage and came out determined to forge a common European family.

Schutz had the same experience, and drew the same conclusion: The only answer to conflict and division is reconciliation and unity. Rather than devising a new structure, however, Schutz devised a way of life.

* * *

As is always the case with new stirrings in Christianity, controversy was swift to follow.

When the community of brothers began to swell, they outgrew their makeshift chapel. They turned to the local Catholic pastor to ask if they could use the small village church, and permission was granted. Not long afterwards, however, word came back that they were no longer to use the church -- authorities got cold feet, worrying that Protestant and Catholic monks praying together in a Catholic church was just too far ahead of its time.

Writer Kathryn Spink, in her brief biography Brother Roger: Founder of Taizé, tells the story.

The local pastor appealed to the papal nuncio in France, knowing his reputation as a flexible and kindly man. In a gesture that anticipated the ecumenical opening of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the nuncio ordered that the village church be returned to the brothers on the feast of Pentecost, 1948.

That nuncio was Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII. To quote a line from another wartime drama, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Roncalli and Taizé.

Schutz called him “the one more than any other who marked the history of the community.” At key moments in the early years, Roncalli always played the role of guardian angel.

In the mid-1950s, the Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) under legendary hard-liner Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani took up the question of Taizé’s use of the village church. Ottaviani ordered that the brothers be expelled, and the local bishop of Autun, a major supporter of Taizé, offered his resignation.

Before anything happened, however, Pius XII died and John XXIII was elected, and things continued as before.

Pope John met with the brothers at least once a year, each time giving their ecumenical dream strong encouragement. During Vatican II, the pope once granted a private audience to the brothers, exclaiming: “Ah, Taizé, that little springtime!”

Schutz later recounted the story of meeting John XXIII shortly before the pope’s death, on a morning when his doctors said he was not in too much pain. Schutz asked the pope for a spiritual testimony for Taizé, and John XXIII responded: “The church is constituted by a series of concentric circles, and they must always become larger, larger,” drawing the circles in the air with his hands.

Schutz would later describe the death of John XXIII as a major blow to the ecumenical movement.

“Ecumenism from that moment put itself on the road of parallelism,” Schutz said. “The confessions continued on their separate paths in a simple peaceful coexistence, and nothing more.”

* * *

Every pope since “Good Pope John” has been an unabashed admirer of Taizé.

Paul VI compared Taizé to Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis and the Franciscan movement, and even gave the community one of his private chalices. Such esteem gave Schutz influence. Once, a woman who was married to the secretary-general of the Communist Party in Chile appealed to him in desperation because her husband was scheduled to be executed by Pinochet. Schutz made an urgent call to Rome, and Paul VI in turn called Pinochet. The condemned man was released.

John Paul II visited Taizé on Oct. 5, 1986, and used the occasion to launch his invitation for the religious leaders of humanity to gather with him later that month in Assisi to pray for peace.

Schutz also enjoyed close relationships with leading Catholics of his time. He was a good friend of Mother Teresa; it was Mother Teresa, in fact, who convinced him to wear his white habit all the time rather than just during prayer, and sewed by hand a lighter version of the garment for Br. Roger to use in warm weather.

Yet Taizé has never been without its critics.

In fact, Shutz’s closeness to the pope and to Catholic sensibilities has made some Protestants wary. They say Taizé is not Biblical enough. Among some evangelical Christians, Taizé is even accused of heresy. On the Catholic side, some worry that the pan-Christian ethos of Taizé may water down a strong sense of Catholic identity.

Shortly after Vatican II, for example, Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, responsible at the time for the pope’s ecumenical overtures, proposed that the monks of Taizé, even those from a Protestant background, be admitted to the Catholic Eucharist. After opposition from the Holy Office, however, Bea’s suggestion was never adopted.

Echoes of the old battles were heard April 8, when Schutz attended the funeral Mass for John Paul II. By this point using a wheelchair, Schutz was given Communion by Ratzinger, the main celebrant for the Mass, with the pope’s top liturgist, Archbishop Piero Marini, at his side. Conservative Catholic circles were critical, in some cases of Schutz for taking Communion, in some cases of Ratzinger for giving it to him. Others speculated that Schutz had secretly “converted” to Catholicism, something his brothers at Taizé denied, arguing that he had reconciled himself with Catholicism without denying his origins.

Similar complaints were heard when Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, celebrated a Catholic funeral Mass for Schutz in August inside the Church of Reconciliation in Taizé.

Catholic law, it should be noted, allows for Communion and funeral Masses for Protestants under exceptional circumstances.

Br. Émile said he was saddened by the controversy over Schutz’s Communion, saying it illustrated that many people still did not understand “how far he had gone.”

“You can’t understand Taizé if you have a legalistic concept of the church,” Br. Émile said. “It’s totally incomprehensible that you can live this reconciliation. For Br. Roger, Christ is not divided. Our divisions are an accident of human history. He believed that when people give their lives for the Gospel, something of the undivided church can emerge.”

Despite the occasional tensions, Schutz drew the ultimate seal of approval from the latest pope, Benedict XVI, who said after Schutz’s death that the Taizé founder is “in the hands of eternal goodness, of eternal love; he has attained eternal joy.”

To most, the words seemed a roundabout way of calling this Swiss Calvinist a saint.

* * *

Talking to pilgrims here, and to ecumenical observers in other places, three aspects of Taizé seem to be the most impressive.

First is the utter selflessness of the community. The brothers don’t charge fees, don’t ask for contributions, don’t ask people to join anything nor to leave anything behind. There are no high-pressure “altar calls,” no invasive questions about one’s spiritual life or personal morality. Meals are simple, using nothing more than a bowl and wooden spoon, but always plentiful. While a handful of young men stay behind for life as monks, most pilgrims just come and go, each making of the experience what he or she chooses.

Moreover, Taizé has no program for ecumenism, no particular spiritual path it proposes. It does not host theological dialogues nor organize international conferences, so it’s no one’s rival. It has no “agenda” beyond living its own life.

Second is the aesthetic sense of Taizé, the capacity to make beauty out of simple materials. The Church of Reconciliation, with its small icon of the Madonna and tabernacle, its modest Orthodox iconostasis, and stark Protestant sanctuary, somehow manages to be stunning and yet unassuming. Liturgies are reverent without being overly pious or stuffy, with a striking use of light and darkness, and the music runs through one’s mind long after formal worship is concluded.

Third, and perhaps most basic, is the spirit of Taizé. Many groups talk about reconciliation and unity, but here those ideals are lived as facts of life. Taizé doesn’t “work for” Christian unity, it assumes it, thereby giving visitors a tangible experience of how full, visible unity among Christians looks and feels.

In the end, this is perhaps the most valuable contribution of Taizé. It’s difficult to spend time here without wanting this way of life to spread, without aching for the day when all Christians can live together and worship together. In that sense, whether or not Taizé is the “model,” as the debate has sometimes been phrased, perhaps misses the point. What Taizé provides is a hunger for unity, without which models and programs are ultimately of little use.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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