Friday, May 1, 2009

The Taize Community--A Prophetic Voice

The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic movement located in France. Noted for their music and outreach to youth, Taize really is as Pope John XXIII said: "Ah, Taize, that little springtime." I personally find their music extremely helpful in meditation, but it's their whole philosophy which makes them prophetic for our time. They are all about Christian unity and isn't that a novel thought in this particular time in Catholicism.

The following from L'Osservatore Romano is an interview with Cardinal Kasper which took place this past August. For those who don't know, Taize's founder, Brother Roger was killed by a mentally ill woman in 2005. As Cardinal Kasper notes below, the community sails on under the benevolent guidance of Brother Alois. Although not a Catholic religious congregation, it never the less has historic and close ties to the Vatican. In many respects Taize is the polar opposite of SSPX.

Interview with Cardinal Kasper three years after the death of Brother Roger

Three years have passed since the tragic death of Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé. You yourself went to preside at his funeral service. Who was he for you?

The death of Brother Roger moved me deeply. I was in Cologne for World Youth Day when we heard about the death of Brother Roger, the victim of an act of violence. His death reminded me of the words the prophet Isaiah spoke about the Servant of the Lord: “Ill-treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers, he never opened his mouth” (Isa 53:7).

Throughout his life, Brother Roger followed the way of the Lamb: by his gentleness and his humility, by his refusal of every act of human greatness, by his decision never to speak ill of anyone, by his desire to carry in his own heart the sufferings and the hopes of humanity. Few persons of our generation have incarnated with such transparency the gentle and humble face of Jesus Christ.

In a turbulent period for the Church and for Christian faith, Brother Roger was a source of hope recognized by many, including myself. As a theology professor and then as Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, I always encouraged young people to stop in Taizé during the summer. I saw how much that time spent close to Brother Roger and the community helped them better to understand and to live the Word of God, in joy and simplicity. I felt all that even more when I presided at his funeral liturgy in the large Church of Reconciliation in Taizé.

What is, in your eyes, the specific contribution of Brother Roger and the Taizé Community to ecumenism?

Christian unity was certainly one of the deepest desires of the prior of Taizé, just as the division between Christians was for him a true source of pain and regret. Brother Roger was a man of communion, who found it hard to tolerate any form of antagonism or rivalry between persons or communities. When he spoke of Christian unity and of his meetings with the representatives of different Christian traditions, his look and his voice enabled you to understand with what intensity of charity and hope he desired “all to be one”.

The search for unity was for him a kind of guideline in even the most concrete decisions of each day: to welcome joyfully any action that could bring Christians of different traditions closer, to avoid every word or act that could slow down their reconciliation. He practiced that discernment with an attentiveness that bordered on meticulousness. In the search for unity, however, Brother Roger was not in a hurry or nervous. He understood God’s patience in the history of salvation and in the history of the Church. He never would have acted in ways unacceptable to the Churches; he never would have invited the young people to dissociate themselves from their pastors. Rather than the speed of the development of the ecumenical movement, he was aiming at its depth.

He was convinced that only an ecumenism nourished by the Word of God and the celebration of the Eucharist, by prayer and contemplation, would be able to bring together Christians in the unity wished for by Jesus. It is in this area of spiritual ecumenism that I would like to situate the important contribution of Brother Roger and the Taizé Community.

Brother Roger often described his ecumenical journey as an “inner reconciliation of the faith of his origins with the Mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking fellowship with anyone.” This road does not belong to the usual categories. After his death, the Taizé Community denied the rumors of a secret conversion to Catholicism. One of the reasons those rumors arose was because Brother Roger had been seen receiving communion at the hands of Cardinal Ratzinger during the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II. (One needs to think about this for a second before it sinks in. The Mystery of the Catholic faith is a profound treasure. This Mystery does not call for the breaking of fellowship with anyone.)

What should we think about the statement that Brother Roger became “formally” Catholic?

Born in a Reformed family, Brother Roger had studied theology and had become a pastor in that same Reformed tradition. When he spoke of “the faith of his origins,” he was referring to that beautiful blend of catechesis, devotion, theological formation and Christian witness received in the Reformed tradition. He shared that patrimony with all his brothers and sisters of Protestant affiliation, with whom he always felt himself deeply linked. Since his early years as a pastor, however, Brother Roger sought at the same time to nourish his faith and his spiritual life at the wellsprings of other Christian traditions, crossing certain confessional limits in doing so. His desire to follow a monastic vocation and to found for this purpose a new monastic community with Christians of the Reformation already said a lot about this search of his.

As the years passed, the faith of the prior of Taizé was progressively enriched by the patrimony of faith of the Catholic Church. According to his own testimony, it was with reference to the mystery of the Catholic faith that he understood some of the elements of the faith, such as the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation history, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic gifts and the apostolic ministry in the Church, including the ministry of unity exercised by the Bishop of Rome.

In response to this, the Catholic Church had accepted that he take communion at the Eucharist, as he did every morning in the large church at Taizé. Brother Roger also received communion several times from the hands of Pope John Paul II, who had become friends with him from the days of the Second Vatican Council and who was well acquainted with his personal journey with respect to the Catholic Church. In this sense, there was nothing secret or hidden in the attitude of the Catholic Church, neither at Taizé or in Rome. During the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger only repeated what had already been done before him in Saint Peter’s Basilica, at the time of the late Pope. There was nothing new or premeditated in the Cardinal’s act.

In a talk he gave in the presence of Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Basilica during the young adult European meeting in Rome in 1980, the prior of Taizé described his own personal journey and his Christian identity with these words: “I have found my own Christian identity by reconciling within myself the faith of my origins with the Mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking fellowship with anyone.”

In fact, Brother Roger never wanted to break “with anyone,” for reasons which were essentially linked to his own desire for unity and to the ecumenical vocation of the Taizé Community. For that reason, he preferred not to use certain expressions like “conversion” or “formal” membership to describe his communion with the Catholic Church. In his conscience, he had entered into the mystery of the Catholic faith like someone who grows into it, without having to “abandon” or “break” with what he had received and lived beforehand. The meaning of some theological or canonical terms could be discussed endlessly. Out of respect for the faith-journey of Brother Roger, however, it would be preferable not to apply to him categories which he himself considered inappropriate for his experience and which, moreover, the Catholic Church never wanted to impose upon him. Here too, the words of Brother Roger himself should suffice for us.

Do you see any links between the ecumenical vocation of Taizé and the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of young adults to this small village in Burgundy? In your opinion, are young people sensitive to the visible unity of Christians?

As I see it, the fact that every year thousands of young people still make their way to the little hill of Taizé is truly a gift of the Holy Spirit to today’s Church. For many of them, Taizé represents the first and main place where they can meet young people from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities.
In Taizé, during the times of prayer and sharing on the Bible, they rediscover the gift of communion and friendship that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can offer. In listening to the Word of God, they also rediscover the unique treasure that has been given to them by the sacrament of baptism.

Yes, I believe that many young people realize what is truly at stake in the unity of Christians. They know how the burden of divisions can still weigh heavily on the witness of Christians and on the building up of a new society. In Taizé they find a kind of “parable of community” that helps to go beyond the rifts of the past and to look towards a future of communion and friendship. When they return home, that experience helps them to create groups of prayer and sharing in their own life-context, to nourish that desire for unity.

Before heading the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, you were the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and, in that capacity, you welcomed in 1996 a young adult European meeting organized by the Taizé Community. What do these meetings contribute to the life of the Churches?

That meeting was indeed a time of very great joy and profound spiritual intensity for the diocese, and especially for the parishes that welcomed the young participants from different countries. Those meetings seem to me extremely important for the life of the Church. Many young people, as I said, live in secularized societies. It is hard for them to find companions on the road of Christian faith and life. Spaces to deepen and celebrate faith, in joy and serenity, are rare. The local Churches sometimes find it hard to walk alongside the young in their spiritual journeys.
It is in this respect that large meetings like those organized by the Taizé Community respond to a true pastoral need. Christian life certainly requires silence and solitude, as Jesus said: “Shut yourself in your room and pray to your Father who is in that secret place” (Matt 6:6). But it also needs sharing, encounters and exchanges. Christian life is not lived out in isolation, on the contrary. Through baptism, we belong to the same one body of the Risen Christ. The Spirit is the soul and the breath that animates that body, making it grow in holiness.

The gospels, incidentally, speak regularly of a great crowd of persons who came, often from very far away, to see and hear Jesus and to be healed by him. The large meetings held today are part of this same dynamic. They enable the young better to grasp the mystery of the Church as communion, to listen together to the words of Jesus and to put their trust in him.

Pope John XXIII called Taizé a “little springtime.” For his part, Brother Roger said that Pope John XXIII was the man who had affected him the most. In your opinion, why did the Pope who had the intuition of the Second Vatican Council and the founder of Taizé appreciate one another so much?

Every time I met Brother Roger, he spoke to me a lot about his friendship for Pope John XXIII first of all, then for Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. It was always with gratitude and a great joy that he told me about the many meetings and conversations he had with them over the years. On the one hand, the prior of Taizé felt very close to the Bishops of Rome in their concern to lead the Church of Christ along the ways of spiritual renewal, of unity between Christians, of service to the poor, of witness to the Gospel. On the other hand, he felt deeply understood and supported by them in his own spiritual journey and in the orientation that the young Taizé Community was taking. The awareness of acting in harmony with the thought of the Bishop of Rome was for him a kind of compass in all his actions. He never would have undertaken an initiative that he knew was against the opinion or the will of the Bishop of Rome. A similar relationship of trust continues today with Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke very touching words when the founder of Taizé died, and who receives Brother Alois every year in a private audience.

Where did this mutual esteem between Brother Roger and the successive Bishops of Rome come from?

It was certainly rooted in human realities, in the rich personalities of the men concerned. In the final analysis, I would say that it came from the Holy Spirit, who is coherent in what he inspires in different persons at the same time, for the good of the one Church of Christ. When the Spirit speaks, all understand the same message, each in his or her own language. The true creator of understanding and brotherhood among the disciples of Christ is the Spirit of communion.

You are well acquainted with Brother Alois, Brother Roger’s successor. How do you see the future of the Taizé Community?

Although I had already met him previously, it is above all since Brother Roger died that I have come to know Brother Alois better. A few years earlier, Brother Roger told me that everything was planned for his succession, on the day when that would be necessary. He was happy about the prospect that Brother Alois was going to take over. Who could have ever imagined that that succession was going to take place in a single night, after an unthinkable act of violence? What has astonished me since then is the great continuity in the life of the Taizé Community and in the welcome of the young. The liturgy, the prayer and the hospitality continue in the same spirit, like a song that has never been interrupted. That says a lot, not only about the personality of the new prior, but also and above all about the human and spiritual maturity of the whole Taizé Community. It is the community as a whole that has inherited Brother Roger’s charism, which it continues to live and to radiate.

Knowing the individuals concerned, I have full confidence in the future of the Taizé Community and in its commitment for Christian unity. That confidence comes to me from the Holy Spirit as well, who does not awaken charisms in order to abandon them at the first opportunity. God’s Spirit, who is always new, works in the continuity of a vocation and a mission. He will help the community to live out and to develop its vocation, in faithfulness to the example that Brother Roger left it. Generations pass, but the charism remains, because it is a gift and a work of the Spirit. I would like to conclude by repeating to Brother Alois and to the whole Taizé Community my great esteem for their friendship, their life of prayer and their desire for unity. Thanks to them, the gentle face of Brother Roger remains familiar to us.


I can't help but wonder how much influence Brother Roger had on Pope John calling for the Second Vatican Council. Maybe it wasn't Brother Roger per se, but the Spirit that seems to hang around the Taize community. That particular Spirit can be contagious, as well as coherent, as Cardinal Kasper noted. Maybe that's why Taize stands out as a ray of hope in a sea of disunity, and why it appeals so strongly to youth of all faiths, nationalities, cultures,--- and ages.

There's been an awful lot in the Catholic news lately about charismatic movements and leaders gone off the deep end. Taize stands out in contrast to all of that as well. I suspect though, the reason for this is as Cardinal Kasper said, the human and spiritual maturity of the entire community. This appears to be a group of stage IV spiritual sojourners who are able to see beyond doctrine and dogma and drive to the heart of spiritual mystery. Their authenticity and genuineness is such that even Popes don't seem to think the normal rules apply when it comes to Eucharistic sharing. The Spirit of genuine community trumps the need for doctrinal obedience.

For me personally, the Vatican attitude towards the Taize community offers great hope. Sometimes it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Vatican is hell bent on returning to the closed church of the fifties, but then there is Taize. True spiritual authenticity is still recognized and celebrated, even if it isn't quite Catholic kosher. A spiritual sojourner can find a home port.

I'd like to think Benedict saw the same thing in Chief Fontaine of the Canadian First Nations and it was in recognition of Chief Fontaine's genuine pursuit of reconcilliation that Benedict recieved and honored him. Spiritual authenticity transcends religious differences and reaches for unity and reconcilliation. It's not an accident that the church at Taize is called The Church of Reconcilliation.

As I wrote yesterday, reconcilliation is a two way street. Both sides have to admit they were full time players contributing equally to the problem--especially if the sides appeared to be functioning from different places of power. Benedict's offer of reconcilliation with SSPX failed precisely because SSPX refuses to admit any fault or move towards Rome. That's not an authentic spiritual stand, that's a narcissitic ego stand. My advice to Bishop Fellay would be to spend some contemplative time at Taize. It might be good for his soul, and it's a not a very long drive. It might give Benedict some sorely needed hope.

Now that I think of it, there are a few other bishops whose names come to mind that might also benefit from a little comtemplative time with the brothers at Taize. That might give a whole bunch of people some sorely needed hope.


  1. Well, this just makes me want to move to France and join the Taize Community. I blogged Taize and not only did I hear their beautiful singing but found also the musical score and lyrics on their website. They include everything that any Christian Church would need to learn the songs, sing these songs, including the accompaniment.

    Bravo for the Taize Community! Thanks Colleen!

    ps. I sent you an email.

  2. I should have said I googled Taize.... that's what happens with only half a cup of coffee.... "_)

    word is kaffcha

  3. I knew what you meant. When I read your comment, I realized I had forgotten to put in a link to the Taize webpage. Oh well, google will take you right there.

    I thought you might like their music. A lot of it is in minor keys, but minor keys work for me.

  4. I am ready to pack my bags and move to France and sing and play music and compose music for the praise and glory of God. I think I would need that kind of atmosphere of reconciliation in order to do that. How inspiring to hear them sing and that one picture they have there on the mp3 page of songs seems to say so much.

    I wish that we could gather together just to praise the Lord and that the judging of others deemed unworthy would end. I think that is basically what God wants us to do. He wants us to Follow Him. Arguing about the Mass and who is allowed to receive Communion, pointing at others with blame and shame, and fretting or arguing whether or not a chalice is crystal or gold is such a despairing and hopeless testimony and truth of the dying days.

    Those days shall pass and there will be a new day and there will be light and love in the world, because we shall bring it with us wherever we may go. We pray for this and for the strength to do this.

    Starting there with reconciliation for one another and for all the injustices real or imagined and simply desiring to praise God and sing of His glorious Creation and Christ's Resurrection we can move forward and be hopeful. Encouraging one another in our faith and reaching out to those in need are the very basics that we need to start doing today if we haven't already. Most everything else, such as investigations of nuns or threatening people who voted for Obama is frivolous nonsense and a waste of time and energy.

    God is lifting that which has been covered up and in darkness. This time we are in perhaps is like the three hours of darkness when Jesus was on the cross and dying. The sky was darkened as were many minds and hearts to the love of God. God darkened the sky when Jesus was dying. People really started to panic in that darkness. The women and John did not panic at the foot of the cross. They witnessed and searched for meaning from God and served Him there at that awful place when even love is put to death, banished from our midst, by cruelty and ignorance. Those who love God now are with Christ at the cross and are with Him on the road after He has resurrected from the dead. It would seem that we are in those two places at the same time or back and forth, witnessing the darkness and also witnessing the light of hope that is yet to shine ever brightly.

  5. A very heartwarming and encourging interview with Cardinal Kasper, Colleen! LIke others have said it makes me want to journey to Taize even more now!

    There, we can see the vision towards which all ecumenical initiatives are intended, a united Body of Christ cemented and strengthened through the celebration of the Eucharist.

    I hate to even think about it, but once again Cardinal Kasper has impressed me as one who is able to think and analyze a situation with complete objectivity, even sometimes when it comes to looking outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Given his progressive outlook on numerous matters (hopefully, his views on women's ordination and homosexuality are only due to his high profile position in the Curia and are not in fact his own personal convictions) I think Cardinal Kasper, along with Cardina Ravassi, would make a very competant papabile fact, I think he'd be our progressive hope, as he favors signifigantly less centralization within the Church, in stark contrast to what we know now. So, my hopes are that he will continue to stand up for his opinionated positions! He was once an apprentice of Fr. Hans Kung!

    But truly, Taize embodies physically what a reunited Christian Church would look like. Let's hope that in finding refuge in these santuaries of heavenly bliss we can be strengthened to continue to fight for a renewal and reform of the Church that will ultimately contribute to a genuine regentrivifaction of the entire face of the earth as it speaks of in the Psalms!

  6. Actually, I don't know why Taize can't stand as an example for how the various interpretations and traditions of Catholicism could reconcile.

    Rome could then take it's place as it was intended from the beginning--a place where all traditions and rites met as equals, sharing a common meal, but then practicing from different rites and tradtions at home.

    Eventually Rome is going to have to make an accomodation with the shortage of priests and those accomodations could have far reaching consequences.

    Here's a thought for Benedict: We have been praying to the Holy Spirit for vocations to the celibate clerical priesthood for thirty years. What if we've been getting our answer and that answer is NO. Cardinal Kasper strikes me as someone who may be able to hear that particular answer.

  7. ".. I don't know why Taize can't stand as an example for how the various interpretations and traditions of Catholicism could reconcile. "

    Exactly Colleen! Reconciliation within our own Church would be the ticket! The Pope not denying anyone Communion and telling his Bishops to end their crusade against reformers aka liberals in the Church would be a good start.

  8. This article, and Kasper's interview/words about Brother Roger are breathtaking. Thank you for sharing this- I think I will follow your blog.

    Its humbling to hear Pope John's words of Taize as a "spring," a miracle of ecumenicism in our time. Growing up Catholic and Protestant (mixed family), to a father in Jesuit seminary in those times I feel great closeness to this story. Though part of me does fear at times that that some of the hope and mutual-humility/openness of those early years has waned. I now locate myself in the Anglo-Catholic side of things... but at heart feel closest to Brother Roger's vision of "breaking fellowship with none." Would that there might be more opportunities granted to spirits like him, who love the Roman Catholic tradition but do not quite fit the boundaries many in it want to lock down painfully tight. Anglicans have long struggled with this, and I've found welcome company with them.

    At any rate, I've been humbled to see the work of Taize rippling out into my Episcopal churches, especially through the "emerging" Crossing community of Boston. Some of my own church's voices (Phyllis Tickle, esspecially) have spoken of "fountains" of ecumenical upwelling in our time. Would that the prophetic spirit of Taize and its gifts continue inspiring more beautiful springs in the loving Way of Jesus.

  9. Peace and blessings to one and all. I really enjoyed reading this again Colleen. Here we are after all of this time. It is lovely to revisit Taize, at least in my imagination via the internet.

    word verification, for real is saddly