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Stephanie SaldañaJanuary 20, 2022
Prayer in the Church of Reconciliation during the pandemic. Credit: Cédric Nisi.  

“Iedere nacht verlang ik naar u, o God” (My spirit yearns for you in the night, O God)

Toi, tu nous aimes, source de vie” (You love us, source of life)

“Sólo la sed nos alumbra”(Only our thirst leads us onwards)

Some 70 religious brothers from all over the world are kneeling in long rows at the heart of the Church of Reconciliation, their white robes touching the ground. They sing softly, their masked voices drifting from German to French to Polish to English. Around them, hundreds of young people, also masked and sitting on white X’s on the ground to keep their distance, join in, chanting, until I feel almost clothed in their vowels and consonants. The air takes on a hum, and in the midst of a terrible year—2021, the one we thought would be an improvement—something in the music, repeated over and over again, begins to break through layers of exhaustion and resistance. It almost feels like healing.

This is Taizé, the ecumenical monastic community founded by Brother Roger Schütz in the 1940s as a parable of communion, a hope that if Christians from different countries and backgrounds could gather on a hill in rural France and pray together, then this might serve as a sign that reconciliation is possible among churches and in the world. Brother Roger believed in the radical idea that little acts, like young people singing together in a church, really matter in history. That is what a parable does, after all—it points to a meaning larger than itself.

Today, in any given year, Taizé attracts tens of thousands of young people from around the world, who travel as pilgrims to this hilltop in France to meet one another, to sing and pray and to discuss what they feel are the most urgent issues of their time, from the climate emergency to refugees. Thousands of other Christians around the world who have never visited the monastery still recognize the sentiment behind it from the Taizé chants—songs like “Bless the Lord” and “Nada te Turbe” that pilgrims have carried with them from the monastery to parishes around the globe.

Now, during a rainy week in July, in the midst of a pandemic, I have traveled to Taizé to sit with brothers across three generations and discuss subjects as wide-ranging as the legacy of Brother Roger, how the community has adapted to Covid-19, the tragedy of abuse in the French church and what today’s young people feel are the most pressing issues of their generation.

But first, this singing. Morning, midday and night—a living source at the heart of the community, voices filtering into the green spaces outside, the verses repeating in my head until they become a subtext to everything else, a fiber holding the story together.

Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est. (Where there is charity and love, God is there.)

A Response to Crisis

Some communities are obscured by crisis; others illuminated. Taizé belongs to the latter. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when France locked down, the brothers separated into pods, living and praying in small groups so as not to put the older brothers at risk. With no visitors allowed, they broadcast their prayers online to Christians isolated around the world. Yet the lack of visitors had other consequences, as the brothers had no one to buy the goods they craft and sell in their shop—the monks take a vow of simplicity and live from the work of their own labor. So they began to sell their pottery in nearby markets. They bought chickens to raise for fresh eggs. They tended a garden.

When the French president announced a second lockdown, the brothers quickly sprang into action, inviting students studying online to spend the coming months living at Taizé instead of at home, an effort to stem what many were calling an “epidemic of loneliness” among the young. None of this should come as a surprise. After all, Taizé was created as a response to another global crisis, some 80 years ago.

It was September 1939 when Roger Schütz, then 24 years old, penned a letter to his friend from his theological studies, Etienne Burnand. “Les tous derniers événements nous bouleversent,” he began. “The recent events are wrenching. Since learning that Poland has been entirely invaded, I grieve inwardly. Another Christian nation shattered by the invader. Truly, without exaggeration we can say: ‘Our soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’”

One year later, Mr. Schütz followed up with another letter expressing his desire to “alleviate as much misery” as possible. He would cross from neutral Switzerland into war-torn France and search for a property to buy.

Taizé was created as a response to another global crisis, some 80 years ago.

The son of a Protestant pastor, Mr. Schütz was still in the process of discerning his own religious vocation. He traveled to the hamlet of Taizé in Burgundy, near the demarcation line between the free zone and German occupied France, in one of the most de-Christianized regions of the country, and began to look for a house. The landscape could be called remarkable only in that it was unremarkable—open fields, a few stone dwellings. Some inhabitants were women left living alone after their husbands had died in war. He seemed drawn in by its simplicity. Yes, this would be it. He purchased a home.

On the surface, his decision appeared almost meaningless. What could one person—and one house in the middle of the countryside—do to alleviate the misery of a conflict in which millions were killing and being killed? But Mr. Schütz was inspired by a similarly “useless” act that his French grandmother, a Protestant, had carried out a generation earlier. During the First World War, widowed and with three sons fighting on the front lines, she had decided to pray each day in a Catholic church, without giving up her Protestant identity. It was a little thing, a private act of reconciliation. She was convinced that it mattered somehow.

Once Mr. Schütz settled into Taizé, he began to shelter war refugees, mostly Jewish, who were escaping the Nazis in occupied France. He prayed three times a day. He traveled back to Switzerland in 1942, and while he was gone, on Nov. 11, 1942, the German army occupied Vichy France, what had been the so-called free zone of France. The Gestapo arrived at Taizé the same day, and friends warned Mr. Schütz not to come back. By the time he returned to the village in 1944, he was accompanied by three friends from his theological studies, forming the kernel of what would eventually become Taizé, an ecumenical community of religious brothers dedicated to reconciliation in the church and in the world.

One of their very first acts after the war was to ask if they could welcome German prisoners interned in a camp nearby.

“That was a concrete sign of the word reconciliation—it was not only hiding Jews in the beginning, but then after the war it was very natural for Brother Roger to help these poor Germans,” Brother Sebastien, a current member of the Taizé community, tells me. “For Brother Roger it was so normal that you help those in need. At one time it is Jews, at another time it might be Germans.”

It was what Mr. Schütz—who by then referred to himself simply as Brother Roger—would later call the “dynamic of the provisional,” the idea that history is constantly in movement. He believed that as Christians, we must remain awake to the signs of the times, present in reality, ready to let go of any attachments that might prevent us from engaging with those in need. If we want to understand how, we might look to Jesus as a model—he who was always responding to those who crossed his path.

The community of Taizé grew, with first Protestants and later Catholic brothers joining. Today it is composed of over 100 members from 25 countries around the world. In the 1960s, thousands of young people began to visit. When the Berlin wall came down a generation later, that number doubled. Today tens of thousands of young people—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and nonbelieving—continue making the pilgrimage to the hill in Taizé each year, gathering in the Church of Reconciliation three times a day, singing in English and French, German and Czech, Arabic and Polish, participating in this parable of communion with their song.

Yet history always has a way of breaking in, with all of its gifts and all of its brutality. In 2005, while thousands of young people were immersed in song in the midst of Taizé prayer, a young Romanian woman who was suffering from mental illness approached Brother Roger, then 90 years old, and stabbed him in the neck. A few of the brothers carried Brother Roger’s body out of the church as he died. The remaining brothers —perhaps sensing that this, too, would become a parable—stayed in the church with 2,500 young people, and they all continued to sing.

A Call to Trust

On my first morning at Taizé, I sit down with Brother Charles-Eugène in the grassy courtyard where the brothers often meet with visitors. He is 83 years old, with a gentle and weathered face, and speaks in careful French, smiling as he recalls first arriving at Taizé in 1958 as a 20-year-old student. At that time the community was still in its infancy, and Brother Roger was overwhelmed. Brother Roger asked Charles-Eugène to be his secretary, and he agreed, never guessing that he would serve in that role for nearly 50 years.

Now, he reveals that the early years carried great uncertainty. “We had difficulties from the very first day,” he remembers. “The most evident was in the relationship between the churches.” While the early community received support from important Protestant pastors and theologians in France and Switzerland, there was doubt from others about the compatibility of Protestantism and monastic life. On the Catholic side, when the brothers arrived in Taizé and wanted to hold the prayer in the village Catholic church, the local bishop at first rejected the idea. For many years, the idea that Taizé wanted nothing more than to welcome Christians from all backgrounds to pray together as a sign of reconciliation remained impossible for some church leaders to comprehend.

“What did Brother Roger do?” I ask.

Brother Charles-Eugène laughs. “He did what he could do.”

The word trust—the call to trust God, to trust one another, and in a certain sense to trust that history will eventually move toward the good—would over time become the foundation on which Taizé developed.

This captures much of the spirit of Taizé, where the brothers like to speak of creating from whatever they have at hand—much like the boy in the Gospel of John who offers Jesus the few fish and loaves he has available, hoping that something might be done with them.

Even so, those early years were clearly trying for Brother Roger. “He was a man who suffered a great deal,” Brother Charles-Eugène tells me, quietly. “He didn’t show it very much. But he had such a keen sensitivity. The difficulties, the oppositions, resonated very deeply and intensely in him.”

“I think that when he spoke of ‘joy’ and ‘trust’—that’s another word that he used often—it’s not because he necessarily felt those things in him. I think it’s because it was like a call that he was giving to himself. When he spoke of trust, it was to say: ‘You, Roger, you must be a person of trust. You must go in that direction.’”

The word trust—the call to trust God, to trust one another, and in a certain sense to trust that history will eventually move toward the good—would over time become the foundation on which Taizé developed. The hilltop became a place of friendship, the word brother intentionally used by the monks to create the idea of family.

“When I read the oldest texts that Brother Roger wrote, I think that what was primordial for him was the need to ‘come out of isolation,’” Brother Charles-Eugène tells me. “If you want to understand the life message of Brother Roger, it’s not first of all about young people, or ecumenism or monasticism, but it is this coming out of isolation. He had a play on words in French that he liked to say: ‘Love solitude but hate isolation.’ Solitude as a retreat, solitude with God on retreat—that’s good. But isolation is something different.”

Though Brother Roger initially envisioned a small monastic community, when thousands of young people, energized by the social movements in Europe, began to show up in the 1960s, the brothers chose to adapt.

“We experienced it a bit like the early monks,” Brother Charles-Eugène remembers. “If a person presents himself at the door, you must welcome him.”

At Easter in 1971, 6,000 young people registered to visit Taizé. The brothers were faced with a dilemma: The church had room for only 2,000.

“The only solution,” Brother Charles-Eugène remembers, smiling, “it was kind of crazy—but the good news was that the weight of the church didn’t rest on its walls, but on the columns.” They decided to break down the back wall of the Church of Reconciliation, the church opened in 1962 at the heart of the community, and attach a circus tent to extend the interior.

The wall of the church came down. So, too, did resistance among the various church leaders. Pope John XXIII had already invited the brothers to the Second Vatican Council as outside observers, an early recognition of their ecumenical vision. Over the years, the community became friends with every subsequent pope. Today the prior, Brother Alois, is received in an annual private meeting with Pope Francis.

The community also shares close relationships with leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Protestant churches, whose young visit by the thousands. Friends have included St. Teresa of Calcutta, the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, the Catholic theologian Yves Congar, O.P., and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Brother Roger decided early on that he would not form a separate Taizé movement, anxious not to pull young people away from their home churches. Instead, the youth who visited would be encouraged to refresh themselves so that they might return to their communities invigorated—whether they were Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

“One passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water,”Pope John Paul II remarked when he visited Taizé in 1986.“The traveler stops, quenches his thirst, and continues on his way.”

‘Looking in the Same Direction’

I find Brother Alois, the prior of Taizé, waiting for me in the house that Brother Roger purchased 80 years ago. Originally from Germany, he was appointed by Brother Roger as his successor while Brother Roger was still alive, and he has guided the community over the last 15 years through a series of social transformations in Europe. Taizé now holds weekly workshops with young people about the climate crisis, welcomes Muslims for annual sessions of dialogue, and—perhaps most strikingly—has sheltered families of Yazidi, Muslim and Christian refugees escaping war. At the same time, during a typical, non-Covid year, the monastery still regularly welcomes up to 100,000 young people whose days are filled with prayers and Bible studies, singing practice and workshops. In the face of the challenges these bring, Brother Alois calls the community’s desire to overcome boundaries a “motor that leads us forward.”

He is soft-spoken, thoughtful about the words he chooses, and careful not to be seen as a spiritual authority but simply as a brother in the community. He speaks of the young who visit as though they are his teachers, and his admiration for them is palpable.

I ask him about a recent statement he made to the journalist Marco Roncalli that, for the newest generation, “a word is credible only if it corresponds to a manner of life.” He nods.

“One concrete example,” he tells me, “is that young people are very much concerned with all of the questions of ecology. And they look at us, asking: ‘How do you live?’”

“I’m astonished that they value even the small steps that we do,” he continues. “They do not say: ‘You have to change everything,’ but: ‘What are the steps that you do?’”

What emerges is a vision of Taizé as a common pilgrimage in which both the brothers and the youth are walking together, listening to one another and searching for deeper authenticity.

What emerges is a vision of Taizé as a common pilgrimage in which both the brothers and the youth are walking together, listening to one another and searching for deeper authenticity. “It’s not seldom that a young person here tells me: ‘Here, I can be as I am,’ Brother Alois says. “Here, nobody tells you what you have to believe or what you should do, but we listen to the Gospels together. We are all looking in the same direction.”

In all of this, Brother Roger’s original impulse to “come out of isolation” remains central. This is evident not only in the community’s decision to invite young people to live and study online at Taizé during the Covid-19 lockdown, but also in the “fraternities” that Brother Roger initiated early on and that still exist—small groups of brothers who travel from Taizé to live in some of the poorest areas of the world, from Bangladesh to Brazil. This year for the first time, Taizé created a fraternity closer to home, in St. Denis, a suburb in Paris.

“We don’t have the means to change situations,” Brother Alois tells me, “but we know that if we do not get into touch with the situations, then we will not find solutions.”

I ask him about the meaning of their monastic vocation. “Our vocation is to become brothers,” he answers simply. In some sense, this “becoming” feels like a synodal process, one of always listening: to one another, to the young, to those on the margins. After all, part of loving others comes in trying to know them.

He recounts the story of some brothers who, unable to sell their pottery at the monastery shop because of the pandemic, recently began to visit a nearby market to sell among the local merchants. One of these merchants approached the brothers at the end of the morning.

“It is good that you came here!” he told them. “Ahhh, you have finally come down from your hill!”

“It was a shock to the senses,” Brother Alois tells me, laughing. They were clearly grateful for the gentle invitation to encounter, to always come down from their hill.

Understanding Our Weakness

In many ways, these last years have been some of the most challenging in Taizé’s history. They have also been devastating for the Catholic Church in France. On June 4, 2019, Brother Alois stood in front of the Church of Reconciliation, crowded with young visitors assembled for prayer, and read from a letter he and the brothers had prepared.

“At a time when society and the church are attempting to shed light on sexual abuses and assaults,” he began, “notably towards minors and fragile persons, my brothers and I have judged it necessary to speak out as well.”

The community had learned of five cases of sexual assault by three different brothers at Taizé between 1950 and 1980. Two perpetrators already had died. A third had left the community decades before. Subsequently, accusations against two other living brothers came to light. The community reported those individuals to the authorities and both left the community.

“We recognize that these assaults committed in the past by brothers are also part of our history,” Brother Alois continued. “If I am speaking today, it is because we owe this to the survivors, to those close to them, and to all those who seek at Taizé a space of trust, safety and truth.”

Brother Alois and the other brothers were determined to face the issue with transparency and to center their response on the survivors. They began to hold a weekly open meeting where the brothers could talk with visitors about the accusations of past abuse, give them space to ask questions and encourage any other survivors to come forward.

In the meantime, Catholics in France were reeling as a series of revelations emerged that well-known founders of religious communities like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, Marie-Dominique Philippe, the founder of the Community of Saint John, and Thierry de Roucy, the founder of Heart’s Home, had abused.

The brothers continued speaking out to the youth, one another and the press. They prayed for survivors in the evening prayer in front of thousands of young people. The brothers enforced strict safeguarding measures and continued their weekly meetings with pilgrims on the subject of abuse.

“The people who come here—they not only have the right, but they must know these things,” Brother Alois tells me with emotion.

After two years, the brothers felt confident that the young people had been informed of what had happened in the past and that no new survivors would come forward. It was only then that something unexpected happened at Taizé. The brothers decided to continue holding the meetings, and the young people kept showing up. For the most part, they no longer wanted to talk about what had happened at Taizé. They were ready to talk about abuse taking place in churches all over the world, sometimes in their own communities. They wanted to ask questions, to voice their anger, to grieve.

A door had, unexpectedly, been opened.

“The astonishing thing was that the trust of the young people toward us did not diminish,” Brother Alois tells me, “but it was growing. Because they felt that they knew more concretely our weakness, that we are not the perfect Christians who are teaching what is right to everybody, but that we are also on the way.”

Brother Benoit, a young French member of the community, tells me that their decision to speak openly saved the trust of the young people. “We also address some difficult topics such as clericalism, celibacy and the role of women,” he adds, noting that the young people have strong opinions on these topics that must be heard. “Of course it is sad that we had to pass through this crisis ourselves to realize that we need to speak about these things—but today I’m very convinced that we need to continue, because as a place of pilgrimage for so many young people, these questions are very, very important.”

So they keep speaking, and listening. “Wait for the Lord. Keep watch, take heart.

New Songs

When Brother Roger first founded Taizé, the brothers spent years fashioning prayers specific to their community. With no significant history of monasticism in the Protestant church, they turned to the French Catholic liturgical traditions, together with Protestant Huguenot hymns, for inspiration. The early prayer was sung entirely in French, and was by all accounts, beautiful.

Decades passed. Young pilgrims began arriving from all over the world. They stumbled trying to sing the songs. It no longer mattered that the prayers were lovely—they did not work. The songs were too long, too complicated, too French. Brother Roger felt that if the pilgrims could not participate, then something in the parable of communion became lost.

The brothers were prepared to scrap the prayers and rebuild from scratch. But it had taken years to create their prayer tradition, and they were not entirely certain that they would discover something new to replace it.

“It took a few years of almost emptiness,” Brother Sebastien tells me. “All of these young people were sitting in the church and they couldn’t sing with us.”

They started with what they had. A French brother who loved Spain brought a text from Spain. Another brother brought an Alleluia from home. Slowly, they arrived at the idea of chants—brief lines from Scripture or sacred writings sung over and over again, until the words moved from mind into heart. It resonated with the Jesus prayer of the Eastern churches and the rosary of the Catholic Church. Visitors who came for a week could learn the songs quickly, but they were also nourishing enough not to bore the brothers who sang them all year long.

They invited the French liturgical composer Jacques Berthier to create further prayers, and soon songs like “Jesus, Remember Me” and “Ubi Caritas” found their way into the community and spread around the world. It became a way of listening to God through singing, the words breaking down resistance until we become aware of a deeper sense of self. In the communal prayer at Taizé, all the pilgrims sing, and as the chants change languages, those singers once on the margins might find themselves in the center, singing in their own tongue and trusted to hold the melody while others adapt.

Louder voices learn to soften to make room for quieter ones. As the songs build, tenor, bass and alto singers dare to break in, confident that others can hold the melody and the song will not fall apart. It becomes another parable of communion, separate voices enriching one another while holding their uniqueness, all of them engaged in a common song. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox young people listen to God, and in this listening they find themselves hearing one another and perhaps even themselves in a new way.

But all of this took time. I keep thinking about those years between the old and the new, when the brothers and the youth stumbled together in uncertainty, not yet able to know that songs would emerge on the other side.

“The role of not having a solution but believing that there might be a solution—being open to a solution—that’s the thing,” Brother Sebastien tells me. “That’s linked with hope.”

From One Beginning to Another

On Oct. 9, 2021, at the invitation of Pope Francis, Brother Alois spoke at the opening of the Catholic Church’s two year synod on the theme of synodality. Appealing for a “dialogue that reconciles,” he encouraged Christians to be honest about our weaknesses. Quoting the theologian Larry Miller, he noted that it is that very self-examination that allows us to be enriched by the strengths of other Christian traditions in a “receptive ecumenism.” In other words, what looks like fragility might actually be courage.

“We all carry the treasure of Christ in clay vessels,” Brother Alois said, “and it perhaps shines more clearly when we humbly acknowledge what we lack.”

His words—reflecting the tripartite movement of listening to oneself, to others and to God—harkens back to Brother Roger’s original vision, when he founded Taizé in the belief that renewal is not meant to be embarked upon only once in our lifetimes. It is a dynamic, a way of being Christian, of remaining attentive to the signs of the times. Sometimes history asks us to cross over a border. Sometimes it asks us to sing in new languages, or to knock down a wall.

“Whoever is on a journey towards God,” Brother Roger wrote, “goes from one beginning to another beginning.”

In time, maybe all of this becomes parable: the creating, the letting go, the grief. The long, uncertain waiting. The choice to start again, offering what little we have, in all of our broken voices, languages, histories. A room full of people, side by side, facing in the same direction, trusting that there will be music. There will always be music, if only we wait for it.

 

Editor's Note: Lines in italics are lyrics from songs sung at Taizé. The texts of the songs of Taizé copyright © Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, 71250 Taizé, France. This article was produced with the support of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

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