There is a profound irony in the violent and bloody death of Brother Roger Schutz, founder and prior of the Taizé community in eastern France. Brother Roger, who had dedicated his life to peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, was stabbed in the neck on Tuesday evening whilst at prayer in the vast concrete church at the heart of the ecumenical community which he began 65 years ago.
Born into a Swiss Protestant family in 1915, he grew up in Geneva, one of two boys with seven sisters. He studied to be a pastor but, as he was to write later, "was astonished to see Christians who, talking about a God of love, wasted so much energy in justifying division". In 1940 he set off for France by bicycle, seeking a house where he could pray and welcome others. Three others of like mind were soon to join him in the quiet rural village of Taizé with its tiny medieval church.
The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness ran through the life - and mission - of the community that developed. In the earliest days, as the Second World War raged in Europe, Roger and his co-founders sheltered Jews and others fleeing the Nazis. More recently, the community welcomed groups from Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Bosnia, always seeking to encourage them to put the bitterness and hatred of the past behind them.
Young people began to arrive at the community in the late 1950s, to share for a short time in the community life of prayer, reflection and meditation. Since its inception, the community crossed denominational boundaries, with prayers three times a day reflecting Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions, and the brothers of Taizé included lay and ordained men from many different Christian denominations. The melodic, repetitive chants used in the prayer services have become known the world over.
Brother Roger was always anxious to preserve the simplicity and calm of the community. As the numbers of pilgrims grew, developers, perhaps with the Catholic shrine at Lourdes in mind, began discussing possibilities for hotels in and around Taizé. He made it clear that he could not prevent them building - but promised that he and the community would simply move away as soon as the hotels were opened. Similarly, when the local village shop began to sell plastic figurines of the brothers in their white habits, he marched in, bought the lot and put them straight in the bin.
He was a prolific author, with his books and journals being translated into many languages and countlessly reprinted. Among some of the best-known are Festival: ta fête soit san fin (1973; translated into English as Festival, 1974), Lutte et Contemplation (1973; Struggle and Contemplation, 1974), Parable of Community (1980), Vivre l'aujourd'hui de Dieu (1959; Living Today for God, 1961), Violence des Pacifiques (1968; Violent for Peace, 1970).
He also co-wrote with Mother Teresa of Calcutta Marie, Mère de Réconciliations (1987; Mary, Mother of Reconciliation, 1994). He was the recipient of a number of prestigious international prizes and awards including the Templeton Prize (1974) and the 1996 Notre Dame Award for international humanitarian assistance.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Brother Roger was the greatest advocate of reconciliation between the Christian Churches since the painful divisions of the Reformation. He earned the respect, admiration and love of church leaders of all denominations. He was one of only a few non-Catholic observers at the Second Vatican Council in Rome during the late 1960s; Pope John XXIII described Taizé as "that little springtime". Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II both visited Taizé and welcomed Brother Roger to Rome. He was a frequent visitor to the World Council of Churches.
The more significant legacy, though, is perhaps to be felt in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of the young people who flocked to Taizé and to the international gatherings organised each year by the community throughout the world since 1978. These gatherings were an opportunity for young people to gather together and experience the simple life of the community; an opportunity to encounter and pray with people who shared an aspiration for a peaceful life: whether those people came from the opposite side of the world or the opposite side of a bitter sectarian divide.
It was to young people that Brother Roger devoted his life, and in whom he saw the greatest hope for the future. In a letter written before the international gathering of young people in Hamburg in 2003, he said, as he had said so many times before, that young people all across the earth carried within them a yearning for peace, for communion and for joy.
"They are also mindful of the untold suffering of the innocent," he wrote.
They know all too well that poverty in the world is on the rise. It is not only the leaders of nations who build the world of tomorrow. The most obscure and humble people can play a part in bringing about a future of peace and trust. However powerless we may seem to be, God enables us to bring reconciliation where there are oppositions, and hope where there is anxiety. God calls us to make his compassion for human beings accessible by the way we live.
Paulinus BarnesReuse content