A man of peace cut down
The murder this week of Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taizé
community, shocked Christians everywhere. But his vision will still
The violent assassination of Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the
Taizé Community, on Tuesday 16 August, was all the more ironic in
that he was such a man of peace, an artisan of reconciliation. It was
8.45 p.m. during the evening prayer in the Church of Reconciliation,
led by the frail 90-year-old monk, when a Romanian woman of 36
stabbed him in the back and the neck. He died shortly afterwards
while his aggressor was taken into custody.
Many voicies were raised in tribute to this remarkable man. Pope
Benedict XVI spoke of his “great sadness” and Brother Aloïs, who was
representing Taizé at the World Youth Day in Cologne, said that the
news of Brother Roger’s death had produced consternation among the
participants, who immediately “offered prayers for this outstanding
personality”. Brother Aloïs, a German Catholic of 51 who was
designated by Brother Roger eight years ago to succeed him,
immediately left Germany for Taizé.
The success story of this Protestant “monastery” is the unlikely
story of a determined man, Roger Schutz, and of his impossible dream:
the reconciliation of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
How did his little community of companions, both Protestant and
Catholic, who settled in a small village in Burgundy in 1940, become
the European ecumenical pastoral youth centre which it is today,
visited by 6,000 adolescents each week and 100,000 pilgrims every
year, from every part of the world? The programme is austere –
worship three times a day in the hangar-like church (built by young
volunteers), Bible study and discussion groups – and the lifestyle
spartan – sleeping rough in tents or barracks, simple food hastily
consumed after queuing at length to be served.
And yet, the young continue to flock to Taizé. And not only the
young. In spite of initial suspicion by church leaders, these also
finally succumbed to the magic of the colline inspirée (inspired
hill) where the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny had flourished before.
Pope John Paul II visited Taizé in 1986, followed in 1989 by
representatives of the French Protestant Federation. The Secretary-
General of the World Council of Churches, Emilio Castro, came in
1990, and the same year, Cardinal Decourtray, Primate of the Gaules.
Two years later, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, led a
group of 1,000 young Anglicans. Roger Schutz’s dream had come true.
The son of a Swiss Protestant pastor, he followed in his father’s
footsteps, and it was during his theological studies in Lausanne that
he decided to create an ecumenical community whose evangelical aim
was “the reconciliation of all Christians”. He chose the abandoned
village of Taizé because of its proximity to Cluny and because he
could help the Jews fleeing persecution on their way to Switzerland.
He bought two derelict houses, but was forced to leave in 1942, after
being denounced to the Vichy regime. He returned in 1944 with a group
of like-minded companions. “I discovered my Christian identity by
reconciling within myself my Protestant origins and my faith in the
Catholic Church,” he explained.
He found a friend and supporter in Abbé Paul Couturier (1881-1953), a
priest in Lyons who had set up ecumenical meetings between priests
and pastors – unheard of in those days – and launched the Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity. Roger Schutz’s community grew rapidly.
The seven brothers at the start became 12 in 1950, 65 in 1965, 90 at
the end of the last century and over 120 today. In 1969, the
president of the French hierarchy, Cardinal Marty, had authorised
Catholics to join the community.
Today, Catholics are in the majority and many Protestants feel that
Roger Schutz betrayed his origins. It is true that Brother Roger was
on excellent terms with the Catholic authorities. He and his second
in command, the theologian Brother Max Thurian (who later became a
Catholic), were invited to attend the Second Vatican Council as
observers, by John XXIII, who spoke fondly of “the little spring of
Taizé”. Brother Roger defended clerical celibacy and accepted
the “universal ministry of the papacy” in the perspective of
Christian unity. Although intercommunion is forbidden at Taizé – only
Catholic priests are permitted to celebrate the Eucharist – observers
pointed out that Brother Roger received Communion at the hands of
Cardinal Ratzinger at John Paul II’s funeral.
What then is the secret of Taizé? Why do thousands of young people
who have deserted Sunday Mass in their parish churches choose to
spend their holidays in the uncongenial surroundings of a remote
French village, where the living is rough and the spiritual fare
uncompromising? No charismatic prayers here or emotional healing
sessions. No Woodstock-type sing-songs or camp-fire camaraderie. The
services are sober, with long periods of meditation and silence, but
the music is uplifting.
As Victoria Clark wrote (The Tablet, 19 August 2000): “The music
beginning each of the three short daily church services and
continuing afterwards creates an impression of a perpetual round of
worship, similar to the equally music-based ritual practised in the
Middle Ages by the monks of the great monastery of Cluny nearby.”
I think one reason for Taizé’s success is the very fact that it makes
no concessions to the young. They are treated as free agents, as
adults. They mistrust political parties and organised religion. At
Taizé, they are free to worship and to discuss their problems,
without any pressure being brought to bear. Above all, they meet
other young people from all over the world. They can exchange ideas,
criticise the consumer society, globalisation and the world’s
problems. And they can dream of creating a counter-culture, which
rejects both Western capitalism and the religious intolerance that
leads to extremism and terrorism. Taizé is tuned to developing
countries. It fosters the idealism shared by so many young people
A second reason for Taizé’s attraction was the undoubted charisma of
its founder, Brother Roger: a mild, childlike figure, who dreamed
impossible dreams, but was also astute enough to draw boundaries
around his community and steer it away from commitments to revolution
or violence. He had a gift for language, beautiful ideas and moving
prayers. He began founding Taizé communities in poor countries, but
disbanded them if they became political or violent. He diverted the
discontent of the May 1968 generation into more acceptable spiritual
channels. He launched the Council of Youth in 1974, but ensured that
it remain idealistic and broad. The opening session was attended by
an Anglican bishop, an Orthodox Metropolitan bishop, the Secretary of
the World Council of Churches and five cardinals.
He was accepted so readily by the institutional Churches because he
posed no real threat to their authority. It is not surprising that he
was awarded the Unesco Prize for education for peace in 1988, the
Karlspreis in 1989 and the Robert Schuman Prize for European Unity in
1992. His martyr’s death at the age of 90 is a sadly ironical twist
and tragic end to a remarkable career.
Alain Woodrow writes from France for The Tablet.