Taizé Community Marks 70 Years
The first seven brothers, all of whom were Protestant, committed themselves on Easter Day in 1949 to celibacy and community life lived in great simplicity. In the silence of a long retreat in 1952-53 Brother Roger wrote the Rule of Taizé. Monasticism was slowly re-entering the bloodstream of European Reform-church Protestantism.
Not surprisingly, Catholics—both familiar and comfortable with this form of Christian living—began to present themselves as well. And so what has come to be called a “parable of community” and a “parable of reconciliation” began to take shape. To the diversity of the various Christian denominations was added the diversity of nations. Today, of the 100 or so brothers who form the community, approximately thirty countries and all continents are represented.
The Community’s Development
The aroma of authentic gospel living went out, and people began to come. Already by the end of the 1950s, young people were finding their way to Taizé in increasing numbers. From 1962 on, brothers and young people sent by Taizé began to come and go quietly and with discretion in the countries of Eastern Europe. In the West, Brother Roger saw that the political activism of the late 1960s among youth did not go deep enough. On the one hand, they were fleeing institutions, deserting parishes and movements; and on the other, they demonstrated a thirst for God, friendship, and a quest for purpose in life.
In 1970 at Easter, with 2500 young adults present, Bro. Roger called for a Council of Youth that was launched four years later with 50,000 participants. Since then, Taizé has also played a key role in terms of grassroots organization for the World Youth Days, and its International Meetings, held between Christmas and New Year’s in different European countries, have drawn up to 100,000 from around the world.
I have watched the community’s attraction and outreach—and with it their on-site Church of the Reconciliation--expand over the past thirty years. In my first visit there in 1980, western Europeans and North Americans accounted for most of the crowd, and big circus-like tents extended off the back of the church (which the founder feared was too large when it was built but which had already proved too small.)
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in the second half of the ‘80s, Eastern Europeans began coming in busloads. In the early-to-mid ‘90s I noted new dormitories with Eastern European architectural motifs, built to provide another option for pilgrims to the small city of backpacker’s tents in the open field across from the church and gathering areas. Pilgrims from Asia, Africa and Latin America were finding their way as well to this hilltop in the Burgundian countryside.
One of Brother Roger’s books is entitled The Dynamism of the Provisional. Nothing serves as a better metaphor for it than the way the church itself on the grounds of Taizé has evolved over the years. The big-top tents off the back of the concrete nave gave way to temporary siding walls. These in turn have given way to split-log exterior walls, and a roof topped with the onion-domes associated with Slavic church architecture. The Church of the Reconciliation-- half constructed in Western church style and half in Eastern-- now offers a striking visual metaphor of the “two lungs” with which the universal church must breathe for a fully vitalized existence.
A Work of Grace Defying Easy Categorization
One can only be amazed. Here, on a hilltop in the countryside outside a village so small it is not even on most maps of France, is this community that has no confessional identity, no canonical status or juridical constitution. It is not trying to corral anyone. It is not a church and it even resists becoming a movement. It only wants to be a sign of the Church and a way into it. It only wants to witness to the one Church that is the secret bedrock of all the churches. It just wants to say that unity is not something to be built but something to be discovered. It simply seeks to embrace the gospel and live its essential message that we are reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Its message to all those from different races, cultures, languages and denominations, is simply: “Come and see. Christ destroys every separating wall.”
In his Letter for the European Youth Meeting in Milan in 1998 Brother Roger wrote: “Without reconciliation, what future is there for this unique communion of love called ‘Church’? Ecumenism becomes immobile when it creates parallels which do not become joined and which ends by exhausting the resources of energy for reconciliation. It is like two trains traveling on parallel tracks. From time to time they stop and allow an encounter and then everyone gets back on their own train. When the ecumenical vocation does not concretize itself in reconciliation, it goes nowhere and the flame is extinguished.” That daily concretization of reconciliation in lived experience is what makes Taizé a parable of community.
But it would be a mistake to think that the reconciliation of Christians is the goal. It would be truer to cast it as a step towards the ultimate goal which concerns the entire human family, not just Christians. The goal is to live as people who are reconciled in order to be a leaven of peace where humanity suffers and where people are in conflict. Thus do some of the Taizé brothers live among the poor in various countries simply as a sign of God’s love. The ultimate goal is the reason-for-being of the Church: to be a sacrament of God in the midst of the world offering a communion of love to every human being.
A School of Prayer
The brothers of Taizé have, over the years, evolved a very simple formula to which they remain utterly faithful. And that formula reflects a central truth for every religion: the experience of God is first. And in offering an experience of transcendence in prayer and worship to young people within the context of church and Christian faith, the Taizé community is in the vanguard of the new evangelization. Young people who may know little about personal prayer or liturgy are introduced to both.
Today, spirituality—the impulse to seek communion with the Divine—is thriving. Increasingly, people define themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Healthy spirituality, however, leads to religion within whose province falls the concrete texts, rituals, symbols and sacraments that embody the encounter with the Divine. Generally those who come to Taizé are invited to stay for a week, culminating in the visually rich and powerful celebrations of the weekend where every Friday is Good Friday with prayer around the cross, every Saturday is Holy Saturday with a vigil service by candlelight and chanting, and every Sunday is Easter Sunday with a celebration of the eucharist.
There are, of course, some awkward anomalies in a worshipping community made up of people from backgrounds across the Christian spectrum. Daily mass is celebrated in the church crypt at 7:15 a.m.(open to any, but on the early side for the young), and consecrated bread and wine from this eucharist is distributed at certain stations by some of the brothers at the end of the 8:15 a.m. morning prayer service, while elements consecrated at a Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper are made available at other stations. It is an obvious effort to be faithful to the disciplines of the churches from which they come. There are some secondary anomalies that will only be rectified with the healing of the primary anomaly: the scandalous and still-existing divisions between our churches.
While the sense of the universal is there, at the same time, the identity of each person is preserved. The differences of nationality and church background are an occasion of mutual enrichment and acceptance. This is where the parable of community and reconciliation come clear: the divided Church remains the one Church. By their common life, the brothers allow the undivided Church to become visible, not only as a distant memory of the first millennium but as a reality which is there today and needs to be rediscovered and made increasingly visible. This is the best experience Christian faith has to offer: simple communion in love.
To support young adults in their search for meaning and purpose, the Taizé community has launched a “pilgrimage of trust on earth”. This pilgrimage stimulates them to be bearers of peace, reconciliation, and trust in their towns, their universities, the places where they work, and in their parishes. As a stage in this pilgrimage of trust on earth, a five-day European meeting at the end of each year brings several tens of thousands of young people to a city in eastern or western Europe.
“When I was young,” Brother Roger once said in an interview on the community’s development, “I was astonished to see Christians talking about a God of love while at the same time wasting so much energy in justifying oppositions. And I said to myself: To communicate Christ, is there anything more transparent than a life that is given, a life where day after day reconciliation is accomplished concretely?
“Since then, this intuition has never left me: a life in community could be a sign that God is love. Little by little, the conviction grew within me that it was essential to create a community with men who would give their whole life, and who would seek to understand each other and to live continually in communion; a community where goodness of heart and simplicity would be at the center of everything.
“It is urgent to do all we can so that a new breath of communion spreads out as far as possible. It is fundamental for Christians to enter on the way opened by Christ when he says: ‘Go first and be reconciled’ (Mt 5:24). ‘Go first!’, not: ‘Put it off until later’.”*
* Meditations by Brother Roger in Taizé: Openings Paths of Trust (Taizé Press, 2003), 29-32
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC