Interview with Cardinal Kasper Three Years After the Death of Brother Roger
The monk, symbol of spiritual ecumenism
Three years ago, 16 August 2005, during evening prayer, Brother Roger, founder and prior of the Taizé Community, was assassinated by a deranged woman. He had recently celebrated his 90th birthday. The President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity recalls that figure in this interview for L'Osservatore Romano on 15 August 2008.
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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 slaughterhouse, like a sheep dumb before its shearers, he never opened his mouth" (Is 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 rumours of a secret conversion to Catholicism. One of the reasons those rumours 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. 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 St. 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 St 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.
I am happy to see that the young adults who fill the tents of Taizé each summer come from different countries of Western and Eastern Europe, and some from other continents, that they belong to different communities of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox tradition, that they are often accompanied by their own priests or pastors.
A number of young people who come to Taizé are from countries that have experienced civil wars or violent internal conflicts, often in a still recent past. Others come from regions that suffered for several decades under the yoke of a materialistic ideology. Still others, who perhaps represent the majority, live in societies deeply marked by secularization and religious indifference.
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" (Mt 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.
Weekly Edition in English
27 August 2008, page 13
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