Remembering Brother Roger of Taizé

Roger Schutz, the founder of the Taizé Community–and its leading light over the past sixty years of its existence–died unexpectedly and violently in late August. A deranged person killed him with a knife just as the Community was gathering for evening prayers at the Church of Reconciliation on the Taizé grounds. It is with the utmost revulsion and shock that one thinks of this gentle giant of world Christianity, and a leader in the fields of church unity, social justice, and reconciliation, dying with his throat cut in his own church. There is something terribly wrong with this ending to a remarkable life. As of the time of this writing I can neither explain nor accept that this tragic event was part of a divine plan. Perhaps, as the old song says, “further along I’ll know more about it,” but today his death and the manner of it remain a moral puzzle to me. Yet if we can get past the manner of his death for now, I think we could honor Roger Schutz’s life and work if some reflection were to go on in the larger Reformed community about how this outstanding Reformed servant-leader responded to the events of the twentieth century. He was one of God’s special ones among us. He was known alike to popes, presidents and the poorest of the poor by his vocation, brother, and by his first name, Roger.

I saw Brother Roger only once, and from a distance, during a visit to Taizé, located in the rolling hills of Burgundy in France. A recent commentator on his life admitted to some annoyance at the “theatrical” way Roger would engineer his entrance to the community gatherings. I admit to being a bit star-struck on my one day of joining several hundred others in his presence. Yes, it was a dramatic moment when the whisper through the throng acknowledged that “he” was there. But I didn’t see anything particularly wrong with it. His tall, lean good looks played down the appearance of age. He was, in both senses of the word, a man full of grace, both physical and spiritual.

Brother Roger would want us to direct attention away from him and toward the Way of the Cross, as he would have said. He led a Eucharistic life of monastic discipline with his colleagues–life characterized by prayer and worship. I realize that many readers of this short piece will themselves not be able to travel to France to experience worship in the incomparable setting of Taizé. Brother Roger But people in North America can experience the Taizé style of worship because many churches in the Reformed family regularly offer services in the Taizé model. If a reader of this piece has not already done so, I encourage you to attend such a service where you can be drawn in by the wonderful music of Jacques Berthier. A small personal testimony: at my funeral one day, all present will join in singing Brother Jacques’ round “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Those more theologically inclined will want to consult the work of another founding brother, Max Thurian, whose writings have had considerable influence in, and on, the ecumenical movement. But, despite Roger’s wishes, the main focus of this piece should be on him, the main leader of the Taizé movement world wide, a man who was trusted by the young and poor, but was also the confidante of the leaders of world Christianity.

Roger Schutz had not always been in the company of the great and the good. He was born into a modest Swiss family burdened by financial insecurity. His father’s salary as a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church was stretched by the needs of a family of eleven. Charles and Amelie Schutz had nine children, seven daughters and two sons. Roger, the youngest child, was born in 1915. He recalls evenings at home often spent reading aloud to each other. One of the family favorites was St. Beuve’s history of the Jansenist Community at Port-Royal. It was not so much the theology of Jansenism that attracted Roger (though he appreciated it) but the reality that a community of dedicated women could accomplish so much and have such influence on so many others in Europe. Later on, in his studies at Lausanne University, Roger was attracted to the idea of community. His thesis was entitled “The Idea of Monastic Life before Saint Benedict and its Conformity to the Gospels.” A Christian life in community was to be the idea that guided his life.

The Second World War broke out in Europe just as he was about to begin university. As a Swiss citizen there was no question about his military participation. But, as a compassionate Christian, and an anti-Fascist, he was eager to help the Allied cause in some meaningful way. At that time he wrote, “The defeat of France awoke a powerful sympathy. If a house could be found there, it would offer a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of livelihood; and, it could become a place of silence and work.” We will pass over the story of how the particular house in the Burgundian town of Taizé was to come into his hands: it is that kind of miracle that stretches credulity even for those inclined to accept “providence” on face value. Yet even the most down-to-earth among us will admit that Roger Schutz’s work in Taizé was “meant” to be.

In his house in Taizé Roger determined to pray and to wait for people to come by his door. During the war he aided many people in distress or on the run. He never asked questions about whom he aided. He was to be a servant who asked nothing in return. In fact, many Jews received help at Roger’s home. After a time of refuge there, they were helped to safety in Switzerland.

Brother Roger was proud of his Reformed heritage, and he often talked about it as one of the main sources of strength in his life.   Brother Roger was proud of his Reformed heritage; but he felt that a divided church was a hindrance to the gospel message.  But in the context of the tumultuous events of the twentieth century, he felt called to transcend his origins, and to engage in a life dedicated to peace and reconciliation, as much between churches as between nations and peoples. In this regard he joined many others in the post-war period in thinking that a divided church was a hindrance to the gospel message and a direct contradiction of Christ’s wish that his followers be united.

As the community at Taizé evolved, the first years saw brothers join the Community from Reformed and Lutheran churches, the natural constituency of Taizé. Later, Anglican brother were received. Now there are many denominations represented among the brothers. But as to Roman Catholics, Taizé was nearly thirty years old before that barrier was broken, and in 1969 the first Catholic joined the Community. In fact, the relationship of Taizé and, for that matter, all ecumenical organizations, to the Catholic Church remains problematic. Even if we try to put the best face on it, the Catholic Church was, and is, a reluctant player in ecumenical matters, always hedging its participation with a number of conditions. This was a deep concern to Brother Roger, and an occasion of sadness for him. But he nevertheless kept an upbeat attitude toward, and an open door to, the largest Christian denomination. It is worthy of note that Roger’s chosen successor as leader of Taizé is Brother Alois, a Roman Catholic.

On the personal level, Roger Schutz showed me an attitude that would, in an important way, guide my life. I never felt moved by an evangelical desire to go out to find people to serve. Consciously following Brother Roger’s example, I have made myself available to those who crossed my path, those who came to my door. As a college teacher for some thirty-five years now, I have tried to pay respectful attention to my students and to be particularly attentive to those who actually knocked on my door. Some of t
he freshmen were not always in the guise of angels (the guys with the baseball caps turned backwards[!]), but all were welcomed–and I hope served–as though they were angels unaware.

Brother Roger had a particular vocation to young people. He enjoyed their company as much as they his. He once remarked, with mixed delight and surprise, about the word-of-mouth network throughout Europe that, for young people committed to peace and justice, to reconciliation and church unity, Taizé was an important place to be connected. As the years went by, a constant stream of young people wanted to come to Taizé, always culminating in a large gathering at Holy Week. This was as unplanned as everything else at Taizé: thousands of young people from many countries just turned up and camped out on the grounds.

As to enduring significance, Brother Roger’s journals have been edited and published. Even though somewhat expensive, they would be a good addition to a church library. But some think that Roger’s best writing was in the form of his annual letter, an open letter to the worldwide Taizé community. It emerged from his discussion with young people, and it would center on their concerns. Roger would begin the letter towards the end of the year, and then finish it at year’s end while sharing the living conditions of the poorest of the poor in some part of the world. The letter was given the name of the place where Roger finished it: his “Letter from Haiti” (1983) was written during his stay in a shantytown outside Portau-Prince. His “Letter from Madras” (1985) was written during his stay in a very poor section of that city. Listen to a fragment from the Madras letter:

If you are dismayed by the mistrust between nations and by the wounds left by broken human relationships…are you going to let yourself sink into discouragement like Elijah, who seeing that he could do nothing more for his people, lay down under a tree to fall asleep and forget? Or will you remain awake? You have a long journey ahead of you. Will you take your place among those who have decided to act? By their very simplicity their lives speak to us. They foster sharing and solidarity, and they dispel the paralysis of indifference. They disarm mistrust and hatred. They are bearers of trust and reconciliation.

The ninety-year life of Roger Schutz ended this past August in a cruel act of violence that violated the entire spirit in which that life had been lived. Even so, as we look back at this remarkable life–a treasure that the Reformed family of churches gave world Christianity–we know he would not want us to dwell on that final moment of madness. Rather, he would bid us to remember a whole and grace-filled life in which he was willing to take the risks of trust and reconciliation that go with being a follower of the One who risked all in the Way of the Cross.

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.