Witnesses: Brother Roger Schutz, Taizé “That little springtime”

He founded the Taizé Community, an ecumenical monastic community in Burgundy, France. He was killed during evening prayers in Taizé on August 16, 2005. It was to young people that Brother Roger devoted his life, and in whom he saw the greatest hope for the future. 

Roger Schutz was born in the Jura, the north-western Swiss canton that butts into France and is close to the southern border of Germany. Roger may have lived in a neutral country in World War I, but it was also a country comprising German, French and Italian cultural groups, giving rise to tensions despite the country’s official neutral status. His French Huguenot grandmother suffered the privations of war at her home in Burgundy.

It did seem that he was following a conventional Protestant pathway when he was ordained in the Swiss Reformed Church ministry like his father. However, with the second and even more catastrophic war of the 20th century underway, Schutz left the neutrality of Switzerland at the age of 25 to go to France to start a Christian community that would seek to make reconciliation among Christians its model.

Setting up a Christian community in a war zone smacks of idealism but not of practicality, and yet with his sister Genevieve, he set up shop and provided something of immense practicality – a safe house for refugees, particularly abandoned children and members of the Jewish community who were increasingly persecuted by the Nazi regime.

The house – two derelict houses, in fact – was in a little village called Taizé – scarcely on the map of 1940 – near the doubly emblematic Abbey of Cluny, which was a few miles from the demarcation line drawn up on June 22, 1940, that separated France into two zones. To the south was the ‘Free Zone; to the north, the ‘German Occupation Zone’. Due east was ‘home’ – the neutrality of a Switzerland Schutz had turned his back on to create a monastic-style house where, he wrote, “kindness of heart would be a matter of practical experience and where love would be at the heart of all things.”

The ‘Free Zone’ was governed just down the road from Taizé at Vichy. Although Paris was still the official capital, Vichy was where Marshal Philippe Main governed ‘Free France’- but, of course, this quickly became a puppet government controlled by the Germans. Someone unhappy with Schutz’ presence denounced the fledgling little community to the Vichy government and Schutz and his sister fled to Geneva with the Gestapo on their trail in 1942.

It could so easily have been the end of the ideal, but Brother Schutz and three fellow theologians made private vows and went back to Taizé in 1944 to set up the kind of community Schutz had never lost sight of – a community with emphasis on ecumenism.

On Easter Day, 1949, the community made a public dedication to a life of celibacy, community of possessions, and simplicity of life.

The village church had been abandoned. Schutz and his tiny community had asked to use it. They were given permission by none less than Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the then papal nuncio in Paris who would later become Pope John XXIII. Schutz was to say: “I discovered my Christian identity by reconciling within myself my Protestant origins and my faith in the Catholic Church.”

It was his life’s work to try to find out, and he was to do it within the concepts of the Taizé  community, which never sought official recognition but certainly was recognised by the leaders of both Protestant and Catholic traditions even while the ‘Establishment’ figures of those traditions were deeply sceptical about its intentions.

By 1950, there were twelve brothers. In 1965, the movement had grown to 65, and in the year Schiltz was murdered (2005), there were more than 100 members of the community. With his ‘faith in the Catholic Church’, it was perhaps inevitable that Taizé embraced Catholicism, to the extent that it was accused of selling out to the Catholics.

It was an easy misreading of Schutz’ intentions. After all, in 1969, Cardinal Francois Marty, leader of the Church in France, had authorised Catholics to join the Taizé community.

Cardinal Marty, it has to be said, could be regarded as another maverick figure – in his case in the French Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII asked him for guidance at the outset of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 on a number of reforms to the Church, including bringing the Gospel to the working class. He was Archbishop of Paris after the 1968 students’ riots, later joined by factory workers and led the Church in France’s attempt at a positive reaction to the echoes of the both anarchist and revolutionary calls. As Cardinal, he made a point of contrasting the issue of giving financial aid to the poor with the lavish lifestyle of some figures in the Catholic Church.

Of course, when Pope John XXIII was papal nuncio in France, he had called Taizé “That little springtime”, and in 1962 had invited Schutz to attend the Second Vatican Council as an observer with his fellow brother, Max Thurian, who later did become a Catholic.

So it was perhaps natural that the French Protestant Federation was less than enthusiastic about Schnitz and Taizé, especially after Pope John Paul II made his own pilgrimage to the community in 1986, “impelled by an interior need”. Schutz and Karol Wojtyla had met as still young men (when Wojtyla was the auxiliary bishop in Krakow) in 1962 at the Second Vatican Council. As Archbishop of Krakow, he visited Taizé twice – and as Pope, John Paul received his friend Brother Roger in private audience every year.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II made an official visit to France. Having carried out official duties in Lyon, he detoured to Taizé, where 7000 young people were accommodated in tents around the community’s Church of Reconciliation. Because of dense fog, the Pope had to travel by car rather than helicopter, and entering the church, he sat down to tell those youngsters why he was there.

He said: “One passes through Taizé as one passes close to a spring of water. The traveller stops, quenches his thirst and continues on his way. The brothers of the community, you know, do not want to keep you. They want, in prayer and silence, to enable you to drink the living water promised by Christ, to know his joy, to discern his presence, to respond to his call, then to set out again to witness to his love and to serve your brothers and sisters in your parishes, your schools, your universities, and in all your places of work.”

When Pope John Paul II left Taizé that day in 1986, his message focused on Brother Roger’s ecumenical intentions. Part of that message read: “You know how much I personally consider ecumenism a necessity incumbent upon me, a pastoral priority in my ministry for which I count on your prayer. By desiring to be yourselves a ‘parable of community’, you will help all whom you meet to be faithful to their denominational ties, the fruit of their education and their choice in conscience, but also to enter more and more deeply into the mystery of communion that the Church is in God’s plan.”

It was a troubled young Romanian woman named Luminita Ruxandra Solcan who stabbed Schutz during evening prayers in Taizé on August 16, 2005. The President of Germany, Horst Kohler, and the then French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended the funeral, at which Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, concelebrated Mass with four priest-brothers of Taizé .

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. 

(Marian Pallister)