Perhaps more than in previous years, the European meeting was noticed and understood far beyond religious circles. “Christian Europe from Copenhagen to Taizé,” “The united Europe of young Christians in Taizé,” “The young people of Taizé will make Europe,” “Paris, capital of trust.” These were the headlines in several important French newspapers.
For the curious observer, the new geography of a wider Europe became visible early in the morning of Saturday December 28th along the large boulevards of Paris. Hundreds of coaches came to the areas near the Paris Expo at the Porte de Versailles and the Montparnasse train station, to drop off the crowds of young people who had come for the twenty-fifth stage in the pilgrimage of trust on earth. There were 2000 from Serbia, 4000 Romanians, 1000 Ukrainians, several hundred Russians, to mention only those from faraway lands.
Those who did not have time to read the newspapers were astonished to see people singing in the metro without asking for money. “Why are you here? What brought you to Paris at this time of year?”
It was not so easy to answer this question: what could a “pilgrimage of trust” mean in a society where it is hard to imagine that signs have the power to change daily life?
Don’t build your life on fear!
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in a radio interview he gave on December 30th after the evening prayer, tried to answer that question: “We are living at a time which is dominated by fear, the fear of terrorism, of poverty, of all forms of evil. And in Taizé there is no fear. The first teaching of Taizé for me is: ‘Don’t be afraid!’ ‘Don’t build your life on fear!’ Peace is the end of conflict, the end of fear. In the gathering around Taizé I see a kind of prophetic anticipation of what we wish to see in the institutions of the world.”
“Don’t be afraid!” That is not only the first words of one of the new songs in French. It may be the first French phrase that the young volunteers from over ten different nationalities had to learn, those who were in Paris to prepare the hospitality with the 350 parishes and congregations of all denominations in Paris and the surrounding region. For several months, hundreds of visits made to parishes echoed this Gospel call.
Trust begins with small things. Who would have imagined during the first visits in September that, in spite of all the uncertainties, 40,000 places for participants would be found in families? A young volunteer recalled the first announcement he made, at the end of Mass in a parish on the outskirts of the city, to invite people to look for places to house the pilgrims. “80,000 of them will be coming, maybe more, no one knows. You don’t know them, but it’s good to offer them hospitality and to go visit families you don’t know so that they too can welcome young people you don’t know!”
“A kind of prophetic anticipation of what we wish to see in the institutions of the world,” as Paul Ricoeur put it. Approximately 150 town governments offered the free use of one or more gymnasiums as accommodations for those who could not stay with families. Some of them had to deal with the daily problems of low-income, rundown neighborhoods. At Garges-les-Gonesse, the preparation team, made up of three girls of African and Indian background, said that, when they arrived on December 28th, the Polish were extremely surprised to see that only one of the host families was white. “They discreetly asked a woman of the parish if all these people were French, and they were even more surprised when she said yes. Many host families were originally from Sri Lanka, because a few Catholic families had managed to get the whole community involved, even the Hindus.”
The European meeting is a simple way to make visits, as if everyone were neighbors. Some people were very struck by this dimension of rediscovering social bonds.
During the mornings spent in the local congregations to share signs of hope with the people of the neighborhood, several preparation teams had the idea of asking the mayor or one of the town councilors to talk about his or her involvement in political and social life. This is surprising in a country marked so strongly by a very strict idea of the separation of church and state. At Ivry sur Seine, where the Communists have been in charge since the 1930s, the 400 young people welcomed there had a meeting one morning with the mayor. “I felt that the Europe of twenty-five countries was already becoming a reality. Among these young people, there will be some who will have an impact in their respective countries. If this Taizé meeting can lead to a common awareness concerning Europe, it’s important.”
Also in Ivry, the youth of the Catholic parish wanted to illustrate in different ways the commitment made by men and women who attempt to serve others. Kamel, who leads a theater group made up mainly of young people of North African background, explains, “On Tuesday morning we welcomed about thirty young people. The discussion was captivating. It motivated fifteen members of our group to attend the New Year’s Eve festival in the parish. Everything worked well; they felt welcome. The following days we talked about it some more; they were enthusiastic. We would like to continue along these lines and do things this year in common with the young people of the student parish.”
“Why are you here?” Bishop Daucourt of the diocese of Nanterre replied, “These meetings remind us that the Church does not exist for itself. It exists for the world, to be a bearer and a sign of that communion that Jesus wanted to create, not just among Christians, but among all the people of the world.” In Paris there was an atmosphere of festival, created by a Church that had no other desire than to be welcoming and to be a sign of communion. By their simple presence, the participants in the meeting were able to reveal the existence of a sincere and profound search. Olivier Clément, the Orthodox theologian, wrote an article about the Paris meeting in a French newspaper. “From Taizé’s perspective,” he wrote, “the Church is called to become what it already is in its depths—the land of the living.”
Liberate the underlying goodness
“Peace is not just the absence of war; it is not a peace treaty. Peace is a state of non-conflict, the suspension of conflict. It is a mutually recognized state of goodness, and that is what one experiences in Taizé. Thanks to Taizé, it can be understood that the basic function of religion is to liberate the hidden goodness of others, to liberate the underlying goodness, that is what we should say…” Paul Ricoeur spoke these words in the same radio interview.
At the heart of the meeting is set the prayer. Repeated three times a day, like the rhythmic breathing of the Good News, it prepares the most concrete steps toward peace in the search for peace of heart. “Begin the work of peace in yourselves,” said Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan in the fifth century, “so that once you are at peace, you can bring peace to others.”
Jean, who was part of one of the preparation teams in Paris, says, “Despite all the work a parish preparation team has to do, I was able to free myself to go to the Porte de Versailles for the times of prayer and the afternoon program. If I had to sum up those prayers, I would use two words: beauty and simplicity. The beauty of the prayer spaces was such that you could enter easily into a dialogue with God. This year, the large paintings took up the motifs of the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Chartres or the Sainte Chapelle. You found yourself starting to count the number of prayers still remaining in the meeting, like a child who counts the number of vacation days left before school begins again.”
Cardinal Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, came one evening to greet the participants. “For Europe, whose peoples received in the past the joy of the Gospel, you are messengers sent by Christ. Heal the wounds of the past. Where hatred was rampant, show the force of love. Go forward boldly towards the future.” Jean-Arnold de Clermont, the president of the Protestant Federation of France, took part in one of the evening prayers, and the different Orthodox Churches of the region participated in the welcome of the young people.
Liberate the underlying goodness, in oneself and in others… During the afternoons, specific ways of going further with this reflection and putting it into practice were proposed. “There is happiness in responding to God’s call.” “A Gospel challenge: loving one’s enemies.” “God chooses not to remain hidden—a mystery of love glimpsed in icons.” “Struggling against poverty in our own country.” “Is there a hope for peace today? (Discussion led by an expert in international questions.)” “Violence affects the young: how can we react?”
Several initiatives were offered to make it possible to join those who, for one reason or another, could not or dared not come to the meeting. Visits to prisons, rest homes, hospitals, a meeting with the staff of the Jeanne Garnier Home, a place where the terminally ill are welcomed…
The afternoon of December 29th, the young people at Trappes met traveling people living in a camp not far from the Catholic student parish, where the women of this community get together. Aurélie, a young student from the East of France, explains, “Once we were in the train going towards Trappes, many questions came to our mind: we refer to the traveling people as gypsies; their rhythm of life is set by travels in caravans and especially as a family.
But what else can we say about them? Are they Christian? Do their children go to school? Are they French? How do they support themselves? I don’t know. I think that my only fear was that they would not believe that we were not coming to see them out of curiosity, but really to share something of our lives. In the end, I was very happy to have discovered these people of my own country who have a rhythm of life and especially customs that are very different from mine, even though they live beside me. I find it very beautiful that each of us took time to share a moment of our lives. The sharing was truly mutual.”
The evening of December 31st, during the final prayer of the European meeting, in the presence of 80,000 young adults from throughout Europe as well as from other continents, Brother Roger concluded:
“During these days of meeting, a question has come up: how can we find new energy in order to continue our journey, again and yet again? Far from letting ourselves be filled with worry, we would like to listen to the call that the Gospel addresses to all of us: ‘Leave worry behind, yes leave behind hopelessness, let your soul live!’
“When young people make a resolution for peace in their own life, they support a hope that is communicated afar, ever further afar. When you return home, each of you can begin to become a beacon of peace. We know that we live in a world where light and darkness coexist. If each of you were to become a beacon of peace, through you there would be a new light in the human family on earth. And so, for my part, I would go to the ends of the earth if I could to express over and over again my trust in the younger generations.”