Brother Roger’s departure leaves a great emptiness. We were deeply shaken by his tragic death. But at the same time, in the Community we lived through the period that followed with a profound thankfulness for all that he left us. These pages are an expression of this. This thankfulness was shared by a whole multitude of people across the world, and this upheld us. It was as though we were being carried by God. And, in this trial, our little community experienced the unity that the first Christians had known: being of one heart and one soul.
For Brother Roger, the search for reconciliation among Christians was not a topic for reflection: it was something evident to be done. For him, what was important above all was to live out the Gospel and communicate it to others. And the Gospel can be lived out only together. To be separated has no sense.
When he was very young, he had already had the intuition that a life in community could be a symbol of reconciliation, a life that becomes a sign. So he thought of gathering a group of people who would seek above all to be reconciled. This is the primary vocation of Taizé, to be what he called a “parable of community”, a small but visible sign of reconciliation. But the monastic life had disappeared from the Churches of the Reformation, and he came from a Protestant family. It was thus that without repudiating his background, he created a community that put down roots in the undivided Church from before Protestantism, and which by its very existence was indissolubly connected to the Catholic and Orthodox tradition. Once the foundations had been laid, by the beginning of the 1970s, and there were also Catholic brothers in the Community, he still continued creating the Community, right up to his last breath. About his own personal path, he said: “Influenced by the testimony of my grandmother’s life, and when I was still quite young, in her footsteps I found my identity as a Christian in reconciling in myself the faith of my origins with the mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking communion with anyone.”
The heritage he left is enormous. And above all, this heritage is alive. Brother Roger certainly left us his writings; but for him, these writings had to be adapted constantly to new situations. Even the Rule of the Community, which will remain the basic text for our common life, was rewritten several times. It was as though he wanted to teach us not to be attached to the letter or to structures, but to surrender ourselves to the breath of the Holy Spirit.
Through his Spirit, God is present to every human being. Brother Roger had a place in his heart for all human beings, of every nation, and in particular for young people and children. He had a passion for communion. He often repeated the following words: “Christ did not come to earth to create a new religion, but to offer to every human being a communion in God.” This unique communion, which is the Church, is there for everyone, without exception.
One of his constant concerns was to make this communion accessible to young people, and to lift the obstacles from their path. He was keenly aware that one of the greatest obstacles was seeing God as a severe judge who instils fear. An intuition grew progressively clearer within him, and he did everything he could in order to transmit it by his own life: God can do nothing other than to love. The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément reminded us recently that this insistence by Brother Roger on God’s love marked the end of a period in which, in the various Christian denominations, God was feared as someone who punishes.
In his youth, Brother Roger had known Christians who felt that the Gospel imposed harsh burdens on believers; and because of this attitude, there was a period when faith was difficult for him and doubts arose. Throughout his life, it remained a real struggle for him to trust in God. And in this struggle lies the origin of his openness to the young generations and his desire to listen to them. He himself said that he wished to “seek to understand everything in another person”.
Many young people had the image of him as a man who was always ready to listen to them every evening after the prayer in the church, for hours if necessary. And when he became too frail and tired to listen to everyone, he still continued to stay in the church in the evenings, giving a simple blessing to those who came to him by placing his hand on their foreheads.
Right up to the end, and with exceptional energy and courage, he led us on the way of openness to others. No distress, physical or spiritual, was so fearful that he turned away from it. On the contrary, he ran towards it. And more than once, he became so wrapped up in a concrete situation of suffering that he seemed to have forgotten about other things that were equally important. In this he was like the shepherd in the parable of Jesus, who forgets ninety-nine sheep in order to take care of one who is getting lost.
Speaking with his sister Geneviève, who died two years after he did, one was struck by her likeness to her brother in avoiding every harsh word, every categorical judgement. This comes from further back in the family, from an exceptional mother. Of course such a trait of character has its reverse side. But what counts is that Brother Roger knew how to create with this gift. And we, his brothers, have seen that it led him at times to the very limits of what a human being can bear.
It has been said of him that he had a universal heart. With a goodness that remains astonishing. Goodness of heart is not an empty word, but a force that is able to transform the world, because through it, God is at work. In the face of evil, goodness of heart is a vulnerable reality, but Brother Roger’s life given for others is a pledge that God’s peace will have the last word for everyone on our earth.
He was constantly searching how to give concrete form to heartfelt compassion, especially towards the poor. He liked to quote Saint Augustine: “Love, and say it with your life.” This sometimes led him to surprising steps. On one occasion, he came back from a stay in Calcutta with a baby in his arms, a little girl that Mother Teresa had entrusted to him, in the hope that going to Europe would save her life – which turned out to be true. He also welcomed to the village of Taizé and helped to settle there two widows from Vietnam, with their large families of children, whom he had met while visiting a refugee camp in Thailand.
The need to be concrete: this characteristic of his was also seen in his gift for arranging a room or a house. He did not like to construct buildings. When this was absolutely necessary, they had to be quite simple, very low, and if possible built with re-used material. But he loved transforming places. Using very little, he tried to create beauty. At a certain point a new church had to be built at Taizé, but he resisted the project for a long time, and afterwards he was continually adapting and changing the arrangements. I noticed this even in the impoverished neighbourhood of Mathare Valley in Kenya, where we stayed for a few weeks before some of the brothers came to live there for many years. In that poor shack in the midst of squalor, he found a way of adding some beauty, using almost nothing. As he used to say, we would like to do everything to make life beautiful for those around us.
Brother Roger often referred to the Beatitudes, and he sometimes said about himself: Je suis un pauvre, “I am a poor man.” He called us, the brothers, not to be spiritual masters but people who listen. He referred to his ministry as prior as being a “poor servant of communion within the community”. He did not hide his vulnerability.
Now, our little community feels impelled to continue along the way he opened up. It is a way of trust. For him the word “trust” was not a facile expression. It contains an appeal: to welcome very simply the love that God bears towards everyone, to root our lives in that love, and to take the risks that that implies.
To lose that intuition would lead us to impose burdens on those who come seeking the living water. Faith in this love is a wholly simple reality, so simple that everyone can receive it. And this faith can move mountains. Then, even if the world is often torn apart by violence and conflict, the way we look on it can be filled with hope.
Books by Brother Roger
(French titles and those of the corresponding English editions)
1958, Vivre l’Aujourd’hui de Dieu / Living Today for God
1965, Dynamique du provisoire / The Power of the Provisional
1968 Violence des pacifiques / Violent for Peace
1971, Ta fête soit sans fin / Festival Without End
1973, Lutte et contemplation / Struggle and Contemplation
1976, Vivre l’inespéré / A Life We Never Dared Hope For
1979, Etonnement d’un amour / The Wonder of a Love
1980, Les Sources de Taizé / The Sources of Taizé
1982, Fleurissent tes déserts / And Your Deserts Shall Flower
1985, Passion d’une attente / A Heart that Trusts
1988, Son amour est un feu / His Love is a Fire
1995, En tout la paix du cœur / Peace of Heart in all Things
2001, Dieu ne peut qu’aimer / God is Love Alone
2005, Pressens-tu un bonheur / Glimmers of Happines
Books written together with Mother Teresa
1986, Le Chemin de Croix / Meditations on the Way of the Cross
1989, Marie, Mère des Réconciliations / Mary, Mother Of Reconciliations
1992, La prière, fraîcheur d’une source / Prayer: Seeking the Heart of God
Each year, Brother Roger wrote a “letter” that was taken up by the young people and meditated on throughout the following year, either at home or during one of the meetings at Taizé. This letter was frequently written by Taizé’s founder in a place marked by poverty, where he was staying for a time: Kolkata, Chile, Haiti, Ethiopia, the Philippines, South Africa…
Brother Roger received the following awards
09 04 1974: The Templeton Prize, London
13 10 1974: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Frankfurt
21 09 1988: UNESCO Prize for Peace Education, Paris
04 05 1989: Charlemagne Prize, Aix-la-Chapelle
20 11 1992: Robert Schuman Prize, Strasbourg
24 04 1997: Notre Dame Award for International Humanitarian Service, Notre Dame University, Indiana, USA
22 10 2003: Dignitas Humana Award, Saint John’s School of Theology*Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA