Every summer since the end of the communist regime, thousands of young people from Romania have been to spend a week in Taizé or to the European Meetings. The fact that so many young people come from a predominantly Orthodox country brings a special richness to the gatherings in Taizé. The Romanians are the only Orthodox who speak a romance language. They feel they have a responsibility to be a “bridge” between East and West.
Modern Romania encompasses three major historical provinces. The brothers visited three cities, one in each of these provinces - indeed Brother Alois was heard to say, “I feel as if I’ve been in not just one, but three countries!”
The capital of Romania lies in the south, or Wallachia as it is sometimes called (in Romanian it is known simply as “Romanian Country”). The name in Romanian (Bucureşti) means something like “City of Joy”. In fact it is named after a shepherd (Bucur) who is the legendary founder of the city. It is true that it really is a bustling city - Romania currently has the highest growth in car ownership in Europe – although the people of Bucharest say that the problem is not too many cars, just not enough roads! The population density is also one of the highest in Europe, but the city survived the attempt to turn it into a show-piece communist capital and is full of beautiful little quiet corners.
Even with the lightening fast arrival of a secularising culture from the west, a great respect for the church remains, as witnessed by the people who stop to venerate a church as they pass in front of it. Brother Alois took up this theme in one of the meditations he gave during the visit:
“Today we must face up to a great challenge. Modernity is accelerating the rhythm of life, deeply changing society and our ways of being. The new opportunities that it brings are extraordinary. It is not a question of us turning our back on this. But a deeper grounding of ourselves is essential so that technological and economic progress can go hand in hand with more humanity. Where can we put down our roots? Which source do we live from? Here we are gathered to go together to that source. It is in a personal communion with Christ Jesus, in trust and in his love.”
Many historic churches and monasteries were destroyed during the redevelopment of the city in the 1980s, but many beautiful, tiny churches remain. Some were saved by being moved on rails for up to 500m out of the way of the bulldozers preparing the way for the “blocks” and the infamous “House of the People” (now the Palace of Parliament). Bucharest is the seat of the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church. His Beatitude Daniel, the recently elected Patriarch, visited Taizé when he was younger and teaching in Switzerland. During the visit to Bucharest brother Alois was welcomed very warmly at the Patriarchate and also by the Roman Catholic Archbishop.
Brother Roger was able to make a brief visit to Bucharest in January 1990, when he met Father Galeriu and Father Stăniloae, Orthodox priests who had spent many years resisting the dictatorship. This year the brothers were able to return to Fr. Galeriu’s church, St. Silvester, for a celebration of Orthodox vespers which brought together young people from across the city and beyond.
There was a feeling that this visit had been prepared by many people over several decades. Fr. Bordasiu, current parish priest of St. Silvester, who began sending groups to Taizé from Bucharest in 1990, remembered the visits of Brother Grégoire already in the 1970s. At that time, this kind of activity was dangerous and they had to be careful to make sure their story about what he was doing in Romania was the same for the police. A senior priest at the Patriarchate told us about meeting two brothers from Taizé by chance in the street when he was a student in the early 1980s. They were a bit lost, looking for a monastery they wanted to visit. He showed them the way and afterwards they left him with a Taizé dove-cross, which he still keeps to this day.
Iași is the principle city of romanian Moldavia (Moldova in Romanian). About half of historical Moldova now lies in Romania, the other half forming the Republic of Moldova, and parts of Ukraine. It is a beautiful land of relaxed friendly people. Moldova has always been the spiritual heart of the Romanian people. Hundreds of thousands of people make their way to Iaşi each October for the Saint Parascheva pilgrimage. The medieval painted monasteries of the region are famous throughout the world. They have a unity of Gothic and Byzantine architecture which underlines the fact that this is where east meets west, and that these two parts of the church belong together. The monks and nuns kept the faith alive throughout the times of persecution and today the monasteries are once again full of life.
The brothers were very warmly welcomed in Iași by the Catholic Bishop; the new Orthodox Metropolitan, only recently elected had not yet arrived in the city so unfortunately it wasn’t possible to meet him. A vigil prayer led by the young people of the diocese took place in the Cathedral. People from other cities in Moldova and a group of young people from one of the Orthodox churches in Iași who have been to Taizé also took part.
The next day the brothers were able to visit the mother of Luminiţa Solcan, the young woman who so tragically ended Brother Roger’s life in August 2005. Accompanied by a priest who knows her well, the brothers were able to express their sympathy with this mother whose life has been shattered by what happened to her daughter.
During the evening prayer at the cathedral, Brother Alois repeated the prayer that he said during Brother Roger’s funeral. “God of goodness, we confide to your forgiveness Luminița Solcan, who in an act of illness put an end to the life of our Brother Roger. With Christ on the cross we say: Father, forgive her, she does not know what she has done. Holy Spirit, we pray to you for the people of Romania and for the young Romanians who are so well loved in Taizé.”
Journeying by train through the spectacular scenery of the Carpathian mountains the brothers finally arrived in Cluj, one of the largest cities and university centres of Transylvania, basking in the roasting heat of a very early summer.
Transylvania’s links with central Europe give it a different flavour to the rest of Romania south and east of the Carpathians. The region has a long history of multiculturalism and the great variety of the inhabitants is very striking. It’s home to a Romanian majority, but also large numbers of Hungarians, Saxons (Germans), Roma and others.
They also belong to various historical churches - Orthodox, Latin and Eastern-rite Catholics, Reformed, Lutheran, as well as more recently founded evangelical and pentecostal churches ... Transylvania was also one of the earliest lands to proclaim freedom of conscience of religion and today these many churches exist side by side. Those who come to Taizé have a tradition of working closely together across the different confessional boundaries.
Brother Alois was invited to come to Cluj by His Eminence Bartolomeu, the Orthodox Metropolitan, who welcomed the brothers and surprised them by showing them an article he had written about Taizé in 1957 in the journal of the Patriarchate - the first person in Romania to write about Taizé. While working at the Patriarchal Library in Bucharest he had access to western periodicals which no one else was allowed to see.
A whole weekend was planned in Cluj, with young people coming from throughout Transylvania, from other parts of Romania, from Hungary, Austria and even further afield. On Friday a simple prayer with a family atmosphere took place in the Reformed Church. It was there that the young pastor first started bringing groups of young people to Taizé in the early 1990s. They had started to meet together - Hungarians and Romanians - preparing vigils of reconciliation, until they decided it was important not just to organise in this one place, but to go and pray in other churches too and so they began to rotate the place where the prayer took place.
On the Saturday there were workshops: a bible meditation by Brother Alois about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, at the new Greek Catholic cathedral, still under construction; a visit to four landmark churches of the city; discovering icons with a local priest whose passion is sacred art – both modern and ancient. Father Bizau told the young people: “Taizé has played a very important role in the rediscovery of icons, in the west, but also here in the east. Some young people see a reproduction of an authentic icon for the first time on visiting Taizé: The Trinity of Rublëv, The Coptic (Egyptian) icon of Jesus and the Believer (The Abbot Menas), the Mother of God of Vladimir ...
The beautiful, powerful celebration of Orthodox Vespers in the Metropolitan Cathedral was followed in the late evening by a vigil prayer with the songs of Taizé in the historic church of St. Michael in the centre of the city – the eastern-most Gothic church in Europe. In one hour, after the end of the evening Eucharist, the church was transformed very simply by a large and enthusiastic team of helpers with some icons and a few candles. The readings were read by priests and pastors from the different churches and young people filled the church with joyful singing as they prayed around the icon of the cross and lit candles to celebrate the risen Christ who unites us.
In his meditation Brother Alois sought to encourage those present:
“At a time when many are tempted to be discouraged or sceptical, we would like to let ourselves be carried by the dynamism of the resurrection! The resurrection of Christ is like a light which illuminates the meaning of our lives and which lights a hope for the world. Risen, Christ accompanies each person and he never stops looking for our friendship. It’s given to each one of us to live a friendship with him. It’s not for nothing that he says to us in the Gospel: ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.’
“We also live this friendship among ourselves. Christ unites us in a single communion, the Church. He puts us together with people who are so different that at first sight we might sometimes find it hard to choose them as friends. And yet, through Christ, a deeper friendship is forged than with spontaneous affinities.
Together we make up the Church. And we need to discover that, together, as Church, we can help our societies to find a more human face, to be marked more by trust than by distrust. If only our parishes, our youth groups could be first of all places of goodness of heart and of trust! Welcoming places where we try to support each other, places where are attentive to the weakest.”