The Taizé brothers welcomed young adults and Christians to an ecumenical gathering for prayer and reflection in Dayton, Ohio. Learn about the founder of the Taizé community, Brother Roger Schutz, and his commitment to peace and Christian unity.
On Memorial Day weekend when young adults flock to beaches, ballparks or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, what draws 2,000-plus to a quiet campus in Dayton, Ohio? What compels hundreds, from 46 states and 220 countries, to line up inside a field house at the Marianist-run University of Dayton?
There, inside a darkened basketball arena, I’ve joined many who are waiting to touch and talk with Brother Robert Schutz of Taizé, France. The 77-year-old monk, whose commitment to the poor and world peace ranks him with Mother Teresa among today’s great spiritual leaders, listens patiently to each person’s concerns.
“Jesus is always present,” Brother Roger tells 25-year-old Rejean Bernier of Quebec, Canada, “God is within you.”
“I asked Brother Roger to speak with me about my career,” Rejean explains to St. Anthony Messenger after receiving a blessing from the Taizé community’s beloved founder. Brother Roger and his fellow monks urge youth to be bearers of trust wherever their lives lead—in their jobs, families and communities.
This summer, the Taizé (pronounced “Teh-zay”) brothers welcomed young adults and Christians of all ages to a “Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth.” The ecumenical gathering for prayer, Bible reflection and group sharing was the first ever organized in North America by the monks and their female counterparts, Taizé’s Sisters of St. Andrew. Invited by the U.S. Catholic bishops/ Secretariat for the Laity, the brothers came to spread the spirit of reconciliation sparked at pilgrimage sites like Madras, Manila and Prague—where 80,000 met in 1990.
Church leaders and young people alike embraced the twofold aim Brother Roger set for the U.S. pilgrimage: “to deepen an inner life with Jesus” and to work “toward a human family that is peaceful, free and reconciled.”
Plunging Into Prayer and Community
What would be more conducive to deepening an inner life with Jesus than a cross-cultural group united in contemplation?
Each morning, noon and night, Taizé participants enter a hushed field house for common prayer. Row upon row, they kneel or sit cross-legged in the cool darkness, facing a makeshift altar modeled after the one at Taizé’s own Church of Reconciliation. Orange blossoms and flickering votive candles surround icons which flank the Cross of Taizé.
Hymns in Latin transcend language barriers, while petitions are offered simultaneously in English, Spanish, French and Polish. Between Scripture readings and Brother Roger’s meditation, children holding tapers spread light from an Easter candle around the altar. A lone child chants, “The Lord is my light and salvation. In God I trust,” to the accompaniment of harps, oboes and guitars. The silence-piercing solo builds into a chorus of repetition as the assembly sustains a simple, hypnotic melody.
Every night, the brothers lay the cross at center court for veneration. Pilgrims draw closer, encouraged to “entrust their burdens and those of all suffering people” to Christ. As each person silently places a hand or forehead on the cross, the singing around them softens into lyrics that repeat a criminal’s words at Calvary: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
After evening prayer, participants return to dormitories or Dayton-area families, who together hosted some 1,000 guests for the Taizé weekend. Three other American Catholics and I stayed the weekend with a Baptist minister, Glenn Barrett, and his wife, Sylvia. As the couple welcomed us into their home that first evening, I never guessed we’d be teaching Taizé chants to their Baptist congregation the next Sunday!
Parables of Communion
Forging links among religious, ethnic and socioeconomic groups has been Roger Schutz’s foremost vision since the Swiss Protestant moved to Taizé in 1940. From the seven men who first joined Roger in his monastic vows, the community grew in numbers and in its hospitality to the youth who began visiting Taizé in the 1960’s. It was not until 1982 that the brothers began their roving pilgrimages of trust. These meetings and the monks’ very lives—in which they vow celibacy and poverty—are meant to be “parables of communion,” concrete signs of human solidarity.
Today, the Taizé community is made up of 90 monks. Nearly half are Catholic; others represent various Protestant denominations. In pursuing unity, do the brothers compromise their cultural roots?
Religious traditions are not denied but celebrated, says Brother Brian. The 21-year-old Chicago native and convert to Catholicism encourages Christians to strike a balance: “If we forget our traditions and put them in the background, we have no foundation to stand on.” At the same time, he warns, we must avoid “pushing them to the front, like shields that protect us from all but our individual reality.”
Churches can call for ecumenism, “but it can work only in people’s day-to-day interaction,” says Brother Brian. Plans to work for reconciliation at a local level begin at regional meetings, where Taizé delegates gather before returning home. “We’re not trying to start a new movement around ourselves,” Brian explains. “Rather, we send youth back to invigorate their parishes and communities.”
Sustaining the spirit of Taizé “begins with trust and patience, recognizing the union embedded in all of creation. In the deepest sense, we are already one,” Brian observes. “So we don’t have to create reconciliation; we start by trying to live it.”
The Taizé brothers’ example will help American bishops prepare for next year’s world Youth Day in Denver, which the pope will attend, says Dolores Leckey, director of the U.S. Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth. Dolores acted as the bishops’ liaison in bringing the Taizé monks to Dayton.
“We have seen what the theme for World Youth Day—‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’—means right here,” she told delegates in Dayton. “We sit on the floor, we eat airplane food [boxed meals], we cut a few branches for the altar. Where there seems to be scarcity, we are in the midst of abundant life. Those of us preparing for Denver have learned a lesson to cherish.”
Pilgrims of Trust on Earth
Brother Hector of Taizé summed up the mystery I discovered while sharing prayer, meals—even small talk—with participants in Dayton: “We come to share our stories, we come to break our bread,” he sang, echoing Brother Roger’s reflection on how two disciples bound for Emmaus came to know Jesus. “We come to know our rising from the dead.”
“Christ is united to every human being, without exception,” Brother Roger attests. “Risen, his mysterious presence dwells within us all.”