This Postcard from the Camino is from the Taizé Community in France, which is situated on the Way of Saint James on a variant of the Vezelay route to Compostela. The village is not far from the ruins of Cluny abbey, where the 10th century Benedictine reform radiated out across Europe: in its day, a reform as far-reaching as Vatican II. Similarly, an ecumenical message has spread out from Taizé across the world, effectively evangelizing the youth and preaching unity.

We are all called to evangelize but that effort is of little use when those newly awakened to Christ are confronted by the spectacle of disunity. For the newly re-committed or the convert to Christianity, it is painful to discover that Christ’s presence in their life seems contradicted by divisions over the Eucharist or they must choose between split denominations.

The problem was once crystallized for me by the perplexity of a seventeen-year-old, one of twenty young people in a mixed denominational school group that two of us teachers took to summer camp at the Taizé Community in France. There, thousands of young people meet, study, and pray together, searching for some answers in their lives. After the final service at the end of the week, we boarded the bus to return to England and this young man’s eyes were fully open to the Gospel. He had found insights in the parables of Jesus, joy in fellowship with his peers, and purpose in his afternoons of choir practice for evening worship. But now, returning home, he became conflicted and confused: “If all that I have discovered is true, explain to me these divisions! Why must I choose which church to join? Surely there should be one Church!”

I knew the problem well: I had hit the same question twenty years earlier. I became an Anglican by accident, an ecumenist by conviction, then a Catholic by reasoning. In that order. Unfortunately, I later went down a blind alley for a while and sided with radical voices who threw out ecumenism from their vocabulary, narrowly seeing it as a watering down of Catholic purity. Now corrected and reinvigorated by the message and mission of Pope Francis, I understand better the importance the Council placed upon ecumenism. It is not simply an added accessory of faith, but a way of being the Church: at its heart, ecumenism is a parable of our communion in Christ.

Pope John Paul II and Brother Roger, 1986

Brother Roger Schütz was a Swiss protestant pastor who arrived in the small hamlet of Taizé in 1940 to begin a religious life which eventually attracted other brothers of different protestant denominations. They sought permission to use a vacant Catholic church in the village, and that was arranged by Archbishop Roncalli,* the nuncio in Paris, who became Pope John XXIII. He also established an annual private audience with the Prior of Taizé, which continues today. Roger Schütz and other brothers became protestant observers at Vatican II.

Catholic church in Taizé used by the Protestant brothers from 1949.

When the community outgrew the little church, a new Church of Reconciliation was constructed, often extended by marquees to hold thousands of visitors. For young people from all over the world, Taizé became a beacon of ecumenical hope. When Pope John Paul II visited the community in 1986, he called that vision of ecumenism at Taizé a “little springtime.”

Years later when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave communion to Brother Roger at the funeral of Pope John Paul II,[1] this became a source of controversy for some. You can still see commentators fulminating about that many years later, with statements such as “Ratzinger gave communion to a protestant heretic!” in reference to a man perhaps more truly steeped in Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology than many bishops, as the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was already well aware.

Ecumenism must inevitably involve risk, experiment, mutual trust, and boldness of vision. The nuances of gesture and the willingness to accept that extraordinary ecumenical projects have a place require generosity and sometimes the turning of a blind eye. There are various precedents. One such example was in 1972, when the first Catholic brother joined the various protestant brothers in the Taizé Community. The Bishop of Autun, Msgr. Armand Le Bourgeois, celebrated Mass and communicated the Prior and all the brothers of the community. Later, as more Catholic brothers were ordained priests in the community, the daily Mass became structurally the center of the liturgical life of the community, and hosts consecrated at the Catholic early morning Mass later become distributed at the wider ecumenical celebration of Morning Prayer.[2] There was an alternative of blessed bread for the small minority who chose to be scrupulous in avoiding intercommunion.

Brother Roger died in 2005 and Cardinal Kasper presided over the funeral Mass in the community. In his address, he said, “The springtime of ecumenism has flowered on the hill of Taizé, in this Church of Reconciliation, where members of different Christian traditions meet in respect and dialogue, in prayer and fraternal sharing, inspired by the presence and the example of Brother Roger.”[3]

The Taizé Community has always been aware of the sensitivities around the Eucharist and the official position of the community is that intercommunion is not a policy: visitors can receive communion within their own tradition. Priests and ministers often accompany visiting groups and space is offered to accommodate a variety of services. However, the various examples given by Wouda (see notes) and my own experience visiting Taizé over several decades, suggest that this has been informally practiced by clergy and people exercising their own choice (including visiting Catholic bishops) but never encouraged by the Taizé Community. Intercommunion has been pragmatically regarded by Rome as an inevitable outcome of such large-scale ecumenical gatherings, but never worth turning into an issue.

Pope John Paul II described how intercommunion was not possible on a visit to Scandinavia:

“I am speaking of the Eucharistic celebrations at which I presided in Finland and Sweden during my journey to the Scandinavian and Nordic countries. At Communion time, the Lutheran Bishops approached the celebrant. They wished, by means of an agreed gesture, to demonstrate their desire for that time when we, Catholics and Lutherans, will be able to share the same Eucharist, and they wished to receive the celebrant’s blessing. With love I blessed them.”[4]

At this ecumenical meeting with Scandinavian protestant bishops, withholding communion sent out the signal that it symbolized the absence of visible communion: fullness should be something to strive for (q.v. Lumen Gentium). The action is entirely unrelated to the question of worthiness to receive Eucharist: instead, it interprets communio in a positive ecumenical intention.

Half a lifetime ago, I discovered ecumenical dialogue in Taizé and it was a significant step along the way to eventually becoming Catholic. The question is still sometimes asked, did Brother Roger Schütz secretly convert to Catholicism? I know what answer Brother Roger gave because he told me. One cold winter day when I was hitchhiking home from Assisi to a monastery in England, my journey through France took me close to Taizé, so I stayed overnight. Brother Roger saw me at evening prayer and later sent a brother with a message: “Tell the Franciscan brother to join us for supper, and meet me half an hour beforehand for a talk.”

Sitting in the community courtyard facing the Romanesque narthex of the old village church, we spoke in French. I told him how hitch-hiking in friar’s habit was a good way to evangelize because the people in the vehicle always ask the right questions. He talked to me about the book he had written with Mother Teresa of Calcutta: Mary, Mother of Reconciliation [5] and the rest of the time became a spiritual homily from Brother Roger about the importance of Mary. As he showed me into the refectory, I asked, “Did you not consider converting to Catholicism?” (It had been widely reported that the community’s theologian Brother Max Thurian had converted.)

Taizé Saint Francis window by Brother Eric

Brother Roger said, “We must reconcile the divided Church within our own hearts. My heart is Catholic.” In the winter after Roger’s death seventeen years later I went to Taizé on a silent retreat. Fresh snow in the churchyard covered his grave, marked by a simple wooden cross, and visitors had placed candles there. I reflected on his words to me, that we have to reconcile the divided Church within our own hearts. The immense complexities of ecumenism could melt away when we realize each one of us can unify the Body of Christ. Here rested a man in whom many, including several popes, had seen that unity.

Brother Roger Schütz (1915-2005)

In the examples of the way our recent popes encouraged the ecumenical community of Taizé, we see that support for that project sometimes led to sharing Eucharist with other denominations. When some Catholics – and even bishops! – create divisions, it is useful to look at the ecumenical words and actions of our recent popes, and ask by whose example we are better guided. I remember again that teenager in Taizé. His eyes were freshly opened in faith, but then he hit that barrier: “If all that I have discovered is true, explain to me these divisions!”

I suggested he should speak with other students at his Church of England school in Canterbury and visit students at the Catholic school, then maybe visit the Baptist youth group. A regular ecumenical prayer meeting began in the crypt of the cathedral. That was partly the spiritual fruit of the work of a Swiss protestant pastor who had begun in the small village of Taizé in 1940 with the simple idea of bringing reconciliation into the hearts of Christians. It was also the spiritual fruit of Vatican II.

When we hear voices intent on dividing us we must pray the ecumenical prayer of Jesus “that all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” (John 17:21) Our responsibility to work for unity in the Church is at the heart of our faith. Ecumenism is a parable of God’s community in the three Persons of the Trinity.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article called Roncalli a cardinal. He was an archbishop during the time he served as nuncio in Paris.

Notes:

[1] Video footage of the moment: https://youtu.be/4IAa8zl-Or0?t=5660 (beginning at 1:34:20). For more information and the Vatican explanation, see the archived story by John Thavis for Catholic News Service here: https://web.archive.org/web/20080213001448/http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0504883.htm

[2] Fokke Wouda, Communion in Taizé: Theological interpretation of a Eucharistic practice in an ecumenical context (Catholic Association for Ecumenism, 2014.) All examples of intercommunion given in this article are referenced from Wouda.

[3] Cardinal Walter Kasper, address at Brother Roger’s funeral, 2005. Zenit website: https://zenit.org/2005/08/24/cardinal-kasper-s-address-at-brother-roger-s-funeral/

[4] Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint: On commitment to Ecumenism (1995), 72.

[5] Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Brother Roger of Taizé, Mary, Mother of Reconciliation (Mowbray, 1987.)

All information about youth meetings at Taizé and the forthcoming European Meeting in Turin in December 2021 can be found on the website: www.taize.fr Enquiries about staying at Taizé should be directed to meetings@taize.fr

Images: Pope John Paul II with Brother Roger Schütz in 1986 from Osservatore Romano; all other photos by the author during a retreat at Taizé in winter 2006.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

Postcard 10: Taizé – A parable of communion
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