Pope John Paul II Pays Homage to Brother Roger, a Saintly Monk of a Church of Many Faiths
For the Pope, the pilgrimage to Taizé served as a welcome respite during this month's whirlwind four-day tour of France. For Brother Roger, leader of a small religious group of 80 monks, it was an occasion for quiet pride. "I'm surprised," he says. "I never thought a Pope would come to Taizé." The visit was especially surprising since the community that Brother Roger founded nearly half a century ago is not Roman Catholic.
The monks of Taizé, representing 20 different nationalities, are an ecumenical brotherhood of Protestants and Catholics united by vows of celibacy and sharing of property. Living together in a rambling old farmhouse, they meet for prayer three times daily and keep the community self-supporting with a printing press, pottery and a farm cooperative. The unique monastic experiment first attracted the attention of the Pope, then Polish Bishop Karol Wojtyla, when he heard Brother Roger speak as a special guest at the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Impressed, the future Pope and the humble ascetic became fast friends, meeting several times in subsequent years.
Over time, the community has become a magnet especially for young people, whose presence at times makes the village look like a sanctified Woodstock. In the summer an average of 3,000 converge on the village to pray and share the wisdom of the monks for a week at a time. "They come asking different questions," says Brother Roger. "Nuclear power has given youth vertigo. Indifference blankets them. They need to know that we share their preoccupations. Each day we hope that they will discover an interior life that will help them find a direction."
The son of a Swiss Calvinist minister, Brother Roger remembers being unable to ask questions of his reserved father. "I couldn't get any answers," he says, "but I learned how important it is to listen." Rebelling against his father's dogmatism, Brother Roger chose instead to follow the example of his maternal grandmother, a Reformed Protestant, who in the First World War ran a refuge for women and children and attended services at both Catholic and Protestant churches.
Pressed by his father to study theology at universities in Strasbourg and Lausanne, Brother Roger was an indifferent scholar until the near death of one of his sisters turned him to prayer. Inspired by her unexpected recovery, he decided in 1939 to devote his life to Christian pursuits. With the fall of France a year later, he went to Taizé to help refugees escape the Nazis. "It was a spiritual adventure," he has said. "I wanted to go where there was human distress." When the Gestapo entered Taizé in 1942, Brother Roger was in Switzerland escorting a Jew across the border. He returned after the war with three friends from various Christian denominations to create a new ecumenical community based on a life of monastic guidelines.
For nearly two decades, the monks maintained their quietude. Then in the late '50s, a few youthful wanderers began to stop at Taizé to participate in group discussions and prayer, and word of the monks' community quickly spread. Instead of turning visitors away, Brother Roger and his fellow monks listened and began to incorporate the concerns they heard into the activities of the community. Some of the monks are now working in small fraternities among slum dwellers in Brazil, India and New York City. Every year Brother Roger travels to some new outpost of poverty. One year he returned from Thailand with a family of nine Vietnamese boat refugees. Another year, during a visit to Mother Teresa in Calcutta, he adopted a starving infant girl and nursed her to health. Now 10, Marie-Louise Sonaly is both his godchild and puppy like shadow, always close by at important moments like the Pope's visit.
A modest man who has refused France's prestigious Legion of Honor and even the title of prior, Brother Roger continues to make himself available as a listener to visitors most evenings despite his failing health. But at the same time he seems to yearn for the enveloping solitude he once knew in Taizé. "There are days when I ask why God has brought us down this road," Brother Roger says. "We wanted a little, but never so much."
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