A letter from Taize: Brother Roger’s funeral

By on August 29, 2005

Brother Roger Schutz, founder of Taize

Note: Rev. Kevin Dixon, of the diocese of New Westminster, is on sabbatical in Europe. He attended the funeral of Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community, and wrote of his experience in the form of a letter to a friend.

Just a postcard from Europe, in the midst of my travels, to share a remarkable experience.  On August 23, I was one of the more than 10,000 people who attended the funeral of Brother Roger at Taize in France.

How horrified I had been, just a week earlier, to hear the news of his fatal stabbing during one of Taize’s periods of community worship. This was a man whose life was dedicated to peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.  Now, all those inspired by Brother Roger’s example were being asked to forgive the disturbed woman who ended his life.

Since he came to Taize in 1940, Brother Roger’s ministry has touched generations of young spiritual seekers. For this reason, in the shadow of his death, many of them returned to honour him. What a sight as the throng gathered in and around Taize’s Church of Reconciliation – the very place where he died.

It was raining hard on the day of the funeral. When I arrived 3 hours before the 2:00 p.m. service time, cowering under my umbrella, I took my place on the ground in a gravel parking lot with a good view of a huge video screen.

In no time, people began sharing pieces of plastic, jackets and hot drinks. All around, people were praying and singing, and eating damp sandwiches. A group of three French youth sitting behind my wife and me, along with a university professor from Lyons, and a young Englishwoman who had come by overnight coach from Kent, became friends. We huddled together under a tarp sharing physical warmth and our impressions of Brother Roger.

Brother Roger’s life was about something more important than establishing a place of pilgrimage for youth, although they came by the thousands from every continent. The hallmark of his life’s work, engraved again and again on the hearts of youth at Taize, was the message that the Christian faith gives hope.

Brother Aloise, the new leader of the Taize Community, underlined this theme of hope in his brief opening remarks at the funeral, “Often Brother Roger repeated these words: ‘God is united to every human being without exception.'” He added, “Brother Roger constantly returned to that Gospel value which is kind-heartedness. It is not an empty word, but a force able to transform the world, because, through it, God is at work. In the face of evil, kind-heartedness is a vulnerable reality. But the life which Brother Roger gave is a pledge that God’s peace will have the last word for each person on our earth.”

Any concerns about the weather evaporated as the congregation soaked up Brother Aloise’s words:  Then, as one would hope, worship began in the unique style of Taize.  Thousands of voices harmonized in many languages expressing grief, forgiveness, the hope of resurrection, and love.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians, presided at the Eucharist. It was beautifully characteristic of Taize that there were no dogmatic barriers to receiving communion. And what an awesome scene as scores of white clad communion ministers distributed the sacrament to all who streamed forward with cupped hands extended, many of them singing and smiling tearfully.

At the end of the service, Brother Roger’s plain wooden coffin was carried out of the church. The brothers of the Taize Community brought him through the congregation and down the road to the village cemetery where they laid his body to rest. As the procession passed wax tapers were lit and over and over we sang a chant in Latin, translated, “Render thanks to the Lord. Alleluia.”

I will spend some time during the remainder of my travels reflecting on the significance of Brother Roger’s life as an example to my own. Brother Roger’s legacy and Taize’s message of love are profound in their simplicity. They convey a truth larger than the man or the place.

Brother Roger knew this himself. In 1942, when he had been at Taize only a short time, offering hospitality and shelter to political refugees and Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, he feared that his activities were becoming known and he became concerned for his life.  But then one August morning in that year he confided to his journal that, although he might die, the important work of the community at Taize would live on. And so it does.

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