There were a number of things about him I found attractive. For example, he believed that the spiritual leader should always keep a low profile. He rarely gave interviews and refused to permit any personality "cult" to grow up around himself. (How refreshing is that?) Prior to his death in 2005, he was due to give up his community functions because of his advanced age and ill-health. He had begun to suffer from incredible fatigue and often used a wheelchair.
Brother Roger was awarded a number of honors and wrote many books on prayer and reflection, always asking young people to be confident in God and committed to their local church community and to humanity. He also wrote books about Christian spirituality and prayer, some together with Mother Teresa with whom he shared a very cordial friendship.
Brother Roger devoted himself to ecumenism in a remarkable way, seeking to reconcile the different Christian churches in every way possible. He especially loved younger Christians whom he addressed often. During a Taizé gathering in Paris in 1995 Brother Roger spoke to more than 100,000 young people who were sitting on the floor of an exhibition hall. His words at this gathering reveal his approach, one that some evangelicals will find unacceptable because of their strong stress upon formal preaching in a church context. He said: "We have come here to search," he said, "or to go on searching through silence and prayer, to get in touch with our inner life. Christ always said, Do not worry, give yourself."
The monks at Taizé included members of Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. He always worked to create greater unity among Christian churches, but his focus for more than sixty years was to awaken spirituality among young people in Europe who were growing up in a secular world. This is how he particularly touched my life. I began ACT 3, under a different name, in 1991. My goal was reformation and spiritual renewal. As I grew in this work I saw the connection with unity powerfully. This led to my adopting and teaching what I now call missional-ecumenism. Brother Roger thus became a huge influence in my own journey.
When he died in 2005 an obituary, published in the New York Times after his untimely death in a Taizé service at the hands of a deranged person who slit his throat, said:
Before the fall of Communism, he and his group had quietly created prayer circles among Catholics in Poland and Hungary and Protestants in East Germany that proved influential during protests in those countries. The Taizé prayer groups with their message of peace and conciliation eventually also reached into the United States – he has followers in New York – as well as Canada, Brazil, South Korea and elsewhere.
He became well known as both a mystic and a realist, a man with a humble personal style who was able to attract tens of thousands of followers. He also became a driving force behind the annual World Youth Day, being held this week in Cologne, Germany.
The Taizé center and Brother Roger drew tens of thousands of pilgrims a year. Although he was seen by many as a guru, he preferred to use the phrase, "My brothers and I want to be seen as people who listen, never as spiritual masters."
When Brother Roger’s health became more frail he named Brother Alois, a German Roman Catholic, to succeed him. The Taizé community is still led by Brother Alois.
From a Protestant background, Brother Roger undertook a step that was without precedent since the Reformation. He entered progressively into a full communion with the faith of the Catholic Church without a “conversion” that would imply a break with his origins. I want to make this point as clearly as I know how. I have discussed this with many Catholics, some of whom refuse to believe that this is the truth of the matter but I have become convinced beyond any reasonable doubt of the facts of the case.
In 1980, during a European Meeting in Rome, he said in St. Peter’s Basilica in the presence of Pope John Paul II: “I have found my own identity as a Christian by reconciling within myself the faith of my origins with the mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking fellowship with anyone.” (Please read this again. It is both remarkably uncommon and virtually unknown!)
Brother Roger then took the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist every morning at the Catholic Mass in Taizé, and he received the sacrament from both the current and former Pope. This seems to be in contravention of canonical prohibitions on administering the sacrament to those not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. According to Cardinal Walter Kasper this was accomplished as though there was a tacit understanding between Brother Roger and the Catholic Church "crossing certain confessional" and canonical barriers through what brother Roger called a gradual enrichment of his faith with the foundations of the Catholic Church including "the ministry of unity exercised by the bishop of Rome."
I wrote in my book, Your Church Is Too Small, of Cardinal Ratzinger serving the Eucharist to Brother Roger at the funeral Mass of John Paul II. I have had a number of responses to this statement, many claiming that Cardinal Ratzinger was “caught off guard” when Brother Roger was wheeled forward to the altar area after the service had already begun. With him very near the bishops there was a sense that they had to serve him the Eucharist rather than create offense. I have asked members of the Taizé community about the facts of this case and I am persuaded that I now know the truth.
The answer as follows. Brother Roger went to Rome for the funeral but did not plan to go when the day of the service came because he had arisen that morning so weak and tired. He was even late in arriving. Because he was so widely known and loved he was wheeled forward to a place where the cardinals were near to the altar. When the time came to distribute the sacred meal it is true that there was little choice but to serve Brother Roger. But what those who insist that a Protestant minister could not be communed fail to realize is that this was gladly done because it had been done for many years before this Mass seen by millions of viewers the world over. Brother Roger did not force anyone’s hand in the matter. He did not create a problem. He was placed there, by Catholic leaders, out of love. He would not have been there in the first place had others not have taken him there. But the simple fact is that he acknowledged the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, remained a Protestant minister his entire life and was routinely communed by Catholic priests, including the last two Popes.
In an unusual way Brother Roger was an icon and Taizé remains an iconic community of love and unity. This is one of the many reasons I encourage you to learn more about this remarkable mission. It is also why I encourage you, if you are between 18-35 years of age, to attend the Memorial Day Taizé conference at DePaul University.