In the beginning, part 2
Daring to live a life of joy, simplicity, and mercy can be risky business. Two years after Brother Roger moved to Taize, the Gestapo became suspicious about his activities. While he was helping a refugee escape to Switzerland, his home was raided and friends encouraged him not to return for awhile. He used this time to finish the thesis he’d abandoned while heading up a small Christian organization at the university in Lausanne (In the beginning). The thesis was summarized in a pamphlet that was soon read by other like-minded men. Before long there were three more who “dedicated themselves to a common life that included communally shared property, daily work and prayer, a common purse, and celibacy,” says Jason Brian Santos, author of A Community called Taize. In the autumn of 1944, when France was finally liberated, Roger and his three Brothers moved back into the house in Taize, amidst rubble and despair, and became a source of light and hope through their simple practice of living out the Gospel.
Of all the visitors they accommodated, perhaps the most radical were the Roman Catholic priests who began joining them in the upper chamber of the house for thrice-daily prayer. Roger finally asked a local church authority if they might used the small, abandoned Catholic church down the lane for worship: permission was granted, then quickly rescinded. But Roger had a quiet tenacity about him. He took the matter to the Bishop of Autun, who turned it over to the desk of the papal nuncio in Paris, who granted the wish of these protestants brothers to praise God in a church that was built for Catholics. This was something of a miracle, but still, to Roger’s mind, it was incomplete: permission was granted for the protestants to worship there, but not for any practicing Catholic to join them.
As an American born and raised in L.A., where going to church at all is considered weird, and where Catholics and Protestants are like blood relatives compared to the current landscape of spiritual practices, so many of these Catholic/Protestant distinctions seem like ancient history. But there in Taize, the impact of the Reformation was still palpable. Even in this place of Reconciliation, the church in which we all gathered for prayer each day was divided by side— Catholic on the left, Protestant on the right— so that those who believed in closed communion could receive the Eucharist from a clergy member of their own faith. My aunt and I didn’t find out about the two sides til three days into the trip. I had to laugh, as I had been moving all around to see things from different vantage points, assuming that every pilgrim there was voicing their support for open communion across all possible lines by their very presence. Many were, maybe even most. But respect was shown for those who were not.
This respect is evident in everything that Brother Roger did as he spent his life working towards ecumenism in the church, a concept to him that was not so much about tolerance but reconciliation, a much more demanding challenge. Like all great change agents, he was a master of the baby step. I can only hope that at some moment in my life I might be able to approach a situation with this sort of insistent grace. Determined that reconciliation would begin right there in the little Romanesque church in his newfound home, he returned to petition Pope Pius XII. And this is what Roger said:
“Leave a little way open, even a very narrow one and define what you consider to be the essential barriers— but leave a way forward. Do not close it altogether.”
Within a matter of years, the Pope transferred the authority to each individual Bishop to grant Catholic participation in ecumenical assemblies. And there in Taize, protestants and Catholics did, indeed, praise their Lord as one together.
Big, beautiful, baby steps.