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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brother Roger's communion with the bishop of Rome.

Was Brother Roger, the founder of the ecumenical community at Taizé, a convert to Roman Catholicism? (I realize this question won't be of great interest to most of my Unitarian Universalist readers, but I'm indulging one of my idiosyncratic interests here.)

On September 5, Le Monde reported that Brother Roger (an ordained Swiss Protestant pastor and founder of Taizé) had been received into the Roman Catholic Church by the local bishop in 1972, according to a newly published account by a French historian. Brother Roger's exact relationship to Rome had been the subject of speculation for decades, but many people wondered what to think when Cardinal Ratzinger gave the eucharist to Brother Roger at the funeral mass for John Paul II. (Non-Catholics are not welcome to receive the eucharist at a Roman Catholic mass.) Then, when Brother Roger was murdered at Taizé last summer, a funeral mass was celebrated at Taizé by a Roman Catholic cardinal. Had he "converted"? Or had the brothers at Taizé found what they had long claimed to be seeking — a form of Christian communion that didn't require renouncing their Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox roots?

Brother Alois, the new prior at Taizé, disputed the Le Monde article:

In an article concerning Brother Roger, the French daily Le Monde of Sept. 6, 2006, gave credence to and reproduced the claims of a small newsletter issued by Catholic traditionalist circles that misrepresents his true intentions and defames his memory.

A document of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome is used to support the thesis of a "conversion" undertaken by Brother Roger, although the text says nothing of the kind. As for the bishop emeritus of Autun, Raymond Seguy, he has already qualified his words. Rejecting the term "conversion," he declared to France Presse: "I did not say that Brother Roger abjured Protestantism, but he showed that he subscribed fully to the Catholic faith."

From a Protestant background, Brother Roger undertook a step that was without precedent since the Reformation: entering progressively into a full communion with the faith of the Catholic Church without a "conversion" that would imply a break with his origins. In 1972, the bishop of Autun at the time, Armand Le Bourgeois, simply gave him Communion for the first time, without requiring any other profession of faith from him besides the creed recited during the Eucharist, which is held in common by all Christians. Several witnesses were present and can attest to this.

Whoever speaks of "conversion" in this respect has not grasped the originality of Brother Roger's search.

There was never anything hidden about this undertaking of Brother Roger's. In 1980, during a European meeting in Rome, he spoke these words publicly 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."

Brother Roger's step was not understood by all but it was welcomed by many: by Pope John Paul II, by Catholic bishops and theologians who celebrated the Eucharist in Taizé, as well as by Protestant and Orthodox Church leaders with whom Brother Roger patiently built up trust in the course of many years.

Those who at all costs want the Christian denominations each to find their own identity in opposition to the others can naturally not grasp Brother Roger's aims. He was a man of communion, and that is perhaps the most difficult thing for some people to understand.

The intriguing question for me has to do with Benedict XVI's views concerning Brother Roger's form of communion. Is creedal unanimity all that Benedict would require? Perhaps my good friend, Baptized Pagan, can help me understand Ratzinger/Benedict's views.

(Frère Roger, le fondateur de Taizé, était converti au catholicisme, Xavier Ternisien, Le Monde 9.5.06; Was Taizé founder a secret Catholic?, Catholic World News 9.6.06; Murdered sect leader "was secret Catholic", John Lichfield, Independent 9.7.06, fee req'd; The Taizé Community explains Brother Roger's aims, press release 9.6.06)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 17 September 2006 at 10:16 PM

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September 18, 2006 11:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

I was not aware that this was an issue. My religious life develops within a Catholic social background and I am familiar with the whereabouts of the Church. And for years it has been generally assumed in Catholic circles that Brother Roger had turned to Catholicism while remaining at the helm of Taizé. It was simply accepted as a fact, and at least in Spain, Taizé is much more appreciated and influential among Catholics than among Protestants. The ecumenical identity of the Taizé community made impossible that Roger's reintegration in the Catholic communion could be a matter of controversy.


September 18, 2006 06:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume, I recognize that in Catholic countries and among Taize's many Catholic friends, Brother Roger's desire for reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church has been interpreted as effectively converting to Catholicism.

When I was at Taize, however, and in my contacts this past year with many American and European Protestants who have been deeply impressed by Taize, this Catholic interpretation is clearly not adequate. Does Taize represent a move -- largely at first from within the Protestant world -- toward reconciliation with Rome? Yes. Does it represent an abandonment of the traditions of the Reformation? There's a clear divide in opinion on this question, with neo-Calvinists and fundamentalists especially hostile to Taize -- but among ecumenically-minded Protestants, Taize still seems to embody the hopes that many Protestants brought to the Second Vatican Council.

I interpret this latest little burst of controversy as signalling several things: Some traditionalist Catholics (I'd call them Catholic triumphalists) would like to over-catholicize the Taize movement. Brother Alois, Brother Roger's successor, is himself a Roman Catholic and appears to be sensitive to this impulse to portray Taize as a path into the Roman Catholic Church, which is why he responded so quickly -- and reemphasized the interpretation Taize had promoted for several decades. Taize is not, as far as I can tell, trying to bring all Christians to Rome; the brothers do, however, see a special role for the pope -- and the difference between those two approaches must seem like a distinction without a difference to many.

Nevertheless, I consider it an important ecumenical development, not in the end just another road to Rome.


September 19, 2006 10:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

My experience is that Catholics who like Taizé are not the integrists, but rather the progressive Catholics who want a deepening of Vatican II and feel discouraged at the orientation of the Vatican since JPII was chosen. When there is a Taizé event, it is not Opus Dei that gets mobilized to send youth in buses, but the base communities of people in NGOs, in solidarity networks with Latin America and Africa, and in liturgical reformation movements. It is a typical Protestant mistake to see any ecumenical effort from the Catholic Church as an attempt at assimilation. My feeling is that the Catholic Church does not see Protestantism as a threat any longer. At least, non-American Protestantism is not considered a threat, perhaps just because it's quickly declining everywhere. The likes of Pat Robertson may be seen differently.


September 20, 2006 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well, to jump in quickly just to comment on P's question about creedal unanimity being all that is required...well, the short answer is that, yes, creedal unanimity with the R.C. church and public affirmation thereof would likely be all that was required for reconciliation. Some of the best work in ecumenical circles is attempting to imagine how exactly such affirmation could occur jointly without jettisoning the riches of our confessional histories.

But the sticky wicket is that little line in the creed about believing in the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"; not because it mentions the word "catholic": it's not a simple wordgame. It's because, in an R.C. understanding of the creed, believing in the church means believing, among other things, in the divinely-willed nature of the episcopate and of the particular role of the city and bishop of Rome within that episcopate, as taught by Vaticans I and our non-R.C. sisters and brothers, this seems a little bit like the commerce clause in the Constitution, taking something minimal and using it as a justification for a whole bunch of unrelated positions. But from within the R.C. understanding, the structure of the church, including bishops and popes, isn't a secondary part of creedal faith or an add-on for the good functioning of the church, but is a part of creedal faith: we believe in the Holy Spirit as active in this particular ecclesial structure. So as in many things theological, the short answer is yes, the long answer is much longer...

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