I remember the journey from London to Monmouth over 11 years ago. Leaving one role and about to start another – I had cause for hope and optimism – travelling to a new place, a new landscape, a new context to share the gospel. During that journey, I heard the shocking news that Br Roger, the prior of the ecumenical monastic community in Taizé, France had been murdered, stabbed in the back, during prayers. I felt desolate but also outraged about this attack on a helpless man of God who was reaching the natural end of his life. I met Br Roger on several occasions. He emanated a saintliness, almost a transparency. Roger’s work began in Taizé in 1940 sheltering Jewish refugees from the Nazis. After the war he was joined by friends and the community which evolved was to become a parable for unity, responding to the fractures within the European family as a result of the two world wars and the destruction which had been caused. Men and women from across a divided church were to live this parable in community.
Unbeknown to them all, this community called ‘that little springtime’ by Pope John XXIII, was to be the focus of a continuing pilgrimage of trust attracting young people to this corner of Burgundy from the 1960’s onwards. Taizé, I am always glad to say, is where my vocation was formed.
As I reflect on this incident today, my thoughts are naturally associated with the shocking news that the people of the United Kingdom have chosen to leave Europe. Despite the protestations of the ‘in’ campaign, the financial markets have haemorrhaged £200 billion from the UK economy, our prime minister has resigned, the Scottish Nationalist Party is getting ready to push hard for another independence vote. This seems to me to be a dark day. In the background I still hear the worrying tone of nationalism expressing itself through the fear of migration and a lack of control over our sovereignty. This is not a gospel landscape, this is not a springtime for the UK or Europe.
On visiting Taizé on one occasion, Paul Ricoeur the French philosopher came to understand the purpose of the gospel. He commented that the meaning of religion was “to liberate the depths of goodness in people, to go looking for it where it is completely buried.” Young people travel to Taizé across borders because they know that they will be welcomed, listened to and accepted. For many who make the pilgrimage, the Taizé experience unravels the layers of buried treasure which are found at the heart of the human condition. Br Roger saw what Europe (and the world) needed. His prophetic ministry brought people closer and provided the vehicle for reconciliation within the Church. No other organization has brought the church closer to unity at its grassroots than Taizé.
“Brother Roger was an innocent. It was not that he had no flaws. But an innocent is someone for whom things are self-evident in a way in which they are not for others. For innocent people, the truth is obvious… He was not killed for a cause that he was defending. He was killed because of what he was.” (Br. François)
The brutal death last week of the Yorkshire MP Jo Cox serves as a reminder of the militancy and division which exists in this country and beyond. But through the amazing litany of tributes to Jo we have learnt how this campaigner for humanitarian values ‘liberated the depths of goodness in people’ (to paraphrase Ricoeur). Jo’s short life of virtue has brought a surprising peace to the party political squabbles in Westminster, at least for a while. My question is how can we honour those who have lived and died out of innocence and virtue? How can we create a little springtime in the midst of these darker, stormier days? As we further divide the human family in Europe, how might we create a gospel landscape? Can we become innocent ourselves? Can we perceive the truth, build relationships between creeds and cultures and accept differences, to see the depths of goodness in all people? Until we want to want to become innocents ourselves, our world will continue to fracture and communities will be prone to further dysfunctional behaviour. The vocation of every baptised Christian and every faith community must be to change today’s negative cycle of despair and work and pray for a little springtime tomorrow.