Franciscan Presence

Testimonies from a Brother of Taizé and a Friar Minor

Even when he was very young, Brother Roger was struck by the personality of St. Francis and his radical approach drawn from the Gospel. His admiration was such that he hardly even dared to refer to him in his own research. However, “Franciscan inspiration" can be seen from the beginning, in his very brief rule that he developed in 1940: "Permeate the spirit of mercy and joy from the Gospel. Simplify your own way of life ever more."

 

In 1940, he settled in Taizé. But, at this time, the world war began and, after two years, he was forced to return to Switzerland, his country of origin. He stayed there from 1942 to 1944. When he returned to Taizé with his first brothers, he expressed the desire to know a Franciscan. On Easter Tuesday 1945, Friar Jérôme Darmancier, from the convent of Mâcon, went to Taizé. Friar Jérôme enthusiastically describes the twenty-four hours he spent at the newborn community.  He speaks of the "overwhelming evangelical freshness” and “its newness.” Likewise, Brother Roger and the other brothers went on to visit the Franciscans of Mâcon.

 

Friar Damien Gregoire arrived in Mâcon in 1946, and he gradually developed a strong relationship with Taizé. Later, he became provincial of the province of Lyon and continued to go often to Taizé. Brother Roger had confidence in him, relied on his ministry as a priest. He invited his brothers to do the same.

 

The figure of St. Francis continued to strike the young Prior of Taizé.  He saw Francis as the model of correct attitude towards the fragility of the Church: "There exists in history a witness of authentic reform, St. Francis Assisi. He suffered for the Church and loved it, following the example of Christ. St. Francis could have judged the institutions, the customs, the obstinacy of certain Christians of his time. But, he did not want to. He preferred to die to himself; he waited with ardent patience; and in his waiting, with burning with charity, he provoked a day of renewal (The Day of God, 1959).

 

With John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, a new period opened for Taizé. Hospitality for the pilgrims widened, and Brother Roger desired a Catholic presence. Early on, some nuns joined, a Benedictine monk, and some sons of St. Francis eventually came. A small Franciscan fraternity settled on the hill on 6 April 1964.

The presence of this Franciscan fraternity witnessed to two fundamental aspects

On the one hand, it was an ecumenical sign, exceptional at that time and perceived as such by many Church settings. The Franciscan friars participated, wearing their brown robes to all the prayers of the Taizé community. Similarly, there was the Orthodox Father Damaskinos, who lived in Taizé, as well as Greek or Bulgarian monks who at times came. The Franciscans also took part in the reception. Moreover, in 1966, Brother Louis Coolen was nominated parish priest of Taizé and Ameugny by the bishop of Autun.

 

On the other hand, in the village house, which was very simple not to say rudimentary, the Franciscans lived and were free to practice the conciliar renewal. They lived a life characterized by a continual renewal of the vocation of St. Francis. Other Franciscans of many countries spent a few days or months with them.

Friar Thaddée Matura became a trusted man of Brother Roger. With the subtlety of his intuitions, he helped him to deal the crisis affecting youth in 1968. In 1970, Brother Roger asked him to accompany him on his visit to the patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

 

In June 1968, a Franciscan of Italian origin, named Francesco, who is part of the fraternity, arrived at the stage of his solemn profession. Despite the strikes in communications and transport in Italy and France, a memorable celebration took place in the Church of Reconciliation. Francis entrusted his life to God and his brothers in the hands of the Provincial of the Province of Milan and that of the Province of Lyon, alongside Brother Roger and Father Damaskinos. Francesco was young and spontaneous; he embraced his mother and his friends from Milan, bypassing the concrete wall that surrounded the brothers. That same evening Brother Roger announced the wall’s destruction, planning to simplify the arrangement of the church.

 

Based on the experience of that early friar community, some friars and some brothers of Taizé lived together in fraternity in the United States from 1966 to 1971. First, they live in a completely black Chicago neighborhood for a year and then move to a nearby neighborhood in 1967, which was also very poor. Called by other commitments, the Taizé brothers left Chicago in 1971, but the Franciscans continued this presence.

 

Over the years, Brother Roger is uneasy about the evolution of the ecumenical movement. The prophetic spontaneity of John XXIII has disappeared. Ecumenical secretariats have been created everywhere, dialogue has become institutionalized, but the unity of Christians is not realized. He sees the separated Christians as if they were traveling in trains on parallel tracks, they make friendly signs, but by definition the parallels never meet.

 

At the same time he wonders about the path of Taizé: would we also be on the point, without realizing it, of installing such a parallelism? Since the Franciscans are the Catholic community, the brothers of Taizé would represent an exclusively Protestant community. To avoid this trap, look for how the Friars Minor could integrate more into the community, participate in the life of the brothers, not be a separate reality. But for their part the friars minor fear of losing their identity and above all this beautiful realization of a fraternity close to the spirit of the origins.

 

This reflection reached a conclusion in 1972: the Franciscan fraternity moved to Provence, to Grambois, while in 1969 the possibility was opened for young Catholics to be brothers of Taizé, thus becoming the fully ecumenical community.

The reciprocal friendship, however, will continue, sealed in particular by a Franciscan week in Taizé, from August 30th to September 2nd 1992.  Around 250 Franciscans came from all continents, in the presence of the Minister General Herman Schalück. Shortly after, there was a pilgrimage of 20 brothers of Taizé, with frère Roger, to Assisi from 24 to 25 in September 1992. Was this perhaps the beginning of a tradition? In April 2014, Brother Alois also made a pilgrimage to Assisi with the young brothers who are preparing for their life commitment to life.  In September of the same year, Minister General Michael Perry spent a week in Taizé with his Councilors, followed by a hundred young friars on Wednesday.

 

The Franciscan week of July 2019 will be in this same spirit.

 

Brother Charles-Eugène, Taizé

In 1964, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Brother Roger expressed the desire to have in Taizé a presence of a small group of Catholic religious in order to welcome, with the Taizé brothers, the many Catholics who were beginning to come. He immediately thought of the Franciscans of Mâcon whom he had known for years. He appealed to Friar Damien, then the provincial of Lyon and a long-standing confidant. After having obtained the confirmation from Rome, an authorized foundation of friars was established. It was a small fraternity of four or five friars with different nationalities, French, Belgian, Canadian, Italian, and Dutch. They settled there in the autumn of 1964 and remained there for eight years. The friars were like one of the nuclei that formed the community of Taizé. As for me, being welcomed by Brother Roger, a trusted and true friend, I lived there.  These, I believe, were the best years of my life.

 

As members of the fraternity, we were seeking a renewed Franciscan life. We were striving to achieve what we thought was the true Franciscan project. Influenced by the environment and the atmosphere of Taizé and being affected by how the community lived, we discovered, so to speak, our own vocation. The physical structure of our little fraternity resembled, at least at the beginning, like Rivo torto: an old dilapidated house in the village, with three rooms. In addition to water and electricity, there were neither sanitary nor heating. The beautiful and simple prayer of Taizé in which we participated, while maintaining our specificity, already anticipated that which would be liturgical of the Council that was ending and of which the "Fathers" met during their visits to Taizé - invited by Brother Roger, then an observer at the Council. Among us we were learning a life in small fraternity: equality and responsibility of all, frequent exchanges, transparency and simplicity in relationships, sharing of domestic tasks and welcoming visitors.

 

We were in close communion with the provincial minister of Lyon, Damien Grégoire, a man of openness and listening. What we were trying to live was recognized and approved, thanks to him and Taizé, even by the Roman authorities, the Holy Office! It was a sort of Franciscan springboard for us...

 

There was something profoundly in common among the brothers of Taizé and us. The Franciscans celebrated mass in the crypt for the Catholics and attended the Protestant celebration of the Supper when it took place. The friars did not have to leave nor conceal their Catholic beliefs, and nothing in the faith and behavior of the Taizé brothers surprised or scandalized them. Some of them turned to the Franciscan priests for confession, and they welcomed them, even if it was neither expected nor permitted at the canonical level.

 

During the eight years of their presence in Taizé, many members of the Franciscan family passed through. The Minister General of the Order, the Brazilian Constantin Koser, came to preside over a meeting of the French and German leaders of the Franciscans. Brother Roger had grown fond of him and since then, every time he went to Rome, he visited him. He also did this with the successive General Ministers until his death.

 

With the entry of Catholic brothers into the community of Taizé, our presence was no longer pastoral. But even after the departure of the fraternity in 1972, the contacts did not stop. In 1992, over one hundred young Franciscans from Europe, together with Minister General Hermann Schalück, stayed in Taizé. Fraternal visits from the brothers of Taizé have happened at the Porziuncola of Assisi. The friendship between Taizé and the Franciscans continues with Brother Alois, successor to Brother Roger; during his visits to Rome he does not fail to greet the Minister. For his part, the current Minister, Michael Perry, came to Taizé in 2014 with his advice to accompany a large group of young Franciscans.

The dynamism of Taizé, its continuity and its growth, are based on the spiritual insights of Brother Roger. What he discovered, lived and proposed was true life according to the Gospel: simple, joyful, fraternal, and merciful. It was the same discovery made eight centuries earlier by Francis of Assisi, who lived such values in the fraternity he founded. 

 

It is not surprising that the Franciscans who lived in Taizé felt at home there, and the brothers of Taizé are recognized them. This is true ecumenism...

 

Friar Thaddée Matura, OFM

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