Brother Roger Schutz
1915 – 2005
1915 – 2005
Brother Roger Schutz was a dreamer, and he dreamed of ecumenism and peace. Born in Switzerland in 1915, he followed his father into ordained ministry in the Swiss Reformed Church. In 1940, he left Switzerland to live in France, his mother’s country, where he hoped to begin a community in which reconciliation among Christians would be the model for daily life—a community, he wrote, where “kindness of heart would be a matter of practical experience and where love would be at the heart of all things.”
He bought a house in the small village of Taizé, near Cluny, just a few miles from the demarcation line that divided France during World War II. There, with three friends and fellow theologians who took private vows, he worked to care for and hide refugees—especially Jews—from Nazi persecution. They asked the local Catholic bishop for permission to use the abandoned village church. The bishop forwarded the question to the papal nuncio in Paris—Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), who gave permission.
Denounced to the Vichy government, the group fled to Geneva for two years, but they returned to Taizé after the war. Brother Roger chose Easter Day 1949 as the date on which the little community made a public dedication to a life of celibacy, community of possessions, and simplicity of life.
Almost immediately the community began to attract pilgrims to their chapel, which they later replaced with a much larger building—the Church of the Reconciliation, built by young volunteers—because the number of young people visiting Taizé had increased notably at the end of the 1950s.
In 1955, members of the community asked the composer Jacques Berthier, who had earlier written some music for antiphons to the Gelineau psalm settings, to compose some music for the Taizé Community, which at that time consisted of only twenty brothers who sang beautifully in four equal voices. Berthier and the community went their separate ways until 1975, when the brothers once again approached him, asking him this time to compose simple repetitive chants for use by the increasing numbers of young people who came from all parts of the world each year to gather at Taizé.
Little by little, over a period of nearly twenty years, a vast repertoire of original and altogether new music was created and became known throughout the world as “music from Taizé.” The concept for this unique form of congregational song was developed by Brother Robert, one of the early members of the community. He gathered and prepared the texts, sent them to Berthier with rather specific form guidelines, and Berthier produced what may be the most widely sung contemporary Christian music in the world.
In addition to attracting young people (as many as 5,000 from seventy-five countries during some weeks in summer), the community of Taizé has drawn church leaders: Pope John Paul II, three archbishops of Canterbury, Orthodox metropolitans, the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, and the fourteen Lutheran bishops of Sweden among them.
Part of Brother Roger’s appeal to young pilgrims was his embrace of an approach to faith that was built on questioning and searching. He once wrote of the young people and other pilgrims to Taizé: “Most of them come with one of the same question: ‘How can I understand God? How can I know what God wants for me?’”
As he inevitably slowed down, Brother Roger ceded practical control of the community to others and named a successor—Brother Alois—but at the age of ninety, he remained the spiritual heart of Taizé. In the 1990s, he co-wrote two books with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Brother Roger was one of the honored guests at the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
On Tuesday, August 16, as the community gathered with 2,500 young pilgrims for evening prayer at 8:45 PM, a Romanian woman stood behind Brother Roger and stabbed him several times. The brothers carried him to the monastery, and a doctor came, but he died at 9:00. Ten thousand mourners gathered in Taizé for his funeral on August 23, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, celebrated the funeral Mass. Representatives of the Anglican Communion, the Conference of European Churches, and the German Evangelical Church proclaimed the readings.
In his announcement of Brother Roger’s death, NPM President J. Michael McMahon wrote: “Under the leadership of Brother Roger and thanks to the musical gifts of Jacques Berthier, the Community of Taizé has been a powerful witness to reconciliation and ecumenism. The community has also modeled a style of liturgical prayer that is strongly communal, biblical, contemplative, musical, and universal. The music and prayer of the community has been enormously influential in the liturgy of Catholic communities in the United States.”
We join in the prayer prayed at Taizé on the morning after Brother Roger’s death: “Christ of compassion, you enable us to be in communion with those who have gone before us and who thus can remain close to us. We confide into your hands our brother Roger. He already contemplates the invisible. As we follow in his footsteps, you are preparing us to welcome the radiance of your brightness.”
Tribute prepared by NPM staff, published in Pastoral Music, October-November, 205, pg. 8.