Mercy and the Ecumenical Journey of Brother Roger

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Dear friends,
Dear brothers and sisters!

Good morning, to everyone! I am very touched to be back here in Taizé, and it is a great joy for me to be among so many young people. I greet you with all my heart.

I. Brother Roger, an existential theologian

Recently we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the death of Brother Roger, one of the beacons of the last century and the beginning of this century, a beacon of Christian unity and of solidarity among all. He was truly a man of God and a great friend of all, especially of you, the younger generation, a beacon that prophetically indicated the path to the future without abandoning the legacy of the past, a great man and a great Christian, humble and generous, pious and courageous, a true witness to Jesus Christ.

These days you have been discussing Brother Roger’s theology. Let me also say a few words about this. I remember well my first personal encounter with him. It was right after my ordination as bishop in 1989. Brother Roger wrote me a very brief letter inviting me to come to Taizé. I do not know why he sent this invitation to a brand-new bishop. Of course, I had already been to Taizé once and I knew many wonderful things about this community. So I set out for Taizé once again.

In his room Brother Roger greeted me like a father. But, instead of beginning to chat about mundane things: how are you, how was your trip, he made me kneel before a small icon of the Virgin in a corner of his simple room and we prayed together “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee ....” And then, no theological debates, as I knew well from my time as a professor of theology. Brother Roger only expressed his joy, from the depths of his heart, that a new baby bishop, as I was then, had arrived and that—like every baby—he brought hope. He had the hope that with this new baby we could move forward together on the path of reconciliation between Christians and build a poor Church for the poor, a common home for all Christians and a sign of solidarity and peace in our tormented world.

This meeting was a profound spiritual experience for me. The man I met was not a professional theologian, he was not a professor in his lecture-hall or office, living in his library and studying old manuscripts, but he was nevertheless a real theologian, in other words someone who knows how to speak about God. He knew how to speak about God in an existential way. He was a theologian on his knees, a theologian who listened in silence to what the Spirit wanted to say to him, a theologian who lived what he said and who was on the road leading towards a hope, towards a vision of Christian reconciliation and world peace. In a word, a theologian whose life was rooted in a profound spiritual experience, whose renown had already begun to spread in France, Germany, Italy and around the world, and who was enabling a kind of young and renewed Church to germinate and grow everywhere, a Church of the future, of which we now see only the first outlines.

We wonder: where did this courage come from, with no economic and financial resources, but instead lived in gospel poverty, together with brothers who likewise did not belong to the powerful, rich and influential people of this world? Where did this courage and this trust come from?

II. The Risen Christ, the guiding-star of our trust

Brother Roger’s road had begun long ago. In his youth he suffered from a serious illness. He was immobilized by pulmonary tuberculosis, extended by a severe relapse. He had time to read, to meditate and to discover God's call. Later on he wrote: “When death seemed close, I sensed that, even more than the body, it is the depths of the self that are in need of healing. And our hearts are healed above all by a humble trust in God.”

This word “trust” often appears in the writings of Brother Roger. When he was asked if there were “realities which make life beautiful and of which it can be said that they bring a kind of fulfillment, an inner joy?” he had replied, “Yes, there are. And one of these realities bears the name of trust. ...what is best in each of us is built up through a simple trusting.” Trust gives us the strength to stand firm. But how can we stand firm when human societies are shaken, when our own family is broken, when we experiences our fragility and personal failures, when we not only feel the wounds of the body but also those of the soul, when we see no light on the horizon, when a deep sadness takes hold of us?

Each of us is familiar with such situations, when we can no longer see any stars shining in the sky. Even for a bishop and a cardinal these experiences are not absent. The young Roger, when he was not yet Brother Roger, found an answer in the Gospel of St. John: “The light that shines on every human being came into the world.” This light is Christ, the Risen Lord. “Perhaps we are hardly aware of it, but he remains close to every person.” Jesus lived among us, to reveal to us that God is not “far away, and even unattainable.” “And today, risen from the dead, Christ lives in each one of us by the Holy Spirit.”

The Second Vatican Council said that “Christ is united to every human being without exception.” He is even united to those who do not know him. “More easily grasped for some, more hidden for others, his mysterious presence is always there.” Christ is the star that shines in the darkness of our existence. He is the One who gives us trust if we surrender ourselves to Him.

III. God’s mercy, source of trust

Jesus has revealed that God is not far from us. He is our Father. Christ in the Holy Spirit communicates to us this confident trust: God is love. “God is love,” says St. John (1 John 4:8,16). And Brother Roger repeated: “God is love, and love alone.” We, and that means each one of us, are loved with an everlasting love. Each of us is known by name, chosen and loved from all eternity. By that Brother Roger anticipated the central message of Pope Francis: no one is excluded from God's love. God does not let anyone down. We can never fall more deeply than into God's hands. That is why we can be confident and remain standing in every situation, however sad it may be.

“God,” said Brother Roger, “can only love.” He is faithful to himself and to us. This faithfulness of God to himself, and the outward reflection of his inner essence, of his love, is mercy. Mercy is the truth about God. It reveals the sovereignty of God in his love. God is not bound to the narrow rules of our human justice, which requires that every fault be punished. In the book of the prophet Hosea, God himself says about this, “I am God and not man” (Hosea 11:9).

With Him there is always forgiveness, and after the failure there is always the chance of a new beginning. As Jesus proclaimed in the parable of the prodigal son, God is the merciful Father who stands waiting for the prodigal son (or prodigal daughter) to welcome him, to embrace him and clothe him with his rights as a son (Luke 15:11-32).

Brother Roger wrote a wonderful chapter entitled “Living Lives of Forgiveness.” Allow me to quote a few sentences: “God is never, never at all, a tormentor of the human conscience. He buries our past in the heart of Christ and is going to take care of our future.” “The contemplation of his forgiveness becomes a radiant kindness in a simple heart that lets itself be led by the Spirit.” “Those who root their lives in forgiveness are able to pass through rock-hard situations like the water of a stream which makes its way in early springtime through the still-frozen ground.” “Forgiveness can change our heart: severity and harsh judgments recede and leave room for an infinite goodness. And we become capable of seeking to understand more than to be understood.”

God’s mercy is his patience. He accompanies us throughout our personal journey with inexhaustible patience. God allows us time; he always gives us a new chance, and he always lets us regain momentum. Pope Francis often says, “His mercy is infinite and never stops, if we don’t stop praying.”

IV. The Church, communion of love

This message of love and mercy, which in every situation allows us to trust, is not an abstract idea or a distant utopia. God revealed it in a human way in the incarnation of his Son, and after the resurrection he continues to manifest it in a human way through the Church. Brother Roger wrote, “After the resurrection, Christ's presence is tangible through a communion of love which is the Church.” “A communion of love” was the term Brother Roger preferred to designate the Church. It is sent to be the instrument and sign of God’s love and mercy.

At this point we confront a big problem, and Brother Roger was one of the first to be attentive to it. How can the Church make concrete this love if it is divided in itself? How can it witness to reconciliation if Christians are not reconciled among themselves? That is the ecumenical problem, or expressed better, the deep suffering of so many Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians. They suffer because the division in the Church, and the existence of several Churches that do not recognize one another, are a countersign with reference to the nature and the mission of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council formulated this problem by stating: the division of Churches “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1).

For Brother Roger, the recomposition of the unity of the Church was one of his central objectives. He formulated this in a passionate way: “Will Christians have hearts large enough, imaginations open enough, love burning enough to discover this Gospel way: to live without delay as people who are reconciled?” The remedy making possible such a recomposition is mercy. He added: “Credibility can be reborn for the younger generation when that communion which is the Church becomes transparent by striving with its whole soul to love and to forgive, when, even with a minimum of resources, it becomes welcoming, close to human suffering. Never distant, never on the defensive, freed from all forms of severity, it can let the humble trusting of faith shine right into our human hearts.”

V. The personal ecumenical journey of Brother Roger

How to attain this unity? Brother Roger knew and acknowledged that the council had led to remarkable dialogues and exchanges among the Churches. We then produced a large stack of ecumenical documents. Of course, they are helpful; they have solved many problems and prepared the path of reconciliation. But they are not enough; they remain a dead letter if they are not put into practice and become a life which is lived out. And that is the program, or better yet Brother Roger’s very personal ecumenical mission. With him everything became existential. Ecumenism for him was not a dead letter but a reality written by his life and his personal biography.

As you well know, Brother Roger came from a Reformed family. He undertook Protestant theological studies and became a Reformed minister. He never denied nor rejected this legacy. When he spoke of “the faith of his origins,” it was this beautiful mixture of catechesis, devotion, theological formation and Christian witness received in the Reformed tradition to which he was referring. He shared that patrimony with all his brothers and sisters of Protestant affiliation, to whom he always felt deeply connected.

Since his early years of studying theology, however, when the student was not yet Brother Roger, he also sought to nourish his faith and his spiritual life at the wellsprings of other Christian traditions—Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox ones. Already very early he crossed some denominational barriers. It already began with his bachelor’s thesis, which was entitled: “The Monastic Ideal until Saint Benedict and its Conformity with the Gospel.” Here the young theologian discovered community life as a way of living according to the Gospel. For the Protestantism of the time, the monastic life was strange and often regarded with a certain amount of hostility. But in him this discovery awoke the desire to follow a monastic vocation and to found for this purpose a new community with Christians of the Reformation.

He began first by living himself a very poor and very simple life in Taizé, near the old and famous medieval monastery of Cluny. With time other brothers joined him and shared his life. Living together the ancient and Catholic monastic tradition led them to a deeper confrontation with this tradition. In this way, over the years Brother Roger was enriched by the patrimony of the Catholic faith: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic gifts, the apostolic ministry in the Church, including the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome, and the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation history.

Encounters with the Anglican and especially with the Orthodox tradition soon took place and would enrich still more the life of the new monastery of Taizé through the love of icons, Eastern chants, and especially through the experience of the divine mystery in the celebration of the liturgy. Thus we find many Orthodox elements in the liturgy celebrated at Taizé.

The result of this development has not been a syncretistic amalgam of different elements, but a reintegration and reconciliation of those elements that were dissociated, isolated and separated, an ecumenism lived out as a foretaste of the future communion of Churches. Brother Roger one day formulated the leitmotif of his entire life: “I have found my own Christian identity by reconciling within myself the faith of my origins with the mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking fellowship with anyone.” He found the fullness of the Christian faith and all its richness without denying his origins and without breaking with anyone.

This phrase, often repeated by him, allows us to touch the recapitulation of Brother Roger’s entire personal journey and the heart of his ecumenical vision. In fact, Brother Roger never wanted to break “with anyone”. He did not want to use the customary and traditional terms of “conversion” or “formal adherence” to describe his communion with the Catholic Church. In his consciousness he had entered into the mystery of the Catholic Church, but without breaking, without abandoning what he had received and lived beforehand. This is why traditional formulations applied to him were inappropriate and ambiguous; they could not express his journey and his ecumenical vocation nor that of the Taizé Community. These formulations could seem to suggest that he had denied and rejected the heritage of faith of his origins, whereas for him it was a process of enrichment, widening and maturing that opened out to reconciliation and communion lived unambiguously, but with decisiveness and in a manner which was totally clear, limpid and transparent .

Pope John Paul II summed up this intention well during his visit to Taizé on October 5, 1986 with these words: “In wanting to be yourselves a ‘parable of community’, you will help all whom you meet to be faithful to their church affiliation which is the fruit of their education and their choice in conscience, but also to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of communion that the Church is in God's plan.”

Brother Roger bequeathed this existential program to his community and to the whole Church as his legacy. So we ask: How can this legacy become the paradigm of the ecumenical journey of the Church and of the Churches?

VI. Brother Roger's journey as a paradigm for ecumenism?

The Catholic Church has generously responded to this request. It accepted that Brother Roger might receive communion at the Eucharist, and he did so every morning in the large church at Taizé. Brother Roger also received communion several times not only at the hands of Pope John Paul II in his private chapel, but also in the presence of the Pope in public liturgies in St. Peter's Basilica. In this sense there was nothing hidden either in the attitude of Brother Roger or of the Catholic Church, neither at Taizé or in Rome. At the time of Pope John Paul II’s funeral, the man who was still Cardinal Ratzinger only repeated what had already been done before him during the time of the late Pope. There was nothing new or premeditated in the cardinal’s act. For that reason the Taizé Community was totally justified in refuting, after Brother Roger’s death, rumors of a secret conversion to Catholicism. Brother Roger path was extra-ordinary; but it was clear and transparent.

Can this extraordinary journey become an ordinary path? Of course, Brother Roger’s path was his own personal journey, guided by the providence of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It cannot be copied. Every Christian in the communion of the Church has his or her own personal vocation, to which they must answer in their own life. However, the personal charism of the founders of orders or religious congregations is not just a private charism, but a charism that with the consent of the Church becomes foundational for their community and for the whole Church. So Brother Roger’s charism has radiated outward upon the community of Taizé brothers and, far beyond them, upon all Christendom. For this reason it seems to me that Brother Roger’s personal journey, guided by the Holy Spirit, is a discreet indication by the Holy Spirit for the future ecumenical path.

To better understand this indication, we must remember the distinction of the Second Vatican Council between the ecumenical movement that concerns the relationship between the Churches, and the desire of an individual person to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. These two forms are not in opposition; both are the work of the same Holy Spirit (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4).

Obviously, Brother Roger’s path doesn’t  fit exactly in the scheme. It was his personal charisma to undertake in a certain sense a personal combination of both ways. Obviously he knew and he appreciated the results of the official ecumenical documents, which ruled out many old prejudices and paved the way for many steps for a deeper mutual understanding, of approach and of practical cooperation between the churches. But full communion cannot be produced by theological ecumenical commissions, as helpful they are. On the end  it remains a personal decision of conscience, prepared  and accompanied by prayers and then a personal step over the over the threshold. This Brother Roger did and he did it  without rejecting or abandoning everything he had inherited from his original affiliation and without making a break with anyone.  In this way Brother Roger by the grace of God was guided to accept and to live Catholic faith and the Catholic Church accepted this personal  way and by the Holy Communion  he was welcomed and fully received in her communion.

One cannot copy the way. But if I am not mistaken , there are today a growing number of sincere Christians in a similar situation. The approach of the Churches has reached a point , where with the grace of God personal decisions have to be made without denying one’s own heritage and without breaking with old companions and friends. It is important to do such steps after a time of reflection and prayer without ambiguity and  in a clear and consequent way, as Brother Roger did. 

VII. The method of mercy

In the background of Brother Roger’ journey, which has already become the path of many others, lies the idea that was formulated by Pope John XXIII in his famous opening address at the Second Vatican Council. In this address the Pope sketched out his own ecumenical program, which became fundamental for Brother Roger. The pope said, “The Church prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than brandish the weapons of severity.” Previously, in announcing the council, the Pope had already declared, “We will not put history on trial. We will not seek to find out who was wrong and who was right. Responsibilities are shared. We will only say: let us be reconciled!”

Brother Roger speaks about this method of mercy in a chapter specifically titled “Mercy” in his Rule for the Taizé Community. He said, “The sin of one member affects the whole body, but God's forgiveness re-establishes him within the community.” This sentence on mercy between brothers of the community applies analogously to the relationship between the Churches. It is the medicine of mercy and forgiveness, and not of severity, which heals the wounds of separation. Mercy is not cheap grace. Mercy is the expression of God’s identity and faithfulness to himself, and therefore it does not cancel and does not remove the identity of the Church but is rather the seal of its identity. Only a merciful Church, a Church that is not exclusive and does not exclude anyone, is a Church identical with itself and identical with its mission to be God's instrument to give new trust to us all.

To conclude: I am convinced that Brother Roger, by the method of mercy and with the consent of the two Popes Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, opened a door, the Holy Door of mercy. Like Pope Francis he wants an open and welcoming church, which does not exclude any person of good will. Everyone is welcome without breaking with anyone. This gives us new confidence to trust. Ten years after his death we have every reason to express our deep gratitude to God for giving us the gift of Brother Roger and we are invited to continue his journey. God bless you all.