Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taize Community in France, was one of the great Christian spirits of the 20th century. An ecumenical pioneer, Brother Roger, in the apt words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, promoted an “ecumenism of holiness, that holiness which changes the depths of the soul and which alone leads toward full communion.” Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of spiritual wayfarers have tasted something of that holiness in visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize. The late John Paul II once described the experience in evocative terms: “One passes through Taize as one passes close to a spring of water.”
Cardinal Kasper’s tribute to Brother Roger took place at his funeral, this past August 23. On August 16, while attending evening prayer at Taize’s Church of the Reconciliation, the 90-year old monk was stabbed to death by a deranged woman, dying almost instantly. One might have hoped that the death of such a great soul would have become an opportunity to ponder a life lived in complete dedication to Christ, and to Christ’s reconciling work in the world.
It was not to be, though, as the New York Times ran a story on Brother Roger’s funeral that launched an unnecessary and untoward controversy. Here is the lead of the Times story: “Brother Roger Schutz pursued many ecumenical dreams in his life, but in death one of them came true. At a Eucharistic service celebrated Tuesday by a Roman Catholic cardinal for Brother Roger, a Swiss Protestant, communion wafers were given to the faithful indiscriminately, regardless of denomination.” The first falsehood here is that Brother Roger believed in open and “indiscriminate” intercommunion, which he did not. The second falsehood is the suggestion that Cardinal Kasper (who presided at the funeral at the request of the Taize Community) distributed holy communion “indiscriminately, regardless of denomination” – which he did not.
But what with the Times’ (ever-increasingly unwarranted) position as the newspaper of record, a controversy was soon raging in the blogosphere and elsewhere, to the point where the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, of which Cardinal Kasper is president, prepared a note for those interested in what had really taken place at Taize on August 23. The note explains that the celebration of Brother Roger’s funeral “followed the usual practice at Taize,” which had developed during the 1970s, in conversation and agreement with the Vatican, “for the singular circumstances” of this ecumenical monastic community and the pilgrims who spend time there. As the note put it, “everything possible is done to ensure that the Eucharist is celebrated in a way that excludes confusion regarding Church membership, or is against the rules in force.”
Since the 1970s, all Eucharistic celebrations at the Church of the Reconciliation at Taize are Catholic liturgies, presided over by priests or bishops. “For those who…cannot or do not wish to receive communion in the Catholic Church, a special arrangement enables them to receive the ‘blessed bread.’ After the Gospel reading…a basket of small pieces of bread is blessed by the celebrant and set on a table next to the altar. At the moment of communion, the distribution of the Eucharist and the distribution of the blessed bread are done in a way that clearly indicates the difference. In this the Orthodox and Easter-rite Catholics recognize their traditional practice of distributing the ‘antirodon,’ namely parts of the altar bread that have not been consecrated. At Brother Roger’s funeral, in accordance with the usual practice at Taize, those present could receive either the consecrated Eucharistic species or the blessed bread.”
The Times’ story suggests that a policy decision was made to give holy communion to non-Catholics at Brother Roger’s funeral. That is simply not true. The suggestion demeaned both the faith of Brother Roger in the Real Presence and the delicacy and integrity with which Taize has tried to live both the truth of the Eucharist and the quest for ecclesial reconciliation. It also set off a wholly unnecessary controversy that would have pained Brother Roger deeply. The Times owes Taize (and Cardinal Kasper) an apology.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.