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ROGER-SLAIN (SECOND UPDATE) Aug-18-2005 (1,160 words) With photos posted Aug. 17. xxxi

Pope shocked at slaying of Brother Roger, ecumenical leader

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI said he was shocked and saddened at the slaying of Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taize community and one of the world's leading ecumenical figures.

Brother Roger, 90, was stabbed three times in the neck by a Romanian woman during an evening prayer service at the Taize community's headquarters in eastern France Aug. 16. He died soon afterward. Authorities arrested the woman, 36, who was said to show signs of mental instability.

A visibly moved Pope Benedict, in impromptu remarks during his weekly general audience Aug. 17 at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, said he had been given the sad and "terrifying" news that morning.

It was all the more shocking, the pope said, because he had received a "very moving and very friendly" letter from Brother Roger the previous day.

The pope said Brother Roger had written to explain that for health reasons he could not join the pope for World Youth Day celebrations in Cologne, Germany, but would be there spiritually.

"He writes that from the bottom of his heart he wants to tell me: 'We are in communion with you and with those gathered in Cologne,'" the pope said, quoting from the letter in French.

"In his own hand, he writes that 'our community of Taize wants to walk in communion with the Holy Father,'" the pope said.

In a telegram sent Aug. 18 to the current head of the community, Brother Alois, the pope prayed that God would give community members the strength to continue the work begun by their founder -- fostering peace and reconciliation. Brother Alois, a 51-year-old German, returned from World Youth Day in Cologne to take up his new duties.

The papal telegram said Brother Roger was a "man of faith passionately in love with the church" whose community helped "numerous generations of Christians" deepen their own faith and meet Christ through prayer and friendship.

Brother Roger had met several times with Pope John Paul II, who briefly visited Taize in 1986. Pope Benedict personally greeted Brother Roger when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he celebrated Pope John Paul's funeral Mass in Rome in April.

For many of the pilgrims attending the Aug. 17 papal audience, the news also came as a shock. Hundreds of thousands of people, especially youths, have visited the ecumenical monastic community of Taize or participated in its activities.

The pope did his best to comfort them.

"In this moment of sadness, we can only entrust to the Lord's goodness the soul of his faithful servant. We know that from sadness ... will be reborn joy," the pope said.

"Brother Roger is in the hands of eternal goodness and eternal love and has arrived at eternal joy," he said.

In the United States, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the U.S. church shared "this moment of grief with the Holy Father" and expressed "great sadness" at the "horrific news" of Brother Roger's death.

"We assure you and the community of our profoundest sentiments as we share in your suffering and loss," said Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., in an Aug. 18 letter to Brother Alois. "One with Brother Roger and the community in a firm faith in the Resurrection, we recommit ourselves to the communion to which he bore witness in life and death."

Numerous Catholic leaders were already in Cologne, Germany, awaiting Pope Benedict's arrival when they heard the news of Brother Roger's death.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz, head of the German bishops' conference, said that Brother Roger's murder reminded him "of the violent fate of Jesus and of other witnesses for a nonviolent life, such as Martin Luther King and Dag Hammarskjold."

In a statement on behalf of the bishops' conference, the cardinal said Brother Roger's violent death showed people more than ever the extreme urgency of the message of peace he left behind.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder praised the Swiss brother's work with young people and recalled how Brother Roger helped persecuted Jewish refugees during the Nazi period as well as migrants and the poor in developing countries.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury said Brother Roger "was one of the best-loved Christian leaders of our time."

In a written statement from London, he said, "hundreds of thousands will be feeling his loss very personally."

Roger Schutz was born May 12, 1915, the son of a Swiss Calvinist pastor and a French Protestant mother, in Provence, a small town in Switzerland. He was a minister of the Swiss Reformed Church.

He founded the Taize community in 1940 with three companions. It grew to eventually include more than 100 Anglicans, Lutherans, evangelicals and Catholics from more than 20 countries.

After first arriving in Taize, the group asked the local Catholic bishop for permission to use the village church. It was such an unusual request that the bishop referred it to the papal nuncio in Paris, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII. The archbishop gave his consent and later became a friend of the fledgling community.

Some 20 years later, with tens of thousands of young people coming to Taize annually, the community built the much bigger Church of the Reconciliation. That was the church where Brother Roger was slain as he prayed with about 2,500 people.

Brother Roger wrote numerous books and journals. He won a number of prestigious international prizes and awards, including the 1974 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

He was thought to be one of the most fervent advocates of reconciliation among the Christian churches since their division during the Reformation. His work and dedication helped earn him the respect and admiration of church leaders around the world.

Pope John Paul first met Brother Roger at the Second Vatican Council, where Brother Roger was invited as a non-Catholic expert. As a Polish archbishop, the future pope visited Taize twice.

During his 1986 stop in Taize, Pope John Paul said: "Like you, pilgrims and friends of the community, the pope is only passing through. But one passes through Taize as one passes close to a spring of water."

Many of Taize's visitors are young people, who for a few days or weeks experience a spiritual community life that is far removed from the materialism of many Western societies.

As Brother Roger once wrote: "We know that they have not come here as tourists. If so, they would have come to the wrong address. Most of them have come with one and the same question: 'How can I understand God? How can I know what God wants for me?'"

Since 1978 the Taize community has sponsored a series of large international gatherings of young people. Called a "Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth," the encounter features ecumenical discussion and prayer.

- - -

Contributing to this story were Carol Glatz at the Vatican and Michael Lawton in Cologne.


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