Now that Pope John XXIII is being beatified in Rome, I cannot forget the moment I learned of his death in 1963. My brothers and I were on our way to evening prayer. And from the depths of my being this question arose: what would become of Taizé without John XXIII?
During his visit to Taizé on October 5, 1986, Pope John Paul II recalled the love his predecessor had for our community with words that inspired our gratitude: "I would like to express to you my affection and my trust with these simple words with which Pope John XXIII, who loved you so much, greeted Brother Roger one day: 'Ah, Taizé, that little springtime!'" And John Paul commented: "My desire is that the Lord may keep you like a springtime that blossoms and that He keep you little, in the joy of the Gospel and the transparency of brotherly love."
It was Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons who took the initiative in 1958 to introduce us to John XXIII, immediately after his election as pope. Wishing to place in his heart the question of the reconciliation of Christians, the cardinal asked John XXIII to receive Taizé at one of his first audiences. Why so quickly? The Pope was elderly, the cardinal explained, and very soon he would hear a great many words, so it was important that he should remember well what we would tell him.
John XXIII accepted "provided that they don't ask questions that are too difficult." And so he received us immediately after the inauguration of his ministry, on the first morning when private audiences were held. He was very attentive to the question of reconciliation and ended the conversation by asking us to return. From the very first meeting, the Pope transmitted to us a kind of unexpected surge of life.
At the beginning of 1959, John XXIII announced a Council "where history would not be put on trial." He had the intuition that this kind of Council could open ways of reconciliation between Christians. We were filled with gratefulness when we realized that he wanted us to be present at the Council as observers. I can still remember the day when the letter arrived: what a gift from God to be invited to take part in that adventure!
The Second Vatican Council began in 1962. In clear terms, John XXIII was able to find expressions that encouraged people to go forward, without losing any time listening to prophets of doom. The day the Council opened he said, "In the current situation of society, the only thing these prophets of doom see is ruin and calamity; they say that things have become much worse in our day, as if everything were perfect, before; they announce catastrophes, as if the world were close to its end."
Another thing he said that same day is astonishing because of its intuitive power and remains relevant today: "The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than to wield the weapons of severity."
One day, in a private audience, the Pope confided to us how he sometimes took decisions while praying. "I speak with God," he said. There was a moment of silence: "Oh! Quite humbly, quite simply." Then he said that in that case he would sometimes receive a word but it could happen that, when he tried to communicate it to others, it remained stuck in his throat! And yet that word would come out in the end.
After a meeting we had with the Pope on October 13, 1962, we learned that he had said about us, "We did not negotiate; we spoke together. We did not argue; we loved each other."
Our last meeting took place on February 25, 1963. There were three of us, I was with my brothers Max and Alain. In the throes of an advanced stage of cancer, at the age of 82, the Holy Father knew his death was approaching and we had been warned of this. We were told that our audience would be fixed for a day when John XXin was not in pain, a day when he would be rested and we would be his only visitors. That audience lasted an unusually long time. Aware that we would never see him again, we wanted to hear a kind of spiritual testament from his lips. John XXIII was concerned that we not be worried about the future of our community. Making circular gestures with his hands, he emphasized: "The Catholic Church is made up of concentric circles that are larger and larger, always larger."
In that last conversation, John XXIII spoke to us of world peace. In utter simplicity of heart, he was astonished to see his efforts taken seriously by world leaders. At a time when Russians and Americans were deeply in conflict over Cuba, he was surprised that his call for peace had been listened to and that after his intervention the situation had cooled down.
John XXIII signs his encyclical letter:
Pacem in Terris, April 11, 1963.
|The Pope was just about to publish a letter on peace:
Pacem in Terris. He told us how the idea had come to him the night of Epiphany. In that letter, the Pope emphasized the insufficiency of the way the world was organized for the good "of the entire human family." He suggested the creation of
"a public authority of worldwide scope which would exercise its action across the entire earth, an authority with universal jurisdiction, a supranational or world authority."
John XXIII knew how to look beyond immediate situations. He did not let threats that the worst would happen affect him. During our last meeting with him, we saw tears in his eyes because, he told us, some of his intentions had been disfigured. That was his most difficult trial. Still today, I sometimes re-read some of John XXIII's words. I like to remember this one: "Self-love paralyzes the development of the spirit and causes sadness." He was so convinced of this that he spoke of the importance of "placing oneself beneath one's own feet." When a trial arrived, he said simply, "I am like a bird singing in a thorn bush."
After the Pope's death, we welcomed to Taizé on two occasions his youngest brother, Giuseppe Roncalli, with some members of his family. That elderly man observed everything attentively. He noticed among other things how rudimentary the accommodation was for young people on our hill. One evening he said to his grandson, "It was my brother the Pope who began what will come out of Taizé." That peasant from Bergamo had realized to what extent we loved his brother and that the love was mutual.
Brother Roger of Taizé
Letter from Taizé, December 2000 - January 2001