South Africa teaches the world to hope, Taizé Prior says
Br Alois Löser is the Prior of the ecumenical Community of Taizé in France. Next year he will visit South Africa where his community will host a gathering called “The Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth”. Some brothers are already living in Cape Town preparing for the meeting which will attract thousands of young people from across the world. Br Alois was in Rome for the Synod of Bishops on Young People. He spoke to Russell Pollitt SJ about South Africa and his hopes for the Cape Town meeting.
South Africa is a country of hope. South Africa has the vocation to give hope to the whole continent of Africa” believes Br Alois Löser, the prior of the Taizé community in France.
Br Alois was designated Prior of the world-famous ecumenical community by its founder, Br Roger, 27 years before he died in 2005. Br Roger founded the community in the small picturesque village of Taizé in 1940 which is made up of over 100 brothers from 25 different countries. They welcome thousands of pilgrims every year and also organise meetings in various cities around the world.
South Africa will host the next such meeting. The Taizé “Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth” gathering will take place in Cape Town from 25-29 September 2019. It is aimed at young people between the ages of 18-35. The last time such a meeting was held in South Africa was in 1995 in Johannesburg.
Br Alois attended the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment in Rome in October 2018. I had the opportunity to meet the Prior of Taizé in Rome and talk to him about his trip to South Africa in 2019. I was immediately struck by his simplicity and openness.
I began by asking him why they, the Community of Taizé, had decided to visit the country next year.
He said he knows things are not easy in South Africa. He says democracy and freedom have not put an end to segregation, especially on an economic level. This situation discourages young people and is why, he says, “this Pilgrimage of Trust could be a moment of hope.”
The Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth began in the 1970s. It is a series of gatherings where young people are invited to come together to encounter others and God through hospitality, sharing, Bible study and prayer.
Br Alois explains that Archbishop Tutu was the first to invite the community to South Africa in the 1970s. Brs Roger and Alois first visited Johannesburg and Cape Town in 1978. Tutu sent a group of young people from all different backgrounds to Taizé on a pilgrimage of reconciliation — he was denied permission to accompany them himself. The archbishop urged the community to visit South Africa.
He says that this time the Catholics, Anglicans and Protestant Churches have invited them to visit the country. “And we are very glad about this opportunity to come back to South Africa,” he adds.
Asked about the roles Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela played in the fight against apartheid, Br Alois believes it is important to keep their memory alive for the entire human family. He said he was happy to hear of the celebrations around the world for the Mandela centenary because it “can give us hope that in the situation where we don’t see hope, things can change.”
He thinks this is what South Africa teaches the world: things can change even when we do not think it is humanly possible.
Br Alois says he sees a parallel, perhaps, between Europe and South Africa. When the Berlin wall came down we thought “freedom and community in Europe will grow very quickly and we see many divisions, we see injustices growing.”
He believes it is good for Europe and South Africa to meet because of this similarity. He said, like in Europe, in South Africa there was also great hope after apartheid “and now we see that it is a long way through the desert.” It is for this very reason that the Church must bring people together to “find our Christian hope.”
Br Alois says “we don’t hope because things might go well.” Christians hope because Christ died, and Christ is risen, and he “has the last word to each human being and also to human history.”
A way of being hopeful, he believes, is for people to come together in an experience of friendship. We need to trust young people, we need to give them trust and trust their energy as they “will find ways of overcoming [the] injustices and for them they need an experience of friendship.”
“We need small experiences where people are equal where there is real friendship, where we listen to each other.” He believes if this is done on a small scale then young people will be encouraged to commit themselves in society.
He believes the Church must make an effort to listen. Those who have responsibility in the Church need to become more aware of the need for bringing young people together so that they can have an experience a place of friendship and of listening.
Br Alois talking about his experience in Taizé (he entered the community in 1974). He sees that young people want to come together to pray together. “It’s very natural in Taizé; we have Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox also, and three times a day we come together [to pray].”
He said, after a week in Taizé, young people often say that the silence was the most important. This “is very astonishing because they run away from silence always but in Taizé they say the silence has been important.”
Br Alois believes “young people can open the door for unity amongst Christians to grow and become stronger.” He says that on the theological level this takes a long time but on a practical level it is happening.
When young people pray together and care for those who are poor, they work together despite their Christian affiliation. He uses the example of Europe where young people are working together to help those who live on the streets and to welcome migrants who come to Europe. “The situation, the fact that there are more and more migrants coming to Europe, I think is a chance for the Church. It is a chance to live more the Gospel, becoming welcoming,” Br Alois says.
At Taizé the community doesn’t lead prayer, he says. “We pray in community and we pray with them [young people] and they participate through the singing.” In South Africa he sees this as a real possibility, “really singing, worship can bring together young people and I am looking forward to that in South Africa, it will be a great joy.”
The gathering in Cape Town will encourage young people in their search for God by helping them to have a deeper trust in themselves and in others. The programme will invite them to be attentive to the signs and the people of hope present around them. It will encourage them to take up responsibilities as bearers of peace and trust in the church and in society.
Br Alois also believes that there will be a great joy at the Cape Town gathering. They will give attention to all the problems young people face but in a spirit of festival. These are not exclusive. “We see in Taizé always, when Africans come, it is always the two: it’s the situations that often are hopeless, but also there is always the festival.”
Meditative prayer is important, Br Alois reiterates. “We have to become more attentive to the interior life” and this is why silence is important and necessary too.
The daily programme of the gathering will include common prayers, silence and times of sharing. During the morning, programmes will take place in parishes or local churches throughout the City. From midday onwards the meeting will . continue in a common central venue.
The Prior hopes the grace of the Pilgrimage of Trust in Cape Town “will be the hospitality that it will encourage.” He adds that the young people who come to Cape Town will be welcomed into families they do not know — young people will be accommodated with “host families” in the various parishes and local communities in Cape Town.
Br Alois believes this is something great, an experience of the Church, a sign that the Church really exists. He says young people not only get a place to sleep in the homes of their hosts but this is a sign of the Gospel. “It is a small fire of the Gospel, like God came in Jesus to us to ask for hospitality, so this hospitality can touch their hearts and can give hope.”
Watch Br Alois interviewed by Russell Pollitt SJ in Rome