By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – A 99-year-old priest, college students, a man with children and two monks from Taizé, France – all gathering around the cross while people were singing around them.
This was a scene Friday at the Taizé prayer service in Assumption College’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit.
“Your heart just begins to pray with the song,” said Mary Mullaney, who was instrumental in bringing Taizé to the Worcester Diocese. “That repetitive music allows you to relax and get into a place where the Spirit can work in you. Everybody lives busy lives and finds so little time to rest. This service gives you that opportunity, first through the music and then through the period of silence.”
This service, and monthly ones like it, happened because Ms. Mullaney and others started them in 2012 at Ascension Church, later moving them to the college.
This one packed the chapel: the two monks were visiting from Taizé where such services have been drawing thousands of people, especially young people, for years.
“It’s nice to be welcomed to our own prayer,” said Brother John, one of the visiting monks. Assumption was the first stop on a three-week U.S. tour he was making with Brother Emile. Ms. Mullaney invited them to Assumption.
The brothers spoke with representatives from several churches, students from Assumption and the College of the Holy Cross and the public.
They said they belong to a “monastic, ecumenical community,” founded by Brother Roger, who went from Switzerland to Taizé in 1940 to help World War II refugees. They said there are now more than 100 brothers in Bangladesh, Brazil, Senegal, Kenya and South Korea, and their center – Taizé. They’re from Catholic and Protestant churches and have been praised by recent popes.
They focus on prayer, work to earn a living and annually welcome about 100,000 visitors from different churches and countries, most ages 17-30. They say they don’t know the secret that draws visitors. But they share prayer and Scripture and seek to foster solidarity, trust and reconciliation. They also organize gatherings in other countries.
“It was so obvious that they were the real thing,” Ms. Mullaney said of the visiting brothers. “I was awed to be in the presence of people who were so genuinely committed to Jesus Christ.”
The brothers joined the public in a candlelight procession from the Testa Science Center to the chapel for Friday’s service. Participants placed their candles in holders by a display of icons and flowers in the darkened chapel. The brothers and a few others knelt or sat on the floor. Worshippers filled the pews.
The service included prayers, Scriptures and Taizé chants of simple phrases repeated over and over, such as “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” There was an extended period of silence and the opportunity for worshippers to gather in adoration, a few at a time, around the San Damiano cross.
The printed program asked participants to disperse quietly at their own pace at the end and invited them to Taizé services at 8 p.m. May 1 and June 5. (Services are usually held on first Fridays, excluding summer months.)
“I think that there is such a huge universal need in everyone’s heart for God,” Ms. Mullaney said, attempting to explain what brought the diverse group together Friday. “People that are young feel it. People that are very, very old feel it. To put your head on the cross and feel the consolation that comes from that … It gives me tremendous hope for the future.” To watch college students and children come, “it means that they get it, that magnetic (feeling) that God is drawing them to himself.”
Students told The Catholic Free Press about Taizé’s effects on them.
“I can’t wait to go,” Valerie Kisselback, a Holy Cross senior, said of her desire to visit the French town. “I don’t know how it will happen, but I need to get there.” She and classmates who organized a Taizé service at their college had just posed for a photo with the monks in the afternoon.
“I love the music,” Ms. Kisselback continued. “Like the brothers were saying, it helps us connect with something deeper within us. God is very present to me in music.”
She was finding it hard to put her feelings into words, but after Friday evening’s service she was able to: “It brings me great joy to be able to sing, to be able to pray that way.”
Her classmate Katherine Manansala said she visited Taizé once while in France last year and attended a weekly Taizé service in an Episcopal Church in Strasbourg.
“The feeling it inspired within me …,” she said of being in Taizé. “It was an easier way to pray. The prayers and songs use words, but it’s what the words make you feel and how they connect you to the Divine.”
She said she’ll probably return to Taizé next year while in France teaching English.
“It was cool because I didn’t know Taizé was a town,” Amber Kelley, an Assumption College sophomore, said after listening to the brothers, who had students read Scripture and discuss being salt of the earth.
“We are different today in a meaningful way because we don’t give in to discouragement,” Brother Emile told them. “Lots of people are tired today. You don’t hear that as much in Vietnam or the Philippines,” but it’s present in “our part of the world.”
“The discussion was really awesome,” Ms. Kelley said. She said she’s been to Taizé services at Assumption, and liked Friday’s.
“It was nice to pray by the cross while everyone else was singing around you,” she said.
The Taizé brothers aren’t starting a new tradition; they’re doing what monks have always done, Ms. Mullaney said. But they draw Christians from different churches together to pray for unity.