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Our Week at the Vatican

Every year at the end of the academic program, the students from Bossey take their final study visit to Rome and the Vatican for a week of learning about the Roman Catholic Church and their ecumenical commitment. Although we sure felt like it like was timed to be our reward for successfully completing our comprehensive exams, the trip always takes place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a joint effort between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches.

It’s also an opportunity to be in the midst of some of the earliest of Christian history, learning about our very first brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. But it also certainly gave us one more week to bond as a Bossey family before it was time for all of us to head our separate ways.

Our visit was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The office was created after the Second Vatican Council, when the Roman Catholic Church first began to engage in the ecumenical movement. So we started off our first day by visiting the offices of the PCPCU, meeting their staff and hearing about the different projects that they work on. Afterwards we visited the Centro Pro Unione, an ecumenical center run by a group of Franciscan friars, to hear about their work.

That afternoon we got to play tourists, visiting some of the most beautiful of the Catholic churches in Rome – St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John Lateran, and Santa Maria Maggiore. We also got to visit the Colosseum (although we didn’t get to go inside, which was a bummer).

The next morning we had an awesome visit from members of a group called the Unions of Superiors General. They are the heads of some of the different Catholic religious orders (i.e. monks, nuns, brothers, and sisters). Each person told us a little about their group – how it got started, what was unique about their order, and the kind of work that they do. What was especially interesting to me is that the way they speak about their order’s uniqueness is by calling it a “charism,” or gift. It’s from this word that we get “charismatic.” At first, I found myself wondering why there are so many different religious orders (one of the generals said there are over 2,000!) – why don’t some of them just combine and work together?! But then they went on to explain that they DO work together – by each serving as a small piece of the puzzle of the work that the church is called to do as the body of Christ. It’s like when Paul speaks about each member contributing different gifts to the body of Christ…

It helped me to see the ecumenical movement in a different light, or at least find a more helpful way to speak about it. I’ve always had the opinion that different denominations, in and of themselves, aren’t a bad thing. Someone who might not feel at home in a Baptist church might find a relationship with Christ in a Methodist church, while someone who doesn’t get anything out of a Methodist church might find their place in an Orthodox church. I don’t really care what kind of church people find their home in, I just care that people find a relationship with Christ. Perhaps each denomination has its own “charism,” its own unique gift that it offers. Rather than seeing our divisions as something that tears apart the body of Christ, maybe we can come to see our different denominations as actually BUILDING UP the body of Christ, each offering up its own beautiful uniqueness.

We also got a chance to visit the Vatican Museums and the Catacombs of St. Callixtus that day. But the highlight of the day was visiting the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where the apostle Paul is buried. I was just awe-struck thinking that in 24 hours I’d gotten to see the burial places of both Peter AND Paul, the two most influential men in the spread of Christianity! It was such a privilege.

Brianna and I took a bit of a detour from the group that afternoon, skipping our lunch break to attend the Women’s March in Rome! We were really disappointed to not be able to attend the Women’s March happening that day in Washington D.C. or in either of our hometowns, so we were so glad that there was one happening in Rome. We joined a few hundred women and men, many of whom were fellow Americans, at the Parthenon for a time of hearing speeches, singing, and praying together.

That evening we paid a visit to the headquarters of the Focolare Movement. The Focolare are Catholic laypeople, not priests or monks and nuns, who commit to intentionally living a spirituality and a way of life together. But a lot of the work that they do is ecumenical in nature, and the movement has opened itself up to members of other Christian traditions. I had gotten to meet a group of Focolare earlier in the semester when they came to visit Bossey for the day, so I knew a little bit about the movement. (After meeting the group that first time, I also found out that there’s a small group of women who meet in Little Rock in the spirit of the Focolare that I’m excited to get plugged into once I return home!) During our visit to the headquarters we got to learn a lot more about the work of the Focolare, but also to compare notes on our experiences of communal living as a part of the ecumenical experiment. We all really enjoyed getting to share stories with one another over dinner.

Sunday morning we got to participate in a Catholic mass (the first time for many of us!), and I even got to help pass out bibles to the youth who are catechists during the service! 🙂 That afternoon we had free time to explore Rome on our own, so I got to see the Piazza Venetia, the Forums, the Spanish Steps, make a wish at the Trevi Fountain, and eat some AMAZING gelato!

The next day we met with two other Pontifical Councils of the Vatican, one for Interreligious Dialogue and the other for Promoting New Evangelization. Just as we had done with the PCPCU, we got to meet with their staff and hear about the work each of their offices is doing. I especially enjoyed a video that the Interreligious Dialogue staff showed us about all of the doors that the Second Vatican Council, with its document Nostre Aetate, has opened up for people of all faiths to work together for justice and peace.

That afternoon we also got a special guided tour of the Vatican Necropolis, the ancient cemetery from the 1st century that was later filled in by Constantine to build the first St. Peter’s Basilica. So it’s not one but TWO stories below the current basilica. You can also see the place where the body of the apostle Peter was originally discovered. The history of that place is just incredible!

Tuesday we spent the morning at the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Centro for Judaic Studies. We got to hear more about the relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church and to learn more about the way that Jews and Catholics are working towards reconciliation and the healing of memories through mutual dialogue and education. They have a really cool program where young Catholic men studying to be priests spend a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and young Jews come to study at the Gregorian University.

Later that day we visited the offices of Vatican Radio, where several of the Bossey students got to be interviewed by the desks for their home countries in their native languages about their experience in Bossey and their thoughts about ecumenism.

We spent the evening on Tiber Island, first visiting the church of St. Bartholomew and then having dinner with the Community of Sant’Egidio. The church is a memorial site to ecumenical martyrs from the 20th and 21st centuries from all over the world. It houses the stories and relics of many faithful Christians during the Nazi regime, communism, and well-known martyrs like Oscar Romero. Sant’Egidio a community very similar to the Focolare, expect that it’s made up of both laity and clergy. We got to hear about some of their projects, including helping to get more than 400 refugees with disabilities get resettled into Italy. Over and over throughout the week, people reminded us of Pope Francis’ comment about an “ecumenism of martyrdom.” In many places where Christians are martyred for their faith, it doesn’t matter that they are Catholic or Orthodox or Presbyterian. Their unity comes from their shared willingness to give their lives for Christ’s sake.

And Wednesday. Well, Wednesday WE GOT TO MEET THE POPE!!!!!! It was such an incredible day. It was also our final day in Rome, so we got to end our study visit on the best note ever! That morning we got to participate in the general audience that the Pope holds once or twice a week. We gathered in the audience hall with about 12,000 other people to hear Pope Francis give an address. Just walking in and up to the stage took almost 15 minutes because he stopped to take pictures or shake hands with people and to kiss babies. After his address, it was so cool to hear different bishops translate the Pope’s message into 8 different languages for pilgrims from all over the world to be able to hear it in their own language. We also noticed about halfway through that Arnold Schwarzenegger was there too!!! Afterwards, we were invited to come up onto the stage and wait for a moment with JUST our group. We waited while Pope Francis prayed individually over all those in wheelchairs who had been brought down to the front, then for a row of Catholic newlyweds who had come to have their marriage blessed by the Pope, then to greet the representatives of other groups who had come to visit the Vatican. Finally Pope Francis came over and spent a couple minutes with us. Sabrina, who spoke on behalf of our group, even got the Pope to laugh when she asked him if he would dance with us!

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Although we didn’t each get to shake his hand, it was such an honor to be introduced to him and to spend a moment with him (and I’m not even Catholic! I can only imagine what a profound experience that would be for a faithful Catholic…) We were also each blessed with the gift of a rosary from the Holy See.

That evening we got to see the Pope again when we participated in the closing vespers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where Pope Francis presided. We were invited to sit up in the front with the official representatives from other denominations (and even got a little shout out from Pope Francis when he was introducing the special guests!) and some of our students got to read the intercessory prayers in different languages. It was such an amazing experience to get to participate in such a special service.

All in all, Rome was absolutely incredible. The weather was beautiful, the food was delicious (I could really get used to having wine at every lunch and dinner…), and the sisters who hosted us were so kind. Several of us also agreed that although Paris is often called the City of Love, we felt like Rome was MUCH more romantic than Paris!

We all left with a much deeper understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, and for many of the students deeply held stigmas and stereotypes were broken down. THAT is the first step towards meaningful dialogue and relationship as we work for unity – just seeing the other for who they really are!

It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

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Flying Solo in Barcelona

So when I first arrived in Switzerland, I decided that my goal was to spend one weekend a month traveling to visit a different nearby country in Europe that I’d never been to before (which is most of them…) I wanted to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to see the world and to learn more about different cultures. So I visited Paris, France in October, Amsterdam, the Netherlands in November, London, UK in December, and in January I made my final weekend trip – to Barcelona, Spain!

Barcelona was also my first solo travel trip! I had my travel buddy Brianna with me for Paris and Amsterdam and got to explore London with my boyfriend, but I made the trip to Spain by myself. Very quickly I realized that I definitely prefer traveling with someone, it’s just more fun to get to share the experience with someone else and have someone there to keep you company!

Another thing I realized very quickly is that Spanish is NOT the predominant language in Barcelona, it’s Catalan! Who knew?! I showed up ready to use all the Spanish I could still remember from high school (which is not much anymore :/ ), only to find out I couldn’t understand or communicate very much at all with the locals. Of course, as has been the case everywhere else we visited, in touristy areas most people speak English so I was just fine (an ever-present reminder of the convenience and privilege that comes with being a native English speaker).

Because it was my main reason for wanting to go to Barcelona, my very first stop was to the Sagrada Familia, the stunning cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi. It’s been under construction for over 100 years and they’re still not finished with it yet! When it’s completed, it will be large enough for 13,000 worshipers to attend. There are just no words to describe this place, either the inside OR the outside. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen before… because there’s nothing else like it in the world! In particular, as a lover of stained glass windows, I was just obsessed with the windows inside the church. One side had all green and blue glass to make you feel like you’re inside a forest, while others had the beautiful spectrum of the rainbow. The sheer size of the space is just incredible, it was so beautiful.

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Afterwards, I walked over to the Block of Discord, a grouping of unique buildings designed by Gaudi – Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, and Casa Amatller. Some of the designs are just plain strange, to be honest. But the coolest part is just seeing how modern Spanish architecture has grown up all around these historic buildings, living together side by side.

Stopping in the Placa de Catalunya, I took a walk down La Rambla – the long boulevard of shops, entertainment, and restaurants. It was fun just wandering down the street, especially popping into the La Boqueria market. At the end of La Rambla is the Port of Barcelona, so I visited the Columbus Monument there at the water’s edge and then just sat at the port to watch the sunset. I finished out the day by stopping for a dinner of paella and sangria before heading home.

On my second day I wandered over to the Paca de Sant Josep Oriol for breakfast and to wander through the streets before visiting the Palace of Catalan Music. The building dates from 1908 and is the home of the Orfeo Catalan. Music and dance concerts are performed in the stunning auditorium, which melds together Catalan and a variety of artistic expressions from different cultures, both traditional and modern (Spanish dancer Angel Corella, former ABT principal has performed there). The only source of light comes from a beautiful stained glass dome in the ceiling…

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That afternoon I visited the Barcelona Cathedral and Barcelona’s Arc de Triomph, which was built for the 1888 World Trade Fair. It was a gorgeous sunny day and 62 degrees Farenheit, a welcome change from 25 and snowing in Geneva! So I enjoyed just sitting in the plaza and soaking up the sunshine!

Then I spent a couple of hours (and could have spent a couple more!) at the Picasso museum. They house over 4,000 Picasso works, mostly donated by his widow after his death. The rooms were organized chronologically, so it was interesting to see the development of his style over time, although at 14 he was already a better artist than I will EVER be! I was also interested to discover that the Cubist style that we normally associate with Picasso only appears MUCH later in his work — there are decades of beautiful paintings I would never have thought to be Picasso’s!

I was excited to end my final night in Barcelona by visiting the Magic Fountain, a giant fountain with a music and lights display. But unfortunately it was shut down for yearly repairs and renovations 😦 So instead I had a YUMMY prix fixe dinner, sampling some of the best of Spanish wine, cheese and meats! If you haven’t noticed, trying the different local cuisines has been one of the best parts of my European adventures…

Overall, Barcelona was an interesting city to visit. The things I enjoyed I enjoyed much MORE than I expected, and things I expected to enjoy were underwhelming. But as always, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have this time in my life to get to travel Europe and explore new countries and new cultures!

Unfortunately, it was time to get back to Geneva and prepare for our final, comprehensive oral exams (similar to what PhD students go through…ahhh!) and our final study visit of the program to Rome!

Wine, Cheese, & Chocolate, Oh my!!!

I remember one of the first things my mom said to me after she found out I’d gotten into the Ecumenical Institute and would be living in Switzerland for 5 months (after “I’m so proud of you,” of course…) was “Hmm, Christmas in Switzerland sounds nice!!! Well, it turned out to be New Years before they could make a trip over, but it was the PERFECT way to start 2017 having my Mom and Dad here to visit me for a week!

After a bit of an eventful process settling in, we had a day just to relax and enjoy the beauty of Bossey. I’d been sending them pictures on particularly gorgeous days, and I was excited for them to see it in person! Unfortunately, the winter fog was in full effect and it was hard to see much of anything, especially the mountains and Mont Blanc in the distance. 😦 But I gave them a tour of the campus and the grounds and they got to see where I’ve been living and studying for the last several months.

Our first day of exploring we called “Cheese and Chocolate Day.” We rented a car and drove along the coast of Lake Geneva past the cities of Vevey and Montreux, in the “Swiss Riviera.” We then headed up into the hills for our first stop – La Maison du Gruyere. Gruyere is a region known for some of the best cheese in Switzerland of the same name. There’s a cheese factory there where you can see (and taste!) the process of the cheese-making. But first we stopped in their restaurant for a glass of wine and some delicious Gruyere-Vacherin fondue! YUM!! Although I think my dad’s favorite was the giant slice of quiche we got as an appetizer. Then we headed to the nearby town of Broc to Maison Cailler, a well known chocolate factory which is owned by Nestle (headquartered here in Switzerland). I had been with a fellow student and professor earlier in the semester, and loved it so much I wanted to come back and bring my parents along! There’s a fun and interactive tour giving the history of chocolate and of Maison Cailler, culminating in a tasting room where you literally can eat all the chocolate you want as long as you stay in the room… So dangerous but soooooo delicious! It was a fantastic first day filled with some of the foods Switzerland is most known for – cheese and chocolate!

I also wanted them to have the experience of taking the trains in Switzerland, so on day two we took the train out (again along the beautiful coast) to the other side of Lake Geneva to the Chateau de Chillon. It’s one of the most famous and the most photographed castles in Switzerland. And at over 1,000 years old, it has an incredible history! We spent hours (and could have spent more!) wandering through each room and each courtyard, listening to our audio guide history of the castle and learning a lot about Swiss history in the process. After getting a bottle of Clos de Chillon – the wine made from the vineyards that belong to the castle and can only be purchased there – as a souvenir, we headed on to our next destination – Lausanne and the Olympic Museum! The headquarters of the International Olympic Committee have been in Lausanne since the beginning of the modern Olympics (due in large part to Switzerland’s famed neutrality…), so the museum is too. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through room after room of memorabilia, exhibits about everything that goes into a city’s preparation to host the games, inside look at previous opening ceremonies, and so much more. It was so cool! Then we headed home to get a good night’s sleep… we had a plane to catch the next morning!

Dad sent me a text a few months back asking if we could make a day trip to Belgium during their visit, followed by a series of cryptic texts which turned out to be clues to two famous works of art that are housed in Belgian churches – the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Bruges. Turns out you CAN make a day trip to Belgium when you live in Switzerland (or an overnight if you don’t want to rush through the day), so as a belated Christmas and birthday present, I planned a visit for us! The Ghent Altarpiece is stunning, and we timed our visit to be there for the one hour a day when they close the panels so we could see the images painted on the outside, too. Not a detail or an inch of space has been taken for granted in this beautiful painting.

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We then headed to Bruges, where Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” is located – one of only a few Michelangelo works outside of Italy. It’s unbelievable to me how anyone can do something like that with a piece of stone – the folds in Mary’s dress, the curls in Jesus’ hair, etc. It’s absolutely beautiful. Afterwards, we headed back to Brussels for a wonderful meal at a local restaurant (always trust Yelp to lead you to the best hole-in-the-wall place in town, and don’t trust the review that says language is a barrier!) and to spend the night.

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Since we were going to be coming through downtown Geneva on our way back from Belgium anyway, we took the opportunity to stop and do some of the touristy things in the city. First we went to the United Nations offices in Geneva (second as a headquarters only to New York) where we did the guided tour. Although I had done the tour with Donnie in December, having a different guide makes it a completely different experience and we got to see rooms that weren’t available when I was there before! Then we visited the Wall of the Reformers, a large monument to Geneva’s role in the Protestant Reformation and its many leaders. There was a lot more we could have done, but we were pretty exhausted after 4 long days of traveling, so we headed back to Bossey.

Just like their first day in town, I wanted Mom and Dad’s last day in town to be one where we could just relax and enjoy being out in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the fog had finally lifted so they did get to see the mountains and the countryside. We took a walk to the French border (around half an hour’s distance walking) just to say we went to France! And we also walked to the neighboring town of Celigny to see the grave of Richard Burton, a Welsh actor and one of Elizabeth Taylor’s many husbands. We finished the night with one last glass of Swiss wine and a movie. A perfect end to a fun-filled week!

It was so cool for my parents to get to meet some of my fellow students from around the world and share in some of the conversations that happen around the dinner table at Bossey. And it was so cool to be a part of their first trip to Europe. But most of all, I’m just glad they got to share a piece of this once in a lifetime experience with me! The only thing that would have made it better would be having my little brother here too. Love you, Buddy! We said our goodbyes and Mom and Dad headed off to the airport, knowing we’d get to see each other again in just a few shorts weeks. Hard to believe my time here in Europe is coming to a close! But a lot would happen between saying goodbye to my parents at Bossey and saying hello to them again in Little Rock … one final weekend getaway to Barcelona, our comprehensive exams, and our final study visit – to Rome! So much more to tell before the adventure ends…

Love, Katye

 

Christmas in London

I’m sure London is beautiful any time of year, but London at Christmas time is spectacular!

After enjoying a couple of weeks in Switzerland together, Donnie and I got to spend the last five days of his trip in London. He’s been to London many times before, but the poor guy had to play tourist with me being there for the first time. Since we weren’t able to spend Thanksgiving together, it was really special for us to be together for Christmas this year.

We started off with a whirlwind day visiting some of the big sites in the city – Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each building is absolutely stunning in its own way, the architecture really is a work of art. Westminster Abbey in particular was so impressive – it’s gigantic! Just when you think you’ve finally reached the back of the church, nope, there’s more! The intricacy that goes into every little detail is incredible. I especially enjoyed Poet’s Corner, seeing some of the great British artists who are buried or memorialized in the Abbey – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Frederic Handel,  C.S. Lewis, and SO many more!

We also got to meet up for lunch with a friend of mine from high school who’s now living in London and who I hadn’t seen in 4 or 5 years! Yanna and I danced together so we spent quite a lot of time training and performing together back in the day. It’s such a treat to have friends who are now all over the world and to have the opportunity to reconnect. It was so much fun reminiscing about “the good old days” and catching up on life!

That evening Donnie and I rode the London Eye and got to see the city from the sky at night – SO beautiful! We finished the night just wandering down the Thames and through the streets of Picadilly Circus and around Trafalgar Square. An exhausting first day, but we (especially I) wanted to see as much as possible. Who knows if or when I’ll get to be in London again?!?!

The next day we toured the Tower of London, learning all about the history of the complex and its many famous visitors. The Crown Jewels are also housed there, so we got to walk through the exhibit and see those. We saw the Tower Bridge (NOT London Bridge from the children’s song) all lit up at night, then had a fun evening having dinner and making new friends in Covent Garden.

The morning of Christmas Eve we went down to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Although it’s a long ceremony, it’s so worth it to see the pomp and history of Britain and to really appreciate British culture and the respect they have for the monarchy! Afterwards, we braved the Christmas Eve crowds at Harrod’s to wander through some of the departments, trying turkish delights and seeing all the things one can buy – I’m pretty sure if you can get it, they sell it at Harrod’s!

I took Donnie to see Million Dollar Quartet – an American musical about Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins – as a Christmas present that afternoon. I’d gotten to see the show in Chicago a few years ago but he had never seen it before. We had a great time singing and dancing along to some of the greatest classic hits of all time!

I have to say it was the strangest feeling as a pastor to not be in worship on Christmas Eve. Especially with it being my first Christmas as a clergyperson, I felt sad and pretty guilty about not being at church, knowing that my friends and colleagues were leading 3, 4, 5 or more services that day! I missed the dimming of the lights as the congregation raised their lit candles and sang Silent Night at Pulaski Heights just before the bells rang midnight. I’m a sucker for the sentimental, I know, but it’s a pretty darn holy moment…

On Christmas Day life pretty much shuts down completely in London – grocery stores and restaurants are closed and the Tube doesn’t run at all. So we enjoyed a completely lazy day with Christmas movies (Donnie saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time!) and just relaxing. Not rushing around or traveling to see families and not getting caught up in the frenzy of presents was so refreshing. By pure coincidence, my travel buddy Brianna and I had BOTH planned to be in London with our significant others for Christmas, and then booked AirBnB’s about half an hour walking from one another! So we coordinated having Christmas dinner so that we would get to celebrate the holiday together with friends. Four Americans, far away from home, but still getting to spend Christmas with people we love. It was such a blessing!

And then it was time to go home. 😦 Donnie headed back to the States directly from London and I flew back to Geneva to prepare for my next visitors (more on that soon!) and for my exams (more on that soon too!) While I’m enjoying my time here at the Ecumenical Institute very much, it is pretty exciting now that it’s January to say that I’m coming home THIS MONTH! I’m looking forward to returning back to my family and friends and to my work at Pulaski Heights.

Happy New Year to everyone and all of God’s richest blessings as we begin 2017!

Love, Katye

A Hidden Unity

Recently we were given a creative writing assignment in our Social Ethics module as part of our work with Espace Solidaire Paquis, a missional community center in a transitioning neighborhood of Geneva. Each of us was asked to submit something – an essay, a short story, a favorite recipe, just something to share with the community.

I chose to write a poem, something I hadn’t done in a long time. At first it was just about my experience at ESP, but I came to realize I was acknowledging something much deeper. These words were also true about my experience here at the Ecumenical Institute, and most importantly they were true about the kind of  life I believe Christ desires for all of us, the kind of kingdom God is calling us partner in building.

The truth is, the hidden unity I write about can be found in every city and in every country across the world. But it’s still hidden – it’s a lamp under a bushel. Part of our ecumenical challenge, and especially the challenge of churches and Christian leaders, is to help this unity spring up from the ground for everyone to see! My prayer over the last weeks has been for God to show me how I, as a believer and a pastor, can equip those I am in ministry with to help that light shine – a light that shows us the way out of the darkness and leads us on the path of peace.

There is a unity here that no one else sees

That’s so unlike the world outside

Where language, religion, and gender don’t matter

Our differences we don’t try to hide.

We’re united by our common need –

To live, to learn, to be loved;

And the things that separate us

Aren’t problems to be solved.

They’re riches we bring to the table

As we share our stories and laugh

We long to look forward to the future

Not be defined by our past.

This is a space of solidarity

Where no one is ever alone

Where we walk with one another

On this earth, our common home.

If only others could see what I saw,

This unity profound

We’d believe that it is possible

To find a common ground.

This unity that’s hidden,

Let live it for the world to see!

Then I’ll know that I belong to you

And you belong to me.

Keep Watch, Take Heart

For years, friends have been telling me about their incredible experience visiting the Taize community in France. I have always wanted to go and see for myself, and I finally had the opportunity as one of our study visits through the Ecumenical Institute. Our main reason for visiting was to see the model of communal life that the brothers and visitors to Taize have, compared to the model that we follow here at Bossey.

Just as a bit of history, the Taize community was started in 1940 by a Swiss man named Roger. He wanted to find a place where he could live out the Scriptures and a simple, faithful way of life with like-minded people. Catholic religious communities are very popular in religious history (and Taize is just outside of Cluny, one of the most influential monastic communities during the Middle Ages…), but there weren’t a lot of places like it for Protestants. He dreamed of something very old, but very new!

The first brothers made their life commitment to poverty, chastity, and simplicity 9 years later. They commit to holding no possessions as their own, sharing everything with the rest of the community. And they all commit to a simple way of life, taking no more than what they need and continuing to work in order make a living – many of the brothers work at pottery, making beautiful pieces that are sold in a shop on the grounds of Taize and elsewhere.

After Vatican II in the 60s, it became possible for Catholic brothers to join the community, which they slowly did. But this raised a whole host of new questions. What is our theology? What do we have in common? What do we do about taking Holy Communion together? WHO ARE WE and who do we want to be? After a long process, Taize has received an exception of sorts from the Vatican that as long as the sacrament of Holy Communion is presided over by a Catholic priest, Protestants are welcome to partake if they feel comfortable. This led our group to ask the question, “Well if they can do it at Taize, can’t we do it elsewhere?” As I’ve written about before, not being able to share Holy Communion together has been one of the deepest pains of the ecumenical movement, and for me personally during my time at Bossey. But this exception from the Catholic Church hasn’t solved the problem entirely – Orthodox brothers and sisters are still not allowed by their theology or ecclesiology to take communion from or with anyone other than an Orthodox. One of the Orthodox students shared with me during the weekend that it was even MORE painful for there to be communion and them not be able to take part than for there not to be communion at all, and my heart broke for them. The way forward is still not clear, but for me at least the imperfect solution they have at Taize is a good first step…

By far, my favorite part of being at Taize was participating in the prayer services held three times a day. Anyone who knows me knows that singing is my favorite part of worship, and it takes a central place in the worship at Taize. The brothers sing and chant much of the service, in beautiful harmonies. Over the years, songs have been written especially for the Taize community and some have become very well known. Our first night there, a small group of us stayed for a long time after the worship service had officially ended. After the service, the church remains open for people to stay to pray and sing. In beautifully spontaneous worship, someone will pick a song they want to sing  out of the songbook and just begin to sing! People join in and we’ll sing together for a few minutes, until the Spirit leads someone else with a new song, and it just continues on… It was absolutely magical.

We also were privileged to get some time to chat directly with the brothers. On Saturday, we had an hour as a group to sit with Brother Alois, the prior of the community. He was hand-picked by Brother Roger, the man who started the Taize community, and Brother Alois took over leadership of the brothers after Brother Roger was murdered in 2005. He shared with us about the history of Taize, its development over time, and the challenges the brothers have had to work through as a community with each new change. He also took time to answer some of our questions and to get to know us, asking for our insights about what we’ve learned as we practice communal living in our own unique way at Bossey.

We also had time in small groups to meet with a brother from our particular regions of the world. Taize is almost as diverse as our group at Bossey – there are 90 brothers from around 30 different countries. So the 4 students from North America (3 Americans and 1 Canadian) got to meet with one of the brothers who is American, John Mark. He shared his story about finding his way to Taize and what led him to commit his life to the Rule and the community. And we spent a long time having a really insightful conversation about religious pluralism in America (both inter-denominational AND inter-religious), and the ways in which it is both a gift and a challenge to Christians and our work towards unity.

We shared in the simple way of living while we were at Taize, staying in very basic accommodations (think old church camp with bunk beds…) and sharing in very basic meals along with the other groups staying at Taize. Boy, if we hadn’t realized already how spoiled we are with the amazing food at Bossey, our group figured it out pretty fast! But for me, it was a welcome opportunity to be reminded of all the blessings I receive each day without even thinking about them or stopping to express my gratitude to God for them. And it was an invitation to all of us to experience the way of Jesus, the one who lives in solidarity with those do not have all that they need.

I will say that it was a TOTALLY different experience being at Taize for a weekend in December than what my friends who have been for a week during the summer experienced. During the peak summer months, there are up to a few thousand people there at the same time! But there were no more than 200 or so of us there. It felt a little strange, like being at the state fairgrounds when there’s no fair… a little like a ghost town. I still had a wonderful time and enjoyed my experience, but I think we missed out on the joyful atmosphere of community that summer visitors get.

We were asked before we arrived to pay attention while we were at Taize to what we thought was so appealing to the thousands and thousands of people, mostly young people, who make pilgrimage to the Taize community each year. What I saw at Taize is a community willing to think creatively and willing to take risks, and a desire to maintain a vision of church as a community of people loving and serving Jesus together rather than church as institution. Brother Roger started a Protestant religious community when such a thing was really rare, they invited Catholic brothers to join their community when no one though they could live successfully together. And this was only a few decades after the World Council of Churches had been formed and modern ecumenism was still a relatively new thing! They were flexible and courageous enough to envision new ways of understanding Communion theology, they were flexible enough to grow and expand as more and more people began coming to visit, and they risked everything to continue pursuing the way of life they felt called to even after it cost one of their own his life. Seventy of the men share a home together, facing the everyday challenges of getting along and sharing responsibilities with one another. Throughout it all, they’ve been willing to constantly reflect and be self-critical – figuring out what works and what doesn’t, constantly striving to love God and neighbor better. And each and every day, committing to the discipline of putting on a white robe three times a day and singing their praises to God as their primary aim. It’s what inspired me, at least, but I think that’s what inspires young people when they come to Taize.

A Weekend in the Life…

The first weekend of Advent (and Thanksgiving weekend back home), the 35 of us spread out all over the country to experience a weekend in the life of a parish pastor in Switzerland. I’ve been missing my job at Pulaski Heights a lot these past few weeks, so stepping back into my pastor shoes couldn’t have come at a better time!

I was sent to a parish in the canton of Graübunden, on the other side of Switzerland. Geneva is in Western Switzerland, and the village of Cazis is on the far eastern side. It was funny to listen to the train announcements as I made the 6-hour trek across the country, as they went from French and English, to German and French, to just German. I’ve been learning French to be able to communicate with people in the community around Bossey, but “please” and “thank you” are about all I know in German!

My host for the weekend was a wonderful woman named Mengia who is an active church member and the president of the Parish Council. I was a little worried before I arrived because they told me she didn’t speak any English, but we ended up being able to communicate just fine!

After I had settled in, Mengia took me on a tour of some of the prominent churches in Cazis. Switzerland has a fascinating religious history when it comes to church and community life. As the Reformation started to spread across the country, each village voted on whether they would be an “old faith” (Catholic) community or a “new faith” community. Whatever the village decided, that was the church they built and that was what denomination you were… It is only relatively recently in Swiss history that Protestant churches were built in Catholic villages and vice versa. Cazis was a Roman Catholic village, so most of the churches we visited were Catholic, including the chapel of a Dominican convent in the center of the town.

Afterwards, I met the pastor, Jörg, and he took me to visit a home for refugees at the outskirts of Cazis. Another interesting Swiss mechanism is their system for placing refugees as they arrive in the country –  a percentage are sent to each canton based on that canton’s percentage of the Swiss population. So since Graübunden makes up 3% of the Swiss population, they receive 3% of the refugees. Jörg goes and visits the house regularly, so the families living there feel very comfortable around him and welcomed us warmly. As we walked through the hallways, some of them even invited me into their rooms so that I could see their living conditions. It was heartbreaking to see, and even more heartbreaking to hear their stories. Up to six people, who might be total strangers and unable to communicate with one another, live in one very small room. They live with daily fear and questions – Will they be able to learn skills and find jobs? Who will teach them the language? And there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay in Switzerland once their paperwork is processed. They live each day worried that they will build a new life here in Switzerland, only to be sent back to their country after 2-3 years. It’s devastating, but they carry so much hope with them.

I then went with Jörg to a dinner meeting he had with a group of women who had helped
plan a recent church camp. Ironically, they had made the reservation weeks ago at an American restaurant, not knowing that the Bossey student they would be hosting that weekend was an American! I was touched by how warmly I was welcomed by the group. Jörg was very helpful to be my translator at dinner (and at many other occasions throughout the weekend). Someone would tell a joke in German, they would all laugh, then Jörg would translate for me and I would awkwardly laugh, late to the punch line… One of the things that was encouraging to me is that many of the women are passionate about training their children, along with other youth in the church, preparing them to take over some of their responsibilities as leaders in the church. What a way to invest in them and encourage the young people to see the church as their own!

We began our Saturday morning at the church for a bazar hosted by a group called “der
Bündnerinnen,” or “the women of Graübunden.” It seemed kind of like the Swiss version of the Junior League… Jörg explained that they perform charitable activities in the community throughout the year. As a thank you for their partnership in service, the church lets them use their building for their Advent Bazar each year. We strolled through the market and also enjoyed a lunch of barley soup, a traditional meal for this time of year. This was also my first chance to see the church building in the daylight. It is a fascinating piece of architecture, built in 2002, and the exact opposite of what you would think of what you imagine a Reform church in Switzerland. In honor of Cazis’ history as a place where the community would gather “at the place of large stones,” the church is designed to look like three large stones (although they kind of look like eggs). Jörg explained all the details of theology and ecclesiology that went into the design of the building. Each stone has a window, and the windows are placed with one looking up to heaven, one looking straight into the town, and one looking out to the mountains. The idea was that the views remind people of the Trinity. The space is also designed so that there is no front or back of the church, everything is movable. He said they wanted to create a space in which you didn’t feel there was a hierarchy, so there are also no steps up to the altar. And the different sections can each be closed off, so the space is flexible and can be used for a variety of purposes. It was beautiful to see how much thought was put into the space and the atmosphere it created for people who come to worship.

Jörg and I then spent the day at a Christmas market at a town way up in the mountains
called Ilanz, a town which played a key role in the Reformation in Graübunden. Many people in the village still speak Romansh, which was cool to hear for the first time! We were there representing an ecumenical organization of which the parish is a part called The Goat Project, an effort to work with the refugees in the community. The organization bought 28 goats, hired and trained a couple of the refugees to be shepherds, and then the products from the goats are sold to raise money for the project. Although I wasn’t of much help since I don’t speak German, it was great to spend the afternoon in mission helping people learn about a worthwhile ecumenical project! It was also fun to meet Ashik, one of the shepherds who is a refugee from Sri Lanka, and hear his story. I also saw an alphorn and heard it played for the first time. And I thought a bassoon was big!!

Sunday I attended and helped lead worship at the church in Cazis, offering a prayer in English and helping Jörg serve Eucharist. I was honored that he asked me to assist him in the sacrament, which they only receive a few times a year. There were maybe 20 people in attendance, which Jörg said is typical in many churches across Switzerland. He also noted that there is only one other paid staff person besides him – the organist! You could tell that music plays an important role for their worship life, which I resonated with as a Methodist. We concluded our weekend by driving through the region and visiting the other churches of Jörg’s parish. The amount of travelling he has to do is staggering! Our last stop was to a church high in the mountains with a beautiful view of Piz Beverin, one of the tallest mountains in Graübunden. The view of the alps was beautiful!

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend! I was shown such great hospitality, learned a lot by
observing a typical weekend in the life of a Reform parish pastor in Switzerland, and enjoyed being a tourist in a different part of Switzerland. What a great opportunity!