Monks use age-old rituals to recapture young people's interest in religion

May 30, 2012

Simone Orendain

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Taize evening prayer. (Photo by Simone Orendain)

About 1,000 young adults from across North America converged on Chicago this Memorial Day weekend, giving up barbecues and that first summer dip in the pool to pray and chant with monks. 

Hundreds of young people sit with legs folded on the carpet-covered basketball court at DePaul University. With the help of a choir and orchestra, they sing along with six white-robed monks who chant verses over and over. They face an altar where icons of Jesus stand against a backdrop of candles.

The scene is a far cry from the kind of atmosphere some churches are trying to create to attract young people who’ve been leaving mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in droves. There is no “rocking music,” no coffee shop, no wine-tasting. Instead this gathering is being led by the ecumenical brothers of Taize, France.  

Brother Emile, who is Catholic, says every year about 100,000 pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 35 trek to Taize.

“They want to be in a place where they can talk about the real questions they have about life, the meaning of life, about hope. And Taize I think is that. There’s a climate of trust that allows people to open up and share and I think the prayer contributes to that enormously. We pray three times a day together.”

Along with singing, there are long periods of silence for prayer and reflection.

Brother Emile says the brothers picked Chicago for the gathering because of the number of churches here – both Protestant and Catholic – that use Taize prayers regularly.  

Twenty-year old Joseph Butler of Downers Grove says going to these services helps to strengthen his faith.  

“The meditative quality of it and the simplicity of it and the idea of – not only was it connecting with the spirit and the here and how – but you’re also harkening back to about a thousand years, a monastic tradition as well.”

When he was younger, Butler almost gave up being Episcopalian after his mother was stricken with cancer. He was devastated at the thought of losing her, so one night he picked up the Bible then finished it six months later. Butler says Taize helps him to stay involved in church life.

For several years Brenna Cronin looked for a way to reconcile her Catholic faith with her homosexuality. The 25-year old singer from Chicago says singing in the Taize prayer like her solo here has reinforced her sense of acceptance. She became resolute in remaining a Catholic thanks to serving in a music ministry. 

“The idea of the spirit and the presence coming down on you and saying, ‘It is okay where you are. You are beautiful and you are loved and you are appreciated.’ That is a how Taize is different from every other religious experience that you could get on a weekend.”  

Over the weekend, the brothers make it clear that this spiritual experience does not replace religion. In fact, the end goal is for the young people to return to their roots.

The order’s prior, Brother Alois drives this point home during a talk about Taize’s founder: "What we want is that all the young people who come go back to their churches. Go back to your church!”

Cardinal Francis George of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and Protestant leaders attended evening prayer. The cardinal welcomes Taize worship as a grounding force for faith, especially in young people. “It puts people together in the presence of the Lord and so they know that God comes to everyone and that’s what their big message is,” Cardinal George says.

Taize Brother Emile says at the end, it’s important to not let a gathering like this turn into a flash in the pan. The pilgrims are expected to leave with concrete plans that will put their faith into action in their local communities.