Fifty years later, we cannot emphasize enough the greatness of the initiative of the Polish bishops (including the future Saint John Paul II) when, towards the end of the Second Vatican Council, on November 18, 1965, they invited the German bishops “to the dialogue, mutual forgiveness and brotherhood, ”and they concluded their message with these exceptional words: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” That outstretched hand changed the course of history.
As previously between France and Germany, the reconciliation between Poland and Germany seemed impossible, humanly speaking. But the faith of the Polish people has always been a source of perseverance in hope, even in the darkest periods of its history. Supported by the faith of the whole people, without fear of being contradicted even by the government of their own country, the bishops undertook a courageous initiative. Twenty years after the end of the war, it enabled to begin a healing of wounds. This created one of the basis for the construction of Europe.
Paying tribute today to this powerful gesture of the bishops of Poland, I am glad that it gives me the opportunity to recall how attached Brother Roger was to the Polish people from the beginning of his life. Already as a young student, he suffered deeply from the invasion of Poland which started World War II; we have the testimony in a letter he wrote to a friend of his on September 19, 1939: “The recent events are earth-shattering. Ever since I have known that Poland has been completely invaded, I am in inner mourning. One more Christian nation that is disappearing before the invader. We can truly say without exaggerating: our soul is sorrowful to the point of death.”
Later on, in Taizé, he deepened this link. Getting to know Polish intellectuals like Aniela Urbanowicz, co-founder of the Club of Catholic Intellectuals (in 1960 she was among the first Poles to visit our community) and Jerzy Turowicz, who became a personal friend for him in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, he acquired the strong conviction that faith was a treasure that the Polish people had received and could share with many others. “A springtime of the Church will come from Poland,” he said one day in Germany shortly before the election of Pope John Paul II. Brother Roger understood that, from their faith, Poles drew the courage that enabled them to undertake initiatives such as the letter of the bishops, initiatives that would contribute to the building of peace in Europe.
Brother Roger loved being in contact with popular expressions of faith, in particular by responding four times, in the 1970s, to the invitation to speak at the pilgrimage for miners of Piekary Śląskie. He was touched by the humility of their love for God and the Church, and he told them that the Virgin Mary too, in her humility, could not know how important the yes of her faith would be for multitudes across the Earth.
After the regime change, Brother Roger was very happy to see so many young Poles come to Taizé. He discerned in tchem a similar courage despite all the changes that were taking place. And the first young adult European meeting which could be organized in Central Europe was held precisely in Poland, at Wroclaw, on December 1989. Tens of thousands of young Europeans could thus discover the warmth of a Polish welcome.
Brother Roger had known Saint John Paul II already at the Second Vatican Council, while he was still a young auxiliary bishop, and that was the beginning of a long relationship of trust. As archbishop, Karol Wojtyla came twice to Taizé, and returned once as Pope. In Rome, Brother Roger visited him every year, and for him this Polish Pope was a gift of God not only for the Catholic Church but for the whole human family.
For us brothers, and for me in particular, love for Poland is part of Brother Roger’s legacy. We continue to rely on the faith and prayers of so many Poles. And I want to say how important it is for the treasure of faith of this people to remain alive. This certainly requires “aggiornamentos,” as Saint Pope John XXIII put it, adaptations, so that the younger generations can discover how to live the faith of all time in a changing world. I am confident that the Poles will find that path.