In obsequio Jesu Christi: A Praying and Prophetic Community in a Changing World

Carmelite General Chapter 2007

Message of the General Chapter

to the Carmelite Family Throughout the World

Salus in Domino et benedictio Sancti Spiritus

(Health in the Lord and the blessing of the Holy Spirit—Rule 1)

A highlight of the General Chapter of the Carmelite Order held at Sassone (Rome) 4-22 September 2007 was celebrations with the Carmelite Family. Over four days the Chapter was joined by Carmelite religious, laity and hermits from five continents. The centre of these celebrations was the Mass at our church at Traspontina for the centenary of the Formula of Life by St. Albert of Jerusalem to the hermit brothers on Mount Carmel at the beginning of the 13th century. This document approved by Innocent IV in 1247 is very short—only 1080 words. It has, however, proved to be immensely fruitful as we saw people from so many countries and with such differing life-styles all drawn by its inspiration. In his address to the General Chapter, Pope Benedict XVI noted that “Many men and women have attained sanctity by living the Carmelite Rule with creative fidelity” and wished “the entire Carmelite family a profusion of the gifts of a renewed Pentecost.” Pointing to the origins of the Order he said, “The first Carmelites went to Mount Carmel because they believed in the love of God…Welcoming the rule of Christ into their lives, they allowed themselves to be transformed by that love.” Two key notes, namely fidelity and transformation, were thus set before the Chapter at its outset.

1. Theme

The opening days were spent studying the chapter theme: In obsequio Jesu Christi: A Praying and Prophetic Community in a Changing World. Fr. John Keating of the Preparatory Commission gave a summary of the study of this theme in Carmelite communities throughout the world. Experts examined its elements: a Carmelite exegete from Baetica and Burkina Faso, Eugène Kaboré examined it mainly from a biblical perspective; a sociologist Prof. Romeo Ciminello dealt with change in society, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. investigated the notion of a praying and prophetic community, and a lay American, Prof. Donna Orsuto spoke on following Jesus today. Helmut Rakowski, OFMCap addressed the chapter on “A Mission for Money,” in which he emphasised a fraternal economy of his own order which seeks to operate according to the values of transparency, participation, equity, solidarity and austerity.

2. Change

Change is all around us. The Order in which we live is very different from the one that many joined only a few decades ago. We must see and understand change and also adopt a critical stance. The individual or community can feel overwhelmed by both the amount and the rate of change in the Church and in society.

Negative change

There is much change that is negative such as violence, terrorism, destitution, torture, racial conflict; like marginalisation, addictive drugs, and consumerism. Whilst these are not new realities, we can feel an intensity of their manifestation today and a sense that they impinge more on our lives. In some provinces the lack of vocations and ever-increasing demands on a reduced number of members has led to a tiredness as people struggle with fidelity but without being buoyed up in hope (see Rom 12:12).

Positive change

Other changes are positive such as a growing world awareness of the problems of hunger and disease with some initial attempts to deal with them. There are also outstanding changes in the Order and our world. We find amazing expansion in Africa and Asia, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is a vibrant internationality in the Order and many young people drawn to our way of life.

We find laity in increasing numbers being attracted to our spirituality. They read about our spirituality and attend courses and lectures. People increasingly find a satisfying source of spiritual nourishment in our heritage. Some want to share our life in new forms of participation.

Ambiguity of change

Other changes are more ambiguous like globalisation, secularism and secularization: these can marginalise faith, but they can also challenge and purify faith from unhealthy growths. Globalisation driven by ruthless capitalism can further exploit the downtrodden. But globalisation also offers new possibilities for education and the alleviation of misery and disease. The Carmelite involvement in a United Nations NGO [non government organisation] is a significant contribution. One can see that in a positive sense globalisation is a Christian value. Christ has transcended all differences in a new humanity: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

There are also immense changes in communications with the increasing dominance of the internet with its enormous possibilities for good and evil. Our Carmelite web sites attract hundreds of thousand visits each year. But change may or may not mean renewal; change is often imperceptible; the Order can easily be influenced for good or ill by the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) of our day: our values may easily fall away from the ideals of the Gospel and our tradition, if we allow consumerism, competition, individualism to enter our lives and influence our communities. The many good works performed by members of the Order have also in them the defect of activism.

There is also change that involves dying. We cannot continue as we are because fidelity to the Holy Spirit may be calling on us to abandon activities, foundations and dreams that now belong to our past. Some of these deaths are obvious: thus we need to abandon clericalism and a widespread attitude that the Carmelite Order consists essentially of the First Order of friars. The Carmelite charism is to be sought through taking together all the manifestations of the Carmelite Family which are its authentic expression. Again, we have to stop looking back to some imagined ideal age of Carmel when vocations were plentiful and new foundations were constantly being made. Again, because of scandals we have lost credibility in some countries and cultures. We must let go of things we have treasured; our members must be allowed to grieve for what they loved in the past, such as buildings and particular apostolic works; they have to be helped to let go with courage and generosity in what will be for many a new experience of poverty.

3. Carmel’s experience of change

At the Chapter we saw younger friars from countries that would not otherwise have been represented. We saw the smiling faces from around the world in multi-media presentation. The Carmelite Order is now present in seven countries in Africa and there are new foundations in the Caribbean, in Vietnam and in Oceania. Since the last General Chapter a General Commissariat has been established in the Philippines and a Province in India. Formation and education in these new areas are of fundamental importance, and the financial resources and personnel are emerging. The distribution of four areas for the election of councillors is an indication of a rapidly changing Order. There is henceforth to be one councillor for all of Europe, one only for North and Latin America, one for Asia, Australia and Oceania, and one for Africa. It is in Asia and Africa that we perhaps see the greatest vibrancy.

The Chapter became aware of life through the Order. Though initiatives may seem more striking in the newly emerging communities, even the older provinces have new enterprises, fresh approaches to evangelisation, to sharing our spirituality and to caring for those in various states of hunger. During the Chapter we heard very frequently of transformation, a word that has become very common in Carmelite reflection especially since the 1980s. In our mystics it has a treasured place. Spirituality is but an ongoing process of transformation to answer the call of Christ. Recently we are becoming aware that we must allow God not only to transform us, deifying us in divine union, but we have to look to God to empower us to work for societal transformation. Again, we were reminded by Prof. Orsuto of the transforming power of compassion in a world that is often violent and harsh.

The 1995 Constitutions of the Order were the first to develop the notion of the Carmelite Family (n. 28). Over forty people from seventeen countries joined General Chapter discussions on this topic. There were lay people from various groups drawn by the Carmelite charism and formally associated with the Order as well as enclosed nuns and Carmelite sisters from various congregations, as well as a representative of Carmelite hermits all gave living commentaries on the Carmelite Rule and charism that has been their inspiration. No one group has a monopoly of the charism. The Order, the Church and the world all need their particular contribution. It was clear that the notion of Carmelite Family is a most exciting development, which needs energetic and enthusiastic encouragement. At one stage we were invited “to think Family” as we organise events and set up structures and commissions. For the Order to be prophetic in a changing world we need all the gifts, talents and experience of the whole Carmelite family. Faced with change we must exercise discernment.

4. Death and resurrection

If we are being called to die in some areas of our work and institutions, we are also being invited to transformation and resurrection. But if in recent decades there has been a great emphasis on resurrection and its fruit, we are now perhaps in danger of missing out on the profound teaching about the Cross in all our great spiritual writers from St. Teresa of Jesus to Bl. Titus Brandsma. As Prof. Orsuto reminded us, "The operative symbols of Carmel—desert, night, nada—all lead to the centrality of the Cross." In a world which seeks instant fulfilment and gratification, the word about the Cross may not be welcome (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). In one homily we were told: “My prayer is that the new wine of the Gospel may liberate us from self-preoccupation and being wrapped up in ourselves”. If in some places the Order seems to be experiencing shadows and gloom, we must remember that the dark night is seen by St. John of the Cross as a blessing, ¡Oh dichosa ventura! The dark nights are God’s loving purification not only of individuals but of communities and indeed of the whole Order. But just as night precedes dawn, so by the Spirit of holiness (see Rom 1:4) death gives way to resurrection.

5. Fidelity in the face of change: a praying and prophetic community

In the course of discussions some key ideas continued to emerge about how we are to proceed when faced by change. Fr. Timothy Radcliff paradoxically wished us: “Have a good crisis!” We have to approach change as Carmelites with our heritage being both a value to be preserved and a guide to our future attitudes and decisions. We need to study deeply the signs of the times and be proactive in addressing the problems of a rapidly changing world. We cannot solve all the problems of this rapidly changing new world of the 21st century. But there are some obvious paths or indicators.

A praying and fraternal community

A consistent theme of the Chapter was the centrality of the contemplative dimension of our charism. It is clear that our special contribution to the Church and society must surely involve being praying communities. The prayer will be of various kinds: Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours, personal and communal prayer with an emphasis on lectio divina. The General Chapter sensed urgency about prayer and contemplation. There is a great hunger among people in society for what goes beyond acquisition and consumerism; we must treasure the pearl of great price (see Matt 13:44-46) offered to us and be prepared to invest all in a love relationship with Jesus Christ and in allaying the hunger of our contemporaries.

In becoming truly praying communities our attention was time and again directed to the value of silence (see Rule 21). In our contemporary world there is an excess of noise, of information and of messages. Silence is above all a matter of listening. As individuals and as communities we need silence in which to listen to God, to read the signs of the times, to acquire wisdom and discernment and to adopt a contemplative stance. In the Rule silence was protected by specific injunctions; today we may still need the support of agreed norms so that silence may be a reality for the community and the individual.

In all Chapter discussions we kept returning to the need to foster community. The quality of our community life is a witness to society that states that healthy human relationships cannot be based on superficial attraction, but must live through the gospel values of laying down our lives for others, forgiveness and respect.

A prophetic community

Since the 1970s we have increasingly turned to the Prophet Elijah as model and inspiration of many aspects of our Carmelite life. A much richer portrait of the Prophet is now ours (see CON 12, 25-26, 96), compared with an earlier time when he was mainly seen as a model of prayer. When we ask how we are to be prophetic, a common answer is always: by living our vowed commitment in community. In July 1936 various Carmelites, living simply their vocation in various places in Catalonia, Spain—priests, students, novices, and an enclosed nun—were killed in odium fidei; the seventeen will be beatified in Rome as martyrs on 28 October 2007. Again, we are familiar with the Vatican II teaching that all the baptised share in the prophetic office of Jesus Christ (Church, LG 35). There is also the charism of prophecy, that is, a special gift of the Holy Spirit to speak God’s word.

But can we be more specific about our calling? We are prophetic communities because of our dedication to the Word of God. The Carmelite Order has to be prophetic in the sense that its members continually search the Word of God, listen to God in silence and are eager to speak out in defence of God’s cause and in defence of his people (see 1 Kgs 19:14). We must continually search for the signs of the times, and interpret them in the light of the Scriptures. A distinguishing mark of our praying communities will therefore be our constant love for and devotion to Scripture. It is above all through the Word of God that we will be in a position to discern and handle change in our world.

6. A call to joy and hope

In his valedictory address Fr. Joseph Chalmers asked us to consider what does it actually mean to be faithful to our charism in a world which is in the throes of great cultural change? In some cases it may be too early to apply the gospel norm to changes within the Order, “you will know them by their fruits” (see Matt 7:16-20). The newly elected Prior General, Fr. Fernando Millán Romeral at the first Mass after the election of the new General Council drew our attention to the text of Philippians, 2:5-11. He noted that the Carmelite Order is not big enough to take on all the big problems of the world, but modelled on Christ’s kenotic humility, it will as small and weak be able to serve the Kingdom through God’s power and wisdom. He also shared his vision for the new Council of the Order: Be happy through the love and grace of God. The Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites, Fr. Luis Aróstegui Gamboa, also called on us to seek joy and happiness in God.

In this present time we have to be people of hope. Hope reaches out in confidence to God, saying a yes to what we do not fully know. Hope involves trust and faith. Though we are orientated towards the future of God, we can be comforted by our past history. There have been huge changes in the world and in the Church since the hermit brothers received their Formula of Life from St. Albert 800 years ago, since Albert of Trapani died in 1307 and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi died three centuries later. Guided by the Holy Spirit and protected by the prayers of the Mother of Carmel, the Order has adapted and drawn from its heritage answers to the changes posed by Renaissance Europe, the Enlightenment, upheavals in society and wars, the oppression of the poor and the call for justice and peace. We are confident that our two patrons, Elijah and Mary will guide and comfort the Order in the changes around us and those which lie ahead.

Sassone, Rome

22 September 2007