The Carmelite Rule in light of the Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council
That simple letter written by Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to the hermits of Mount Carmel, containing the “formula of life” which will later be approved as a Rule for a mendicant order by Pope Innocent IV (1247),
on account of its biblical inspiration, possesses values and riches yet to be discovered, deepened, updated, and examined in relation to the different experiences and realities of each historical moment. The Rule has been the basis of the major reforms of the Order, and could not be otherwise, it is the sure foundation of the return to the charism that Second Vatican Council asked of the Consecrated Life (cf. PC 2). From the new readings and interpretations of the Rule which have emerged since Vatican II - from the historical, legal, contextual, biblical, Christological, spiritual, symbolic , etc. points of view - we see also the emergence of an ecclesiological view of its proposal for life that helps us to discover that essential aspect that took shape in the new council reflection, that is, the Church of communion.
In the post-conciliar period there has been much talk of the Christocentrism of the Carmelite Rule. In fact, the main purpose of the life project is “to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ” (Rule 2). This then becomes the foundation of the personal and community experience of the Carmelites which must necessarily lead to talk of the Church, because the Church is rightly the “sacrament of Christ,” the “Body of Christ” (LG 1 and 7), the continuation of his mission (cf . Jn 20, 21). Therefore, to talk about the Christocentrism of the Rule is to recognize that it must also be deeply ecclesiological, because in the invitation to follow Christ, from which the Church originates and on which it is totally dependent (cf. SC 5), there is a clear indication as to the way to proceed in the community in order to achieve this ideal. Neglect of the ecclesiological dimension of the Carmelite Rule can lead to an individualistic, closed, and not really Christian experience. The concrete experience of fraternity, both within a religious community in the relationship of this with the whole People of God is the sign and the place where the following of Christ becomes a reality.
The new understanding of the Carmelite charism that came after Vatican II, led the Carmelite Order to rediscover with great emphasis the value of fraternity as an essential part of the life plan contained in the Rule, a theme that would become central to many post-conciliar discussions. Fraternity, in fact, from the perspective of an Order of Mendicants, will be looked at in very broad terms, designed in a broad sense, both “ad intra” and “ad extra”, in relation to the Church and the world. This will have practical consequences, such as the challenge to “build” a true community, with greater participation and co-responsibility at all levels, including in the General Government of the Order.
Fraternity, as an essential part of the charism, is the point of reference for understanding the common project. This aspect can be seen in the movement that goes from the individual and fundamental contemplative experience of God to the meeting with and sharing life with others. In the structure of fraternal life as indicated by the Rule, we can find the same elements that are present in the early church and that became the pillars of the Church for all time: listening to the Word of God, both as individuals and in common (Rule 7.10; Acts 2:42); the centrality of the Eucharist, which creates and establishes communion (Rule 14 , Acts 2,42.46); poverty in the sharing of goods (Rule 12:13, Acts 2,42.44; 4,32.34-35); the weekly meeting of the community to assess the fraternal life and celebrate forgiveness (Rule 15; Acts 4:32); liturgical prayer in communion with the Universal Church (Rule 11; Acts 2:46). We have, also, the prior - “ primus inter pares “ - chosen by the group (Rule 4; Acts 4:35), who exercises his authority as a service, ensuring the unity and structure necessary to achieve the common purpose.
These elements of fraternity in the Rule - which are also the basis of ecclesial life - highlight the criterion of communion. The Second Vatican Council rightly took communion as the main feature of Conciliar ecclesiology: the Church as “communion with God and with our brothers and sisters” (LG 1-5); as “one People of God” (LG II), which is based on the radical equality of the baptized (cf. LG 9-17) before any diversity of function or service; in the common priesthood of the faithful (LG 10), which leads to the participation and co-responsibility of all; in the common universal call to holiness (LG 39-42); towards communion in the diversity and complementarity of the charisms (LG 4.7). These values appear in the Rule in the way in which all are called ‘fratres’, participating in the weekly chapter or in the decisions in which the prior involves the whole community. Thus, the main features of the ecclesiology of communion help us to understand Carmelite fraternity and to put into in the Church of today. They also allow us to come to a new understanding of the Carmelite Rule in the light of Vatican II and to discover there a pathway of ecclesial life in what is specific to a religious charism in the life of the Church.
This new understanding in terms a new ecclesiology has already had practical consequences for the Carmelite Order: the challenge of establishing communities that are more aware and participative; a greater responsibility and commitment in relation to the world, with justice and peace, from the perspective of a universal brotherhood; the development of the Carmelite Family that helps people to remember that the charism must be open and be enriched by the different states of life, with a great emphasis and importance given to the participation of the laity. These pointers, in addition to putting the Order in line with the post-conciliar Church, show that the Rule of Carmel is still a life project that is alive and present, which presents a challenge to the Carmelite fraternity to make its contribution through a continuous and necessary reception of the ecclesiology of the Council.
Thus, Carmelite fraternity can also become an important and particular sign of the Church of Communion proposed by the II Vatican Council. Post-conciliar Consecrated Life has been asked to be not only a “sign” and “witness”, but also an “instrument” and “promoter” of this ecclesial consciousness (cf. VC 46). Carmel can then offer the Church the experience of communion that is lived in fraternity, as a community, in the Church, this being the consequence and result of a life that is shaped by the gift of contemplation, of vacare Deo – being emptied of self on order to be filled with God - that is the foundation of this charism (cf. RIVC 4).
Without losing what was there in the beginning, the Order must enrich all that by responding to the signs of the times, respecting the breath of those values that do not lead to any kind of closure or isolation, but, on the contrary, to a life of communion whose source is the communion with the Trinity which is accomplished in the ecclesial communion of all the baptized. In this way, the actualization of the charism passes of necessity through the renewal proposed by the II Vatican Council to the whole Church. In this perspective, the ecclesiology of communion becomes essential to new reading of the Rule, and to the understanding and living out of the charism, the sense of prayer, silence and solitude, projects and works undertaken by the Order, parish and other pastoral commitments, and the formation of new Carmelites. In other words, the perspective of an ecclesial experience that is more consistent and more committed, based on a model of the Church as the People of God, is what has been proposed.
Fifty years after the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (1964), of course, Consecrated Life can participate more actively in the discussion and analysis of the conciliar ecclesiology, especially with regard to the theme of communion and the practical consequences that this entails. In this the Order of Carmel can also play an important role. However, we have still some distance to go on this road. Of course, the fruits will be harvested not only by consecrated men and women themselves, but by the whole Church in which we participate as one People of God. It is worth taking on this challenge!