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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality - 4. Carmel is in harmony with the teaching office of the Pope and the bishops

by Fr. Patrick Thomas McMahon, O.Carm.

Lay Carmelites seek God's presence in prayer while living an active life in the world. This duality of contemplative prayer and active ministry was modeled by the first Carmelites who lived as hermits on Mount Carmel, then later became mendicants in the cities of Europe.

Carmel is in harmony with the teaching office of the Pope and the bishops

Carmel is a family within the hierarchical Church. This is very necessary, I think, for us to reiterate today. We are not a Church unto ourselves but we’re one part of a Church that stretches around our globe, the Catholic Church. Our Prior General, Father Fernando Millán Romeral, is directly accountable to the Holy See. And every Carmelite friar, sister, and nun is answerable to the Bishop – not in matters of Carmelite observance, there we answer to the Order – but in our ministries to the People of God and the ways in which we relate pastorally to the bishop’s flock. And so, too, with Lay Carmelites; in matters strictly Carmelite you take direction from the Order. For example, it is the Carmelite Family that determines the rules about prayers to be said daily or at community meetings, or the fasts and the feasts that we celebrate as Carmelites. But in matters pertaining to your participation in the larger Church you take direction from your pastors and your bishops. The Church is in crisis today because people are setting themselves up in place of rightful teachers. The teaching office of the Church belongs to the bishops in a unique way and yet it is being usurped both by ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ who are teaching in contradistinction to the legitimate pastors of souls. Everyone seems to think that they are the authority on what the Church holds, but you and I are not interpreters of the Church’s teaching. It is not for you to judge if your bishop or parish priest is being faithful to the Church. If a priest is working contrary to your bishop and his directives, it is up to your bishop to take the necessary steps to address the problem, not for you or your community to act on your own in rejecting his authority. And if you think your bishop is working contrary to the teaching of the universal Church, it is up to the Holy See to take the necessary steps, not for you or your community to sit in judgment on the bishop.

Until and unless they are removed from their positions, we are to show our bishops, priests and deacons obedience and respect.

The Church today is in great danger of being divided, even of being pushed into schism and this is not just because of ‘liberals’. In fact, history shows us that schism is more likely to come from the right than from the left. There are some who claim that the current Mass text is heretical or deficient or invalid. Others reject the Second Vatican Council because of its teachings regarding Protestant Churches and non-Christian religions. Still others support the Church’s teaching on abortion, but reject its teachings on war, on capital punishment, or on the rights of immigrants. Some of these people profess a great loyalty to the pope, but they think they can be disloyal to the bishop that the Holy Father has appointed to be their pastor. In the United States some years ago we saw the shocking scandal of one prominent American Catholic nun tell the people of Los Angeles that their Cardinal Archbishop is a heretic and should not be obeyed. There is no room for that sort of open rebellion in Carmel. The only way we can be sure that we are with the Church is to give obedience and respect to our bishops, and to trust the Holy See to keep the bishops in line. Our task is not to be ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It is to be faithful. And faithful means to be obedient to legitimate authority. And the bishop, whether we agree with him or not, is the legitimate authority. And it is for the Holy See, not for you or for me, to decide if he uses that authority wrongly. Right now the unity of the Church depends on our adherence to that authority.

This does not mean, of course, that we cannot think for ourselves. We need to read and study our faith and that means that we should not only be familiar with papal statements, but read good Catholic books and periodicals. God gave us intelligence and expects that we will use it. We need informed obedience to the Church, not blind obedience. There are many things which we can question. Issues of Church discipline, as opposed to Church doctrine, are not defined truths and we can have our opinions. The Church would be healthier if a well-informed laity asked the right questions—and expected thorough answers – about matters of administration and finances. Priests should get helpful feedback to their homilies and about the quality of parish liturgies. A healthy parish and diocese will have laity as full and well-informed participants in all their programs – and directing many of those programs, not just carrying out ‘Father’s orders.’ Moreover, priests and bishops need to hear the life-experiences of the faithful. Many of our teachings on the role of our Christian faith in economic and political life, as well as family life and human sexuality seem yet to be incompletely formulated because while the input has been there from the bishops and the theologians, the experience of the faithful, the consensus fidelium, has not yet been given voice. Yet, in all these matters, while we may have our various thoughts and ideas, they must always find their voice in ways that build the unity of the Church and not undermine it. We question, we discuss, we even argue, but always with respect, with a willingness to submit to the authority of the Church, and with a passion to preserve the unity in charity which the Body of Christ requires.

Carmel’s vocation, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus tells us, is to be charity in the heart of the Church. And we cannot do that if we are involved in the frays that are tearing our Church apart. You and I do not need to go slugging on in these battles. Our task is to pray for the Church, to work for the Church, to build up the Church through charity. While others go and fight the battle, let us withdraw in prayer for them and for the Church. Let us devote ourselves to meeting all with charity. Let us devote ourselves to the simple background work that makes the Church work. Let us devote ourselves to feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the elderly, working with the youth in our parishes. The mission and ministry of Carmel is to be charity in the heart of the Church, to be a contemplative centre for the Church. If you have a passion to defend orthodoxy, join the Dominican Third Order; that’s their charism. Our task is to be charity in the heart of the Church. Let us build up the Church. Let us only say good things about people. Let us wage war for the truth not by our efforts by our fights and our quarrels, but by quiet prayer and unfailing charity. Related to this need to be in harmony with the Pope and bishops is the next characteristic we will examine: remembering that Carmel stands in the classic theological tradition of the Church.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."