John Soreth is a Prior General who dramatically changed Carmelite life for the better. Some even credit his reforms for enabling the Carmelite Order to survive the spiritual earthquake of the Reformation.
John was born near Caen in Normandy in 1394. He entered the Carmelites in that city, and was ordained a priest about 1417. He went to Paris to study advanced theology at the university. After he earned a Licentiate in Theology in 1437, and a Doctorate in 1438, he was named regent of studies at the sprawling house of studies at Place Maubert. He was quickly elected Provincial for north-central France, and served that office well from 1440 until 1451.
In that year, John was elected Prior General of the Carmelites at the chapter in Avignon, and remained such until his death in 1471. He was a tenacious reformer at a time when reform was desperately needed in the entire Church, but not always accepted willingly. The Carmelites of his time had largely slipped into a spirit of laxity in their prayer and community life, but especially in their failure to observe poverty. John set about his monumental task with a two-pronged strategy: good legislation, and personal visits to as many communities as he could possibly reach. He traveled so widely throughout the Order that his treks became something of a legend, especially in Germany, northern France and the Low Countries. After so many years on the road, John had acquired a suntan so dark that some of his critics referred to him as “the Ethiopian.” But the personal contact generally had very good results.
John published a revised edition of the Constitutions in 1462, and wrote a detailed commentary on the Rule. He reinforced the formal legislation by receiving papal bulls and the endorsement of general chapters and provincial chapters as well. In his canonical visits to many houses, he frequently stayed longer, not only to enforce formal observance, but also to motivate the friars to elevate their spiritual and intellectual commitment to a genuinely virtuous life. In some cases, he put entire communities through a formal repetition of their formation, and then celebrated a renewal of their vows. It may seem somewhat theatrical, but the process worked.
Among his better known activities was John’s broadening the Order to include women, as well as an extension of Carmelite spirituality to lay men and women. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull “Cum Nulla” which formally recognized communities of Carmelite nuns for the first time. John had already established communities of nuns in the Netherlands, including Gueldren, Nieukirk, Dinant, Liege, Harlem, and Huy. He then collaborated with Blessed Frances d’Amboise to found women’s communities in her native Brittany, and eventually received Frances into the Order himself. During the same period, there were several informal female communities in Florence and northern Italy. These had affiliated with Carmelites who had been serving as their chaplains and spiritual directors. All were now regularized as official Carmelite communities with proper constitutions of their own and a formal canonical status.
The same papal document also opened the gates to participation by lay men and women in the Order’s prayer and ministry. The secular version of the Third Order embraced people who continued to live in the working world, but who took vows to follow the Carmelite Rule insofar as it applied to them. There were already informal associations of lay people with the Carmelites in parts of Italy. Lay people promised to follow a stricter and more dedicated way of life, based on Carmelite spirituality. They came together for prayer, ministry, and community under the spiritual guidance of a friar. Confraternities or associations of lay people were already a well established tradition. Sometimes a confraternity could adopt a specific social ministry, such as caring for the elderly poor, unwed mothers, hungry pilgrims, or condemned prisoners. Now their connection with the Carmelites was formal and accepted.
Throughout his life, John acted with great courage. Symbolic of his personal audacity was an incident in Liege, while the city was sacked by Charles the Bold in 1468. A violent mob had broken into the church of St. Christopher and strewn consecrated hosts on the ground. John fearlessly gathered them and took them to the Carmelite church. For this reason, artists sometimes picture John with a ciborium. John Soreth died at Angers in 1471 after 20 years of spirited leadership. Among those who praised his hard work was the great Carmelite humanist Baptist Spagnoli of Mantua. He was beatified by Pius IX in 1866.