Dear brothers and sisters of the Carmelite family,
One more year, the solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is approaching and, therefore, I would like to send very warm greetings to all those who, in one way or another, are part of the great family of Carmel. On these days we not only remember and celebrate the Mother of the Lord under the beloved title of Carmel, but we also feel part of a family that lives its faith with that special aspect, “as Carmelites”, at the service of the Church and of humanity.
This year, my greetings have a special tone, since, after twelve years of service to the Order as Prior General, I will soon leave this post in the General Chapter that we will celebrate in Sassone (Rome, Italy) from September 9 to 29. And this is the first message that I would like to send you this year: that all of us (religious, contemplative nuns, active women religious, tertiaries, lay people of different groups, etc.) will feel and be very united in prayer that the General Chapter will be a time of grace, of deep reflection, of discernment and fraternity. The theme we have chosen for our Chapter, as you probably already know, is: “You are my witnesses” (Isa 43:10); from one generation to the next: called to be faithful to our Carmelite charism”. This theme that has been proposed came about by the reality that the Order has grown a lot geographically in recent decades. This growth has been a true blessing for the Order and a source of joy for all of us. But these “missions” or new presences are also a challenge, especially with regard to the formation of future Carmelites, a formation that should combine the specificity of local cultures with the most genuine tradition of the Order to which we must be faithful and of which we must be transmitters.
It is, without a doubt, a fascinating challenge, but also a complex one. Likewise, it is a great responsibility that we must face with great seriousness, since the configuration and vitality of the Carmel of the 21st century will to a large extent depend on it. For this reason, it is important that our Chapter discuss this question (among others) with depth, with evangelical criteria, with seriousness and generosity.
Likewise, the Chapter of 2019 will address the task of reviewing the Constitutions that was entrusted to it in the 2013 Chapter. As I have repeated in many different areas, it is not a question of elaborating new Constitutions, but of including some aspects that were absent (and of which we have become aware over time) or to add some references to the latest official documents of the Church, or to better outline some numbers that -with the passage of time- may have been out of date or insufficient for the new problems and challenges of our society.
It is not necessary to point out the importance of this task. The Constitutions are not just a legal or administrative document, but they must show what we are and, even more, what we want to be. They are not empty and disembodied norms, the fruit of an outdated legalism, but they show our humble determination to live as Carmelites of the 21st century who – with joy, generosity and creativity – put themselves at the service of the Church and of Evangelization. In addition, although they directly affect the religious, in a certain way they also influence the vitality of the entire Carmelite family.
Likewise, the Chapter must elect the brothers who will animate the life of the Order in the next six years. From now on, we put ourselves in an attitude of generous and affectionate collaboration with the brothers who will be chosen for this delicate task and who will assume the challenge of leading the Order so that it will be ever more faithful to the mission and the charism it has received.
On many occasions I have stressed the importance of our Chapter structure, typical of the mendicant orders. It is not only a way of organization or administration (as valid as others), but it entails a whole “Chapter culture” and, even more, a “Chapter spirituality”. Even this Chapter dynamic involves a theology, a way of understanding the signs of the times in which God manifests himself, a way of understanding spiritual discernment, authority, synodality, etc.
Therefore, in the festivities that we are going to celebrate, keep this intention in mind before our Mother and Sister, before the Star of the Sea, who has guided and accompanied us for eight centuries and who, undoubtedly, will continue to do so as we enter this third millennium, full of challenges, needs of all kinds and also of hopes. To a great extent, the success of the General Chapter will depend on the sincere and fraternal prayer of all of us.
I would also like to take advantage of this letter on the occasion of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to share with you some feelings at the end of my term as Prior General of the Order. Allow me this personal note without pretensions and done in a fraternal and informal tone.
If I had to highlight what I feel right now, the word that would best express it is “gratitude”: gratitude to the Lord for having called me to Carmel and for having had the opportunity (the enormous honor) to serve the brothers internationally; gratitude for the beautiful experiences of fraternity, mission, service and solidarity that I have had the opportunity to experience during these years. I confess that (without denying the problems, the shortcomings and the difficulties that have occurred in these years) on many occasions I have felt the deep pride of being a Carmelite and of belonging to this family. I do not want to highlight any concrete experience (there would be so many!), but I can tell you that many Carmelites, with their generous, happy, simple work, without much publicity and even almost anonymous … have edified and enriched me, have helped me to continue walking and I have been renewed in my vocation. For all of them, for our contemplative sisters, for the sisters of the active life who give themselves to teaching, to the missions, to the sick, for our lay people who often live with enormous enthusiasm and generosity their belonging to Carmel … because of all of this, it is worth continuing to sow and to continue to grow as Carmelites of the 21st century!
I would also like to apologize to those who at some point may have felt disappointed or expected something different. Those who know me well know that this apology is not a formality, a literary genre that is always used at the end of a mission, but I say it with all my heart.
Carmel follows very diverse processes in different parts of the world where we are. While Asia has become the largest geographical area of the Order, Europe and North America for the last several decades have experienced a lack of vocations and alarming decrease in the size of the provinces. Latin America continues to grow at a sustained pace and the young presence in Africa, despite their fragility, are strengthening, which suggests a very promising future.
In each case, the strategy of the Order must be different. The general government cannot act only from the criteria or from the situation in a certain geographical area. It would be frustrating to let ourselves be carried away by pessimism, disregarding the areas of the world where Carmel grows with great force. It would be irresponsible to ignore that there are shortcomings and difficulties due to the lack of personnel (and that this means restructuring our presence) in other areas of the world. Although the General Curia is in Rome, in Italy, in Europe … it is the Curia of the whole Order, in its richness and diversity.
But, in any case, in all these processes we must maintain an evangelical style, typical of men of faith who act moved by other values. With great humility, realism, courage and hope, we are proud and grateful for that internationality, for that diversity of cultures and languages that we consider a blessing and an enormous wealth and we assume the challenge of offering and sharing the Carmelite charism with everyone.
In this sense, I have tried to maintain during these years a healthy balance between active presence in Rome and presence in the peripheries of the Order (to use the expression so dear to Pope Francis), from where the ecclesial life can be seen with other sensitivities, with other accents and other nuances, which (undoubtedly!) enriches and completes our service to the universal Church. For this, I have counted on the inestimable help of the various councilors and of Fr Christian Körner, Vice-General, who has maintained with great generosity and efficiency, the work of the curia. Likewise, those who maintain this contact with the various living realities of the Carmelite family – the Procurator General, the Delegate for the Nuns, the Webmaster and the General Postulator – have been of great help. My most sincere gratitude is addressed to all of them.
Finally, and as I usually do every year, I would like to remind you of some anniversaries that we celebrate this year, which are still significant for our history and identity (especially in relation to the Marian dimension of the charism) so that, at the same time, they may project us towards a future full of challenges.
First of all, I would like to mention the first centenary of the canonical coronation of the image of Our Lady of Mt Carmel (Nossa Senhora do Carmo) of Recife, who was at the same time named Patron of the city and the Ecclesiastical Province of Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil. I do not think I exaggerate if I say that it is the most massive festival of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in the world. Each year, around the solemnity of July 16, hundreds of thousands of people participate in the celebrations and the procession and honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel with great devotion. A few kilometers from Recife is the convent of Olinda, considered the first Carmelite foundation of the American continent and whose restoration and rededication we celebrated solemnly some years ago.
That deep connection between the mission and a healthy Marian devotion should motivate us to continue working in our day on that same line. Popular Marian piety cannot distract us from the fundamental mission of the Christian which is to announce the good news of salvation. Moreover, this piety -if it is authentic- sends us, challenges us, impels us to be living witnesses of the Gospel and to live it with gratitude and generosity.
Congratulations to the Carmelite Province of Pernambuco and to the entire Brazilian Carmelite family on this centenary and we pray that Our Mother of Carmel may help the Order and the Carmelite family to grow in those lands.
Secondly, I would like to point out that – as you already know from the official communications of the Order – the commemorative acts of the eighth centenary of the death of Saint Angelus of Sicily are beginning, for which a series of religious and cultural celebrations have been organized and will be developed in the coming months. St. Angelus is undoubtedly one of the leading figures of the early days of the history of our Order. Because of the scant data we have of his life, we know that he probably came from the Holy Land (in fact, he is also known as St. Angelus of Jerusalem) and that he dedicated his life to preaching. Likewise, he is usually linked, even iconographically, with Saint Dominic Guzman and with Saint Francis of Assisi, thus emphasizing the inclusion of Carmel among the mendicant orders.
The figure of St. Angelus invites us to a genuinely evangelical preaching (precisely now that we are preparing to celebrate the Novena in honor of the Our Lady of Mt Carmel) and reminds us of our origins in the Holy Land, in the land of the Lord. May the celebration of this centenary help us in our mission and make us, also, announcers of the Mystery of salvation. Congratulations to the universal Carmel and especially to the Italian Carmel for this centenary, as well as to the city of Licata that jealously guards the memory of the Carmelite saint.
This year we also celebrate 50 years of the restoration of the British Province, one of the oldest of the Order and suppressed in the sixteenth century, after the break in the time of Henry VIII. For this reason, I will celebrate there (in Aylesford and then in Wales, one of the places where the Irish Carmelites began their restoration work) the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel this year. The Province (now known as Britannia Maioris) is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Marian mystery that reminds us that the Virgin precedes us on the path and that She is a pledge and guarantee of that universal call to salvation. In countries where Catholics are a minority, but also throughout the world, the Church asks us today to make an effort to live our Marian devotion with authenticity, with ecumenical sensitivity and with the same humility that made Mary great (Lk 1:48-49). Perhaps in these countries it becomes more evident that God acts in small ways and that, only from these small ways can his Kingdom can be built. With this motive I want to congratulate the British Province for this anniversary and for the Province of Ireland that, with great generosity, embarked on this adventure of restoring Carmel in Great Britain.
Finally, I would also like to mention the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the beatification of Isidore Bakanja, the young Congolese who was savagely beaten for refusing to give up his faith and taking off the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that he wore around his neck, which for him was a tangible sign of the faith he professed. Moreover, that scapular that became a small reminder of his baptism, led him to the truly heroic attitude of forgiving the one who had mortally wounded him and led him, ultimately, to the sublime testimony of evangelical charity taken to the highest degree – to martyrdom. His testimony, proposed to the Church 25 years ago at the solemn beatification ceremony that took place in Rome, must continue to be a true inspiration for us today. The humble, like Isidore, show us the most genuine and the most authentic aspects of our Marian devotion.
In 2020, there will be a new Prior General who will sign this letter of congratulations for the feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Our Mother and Sister, the Domina loci that is at the center of our lives and that inspires and encourages us to live our Carmelite charism at the service of the Gospel, for the people of God and for all humanity.
From now on I wish you all the best and a fruitful service to the family of Carmel. We place under the maternal protection of Mary both the General Chapter and the next six years. She will guide us with sweetness and affection and, like Stella Maris, she will show us the way of salvation to which She, Mary of Nazareth, gave her whole life.
A big hug to everyone and … Congratulations!
Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm.