That Carmel May Bloom

Fr. Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.


Letter of the Prior General,
Fr. Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.
to the Carmelite Family

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Carmel,

1. In the Old Testament, Carmel is a symbol for beauty and fertility. The Prophet Elijah was always connected with Mount Carmel and his example is the inspiration behind the way of life of the hermits who set up a monastery there 800 years ago. These men wanted to follow Christ by dedicating their whole lives to prayer. Their way of life has inspired countless men and women throughout the centuries to build Carmel in the world. The Carmelite Family has given many holy people to the Church as witnesses for the Gospel. It is a great joy that the Church wishes to officially recognise that another member of our Family has responded fully to the grace of God. In view of the forthcoming beatification of Madre Maria Crocifissa Curcio, foundress of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, I want to share with the whole Carmelite Family some of the riches to be found in this sister of ours. Her life reflects the beauty and abundant fertility of Carmel.

Early Life

2. Madre Crocifissa was born in Sicily, Italy, on the 30th January 1877, the seventh of ten children. Two died in infancy. She was given the name Rosa. Her family was comfortably off at a time when crushing poverty was the norm. God used Rosa's childhood experiences to develop within her a great love for the poor. She went to school until the age of eleven, after which she helped her mother look after the house. She was naturally inclined towards study but her father strongly believed that an elementary education was quite sufficient for girls and that educated women often caused problems in the home! Fortunately she had access to books and she proceeded to devour them in her free time. She sought to satisfy the hunger for knowledge within her but the more she read, the hungrier she was.

3. The young Rosa Curcio developed a great love for and devotion to the Eucharist. Her father had anticlerical ideas that were common at the time and he did not encourage his daughter to frequent church. When she was deprived of the sacrament, Rosa intensified her prayer.

4. Love for Carmel came into Rosa Curcio's life at a young age, at first through the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. She was greatly inspired and consoled by St. Teresa. New horizons began to open out for her. Rosa had desired to study in order to obtain good grades or a position in society but reading the life of St. Teresa directed her towards fulfilling the will of God for her. At the age of thirteen, in 1890, Rosa became a member of the Carmelite Third Order, associated with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel near her home. In 1893, she received the habit of the Third Order, taking the name of Sr. Maria Crocifissa and in 1895 she made her profession as a lay Carmelite. Bearing the name of the Crucified is a sign of her own personal devotion to Christ as well as the spirituality typical of this period.

5. Rosa Curcio was deeply committed to the poor and with other lay Carmelites, she devoted herself to works of mercy. However she felt that something was missing and desired to live the life of a religious sister. After the death of her father, who was not entirely happy with his daughter's religious tendencies, she entered a local community of Dominican Sisters. However her true love was for Carmel and she left after a few months. In Sicily there was no Congregation of Carmelite Sisters and the idea of founding one slowly began to take shape in her mind and heart.

6. Rosa’s health was never robust and life in the Dominican convent had been hard. However at home she soon regained her strength and took up once again her life as a Carmelite tertiary. Her Carmelite vocation grew within her. She had a great devotion to St. Teresa of Avila but she felt no desire to follow her into the cloister. Instead she wanted to be a Carmelite in the world, dedicating herself to the service of others. Rosa was elected prioress of her Third Order Chapter in 1897 at the tender age of nineteen, a sign of the great esteem in which she was held by her fellow lay Carmelites. She continued in this position until 1908.

7. Rosa began to live a form of community life in her own home with other lay Carmelites. Her brother, Federico, gently complained that she was turning their home into a convent. She served her neighbours in many ways but her preferred occupation was to teach catechism to children, leading them to know and love God. The local parish priest was delighted to have these dedicated women in the community and the bishop, Mgr. Blandini, encouraged Rosa in her vocation. He often called her and her work "the little mustard seed" that he hoped would spread its branches all over Sicily. Little did he know that Rosa's way of life would inspire many women way beyond the confines of Sicily.

8. There were of course many difficulties to face. Some local people did not understand Rosa's work and perhaps some of the better off felt judged by her commitment to the poor. The criticisms and misunderstandings reached such a pitch that the bishop suggested a move for the new community. Madre Curcio and her companions took over an orphanage. She applied to the Order to receive the habit but the Prior General at that time, Fr. Pius Meyer, restricted the permission to the wearing of the scapular. In 1923 Madre Crocifissa made contact with Fr. Alberto Grammatico, the Prior Provincial of the Sicilian Province. The local bishop had been directed not to multiply the number of religious families in the diocese and so he suggested that the new community join with an already established Dominican congregation. However, Madre Crocifissa and her companions firmly believed that God was calling them to Carmel and they could not be unfaithful to this vocation. In fact they preferred the destruction of their little work rather than settle for less than they believed God was asking of them.

Madre Crocifissa and Fr. Lorenzo

9. At this point, Providence brought Madre Crocifissa and Fr. Lorenzo van den Eerenbeemt together. Despite his name, he was born in Rome, of a Dutch father and an Italian mother. He joined the Dutch Province of the Order and was sent to study in Rome. In 1922 he was nominated prior of St. Albert's in Rome despite his wish to go to the newly opened mission in Indonesia.

10. The missionaries in Indonesia told Fr. Lorenzo of the situation there and of the great need for Carmelite missionary sisters. Fr. Lorenzo sought sisters to respond to this need but to no avail. Hearing of his interest, Fr. Grammatico made contact with him, and told him of Madre Crocifissa and her community. Fr. Lorenzo wrote to Madre Crocifissa and explained to her his ideas of founding a Carmelite missionary Congregation. Madre Crocifissa responded joyfully. It seemed that finally the Lord was answering her deepest desires. She confided to Fr. Lorenzo that from her childhood she had dreamed of such a holy work that could embrace the whole world.

11. Still Madre Crocifissa had to face many difficulties and disappointments in realising her dream of founding a Congregation of Carmelite sisters dedicated to the active apostolate. In 1925 St. Thérèse of Lisieux was canonised and Madre Crocifissa entrusted the foundation to the new saint. Madre Crocifissa went to Rome for the canonisation and the day after, Fr. Lorenzo took her to visit Santa Marinella, on the coast about 30 km from Rome. She was captivated by the place and hoped that it would be possible to obtain a small property there for the community. Fr. Lorenzo wrote to Cardinal Vico, the bishop of the diocese, which included Santa Marinella, and requested permission for a foundation. He wrote describing the plan of an Institute dedicated to St. Thérèse, which would have as its scope missionary outreach at home and abroad with special regard for poor or abandoned children. Permission was granted for the foundation in Santa Marinella for one year and Fr. Lorenzo was allowed to move there also to help Madre Crocifissa with his spiritual counsel. The bishop in Sicily who had, in good faith, blocked Madre Crocifissa's plans to establish a Congregation of Carmelite Sisters, was still not completely convinced that this was according to the will of God and the mind of the Church.

12. In Santa Marinella, Madre Crocifissa was finally free to express her dream. All that had gone before acted as a purification for her so that truly the Congregation would be the work of God and not merely the idea of one woman. However, there were still many challenges to face and sufferings to undergo. In 1929, Cardinal Vico died. In 1925 he had given oral permission for the foundation of the sisters, which he had renewed annually. The new bishop, Cardinal Boggiani, did not approve of Fr. Lorenzo living outside a community of Carmelite friars and withdrew permission for him to live and work in the diocese. A compromise was worked out whereby Fr. Lorenzo could visit the sisters twice a week. Madre Crocifissa felt his absence keenly. Despite the difficulties, both were able to discern the workings of God's Providence and understand that the foundation was ultimately not their work but God's. Fr. Lorenzo petitioned for a community of friars in Santa Marinella but this was not agreed to. As a result, with great sorrow, Fr. Lorenzo felt impelled to seek exclaustration (living outside the Order for a time). Witnesses tell us that this procedure took an enormous emotional toll on Fr. Lorenzo. He left the Order externally but always remained a Carmelite in his heart. Just before his death in 1977, he had the deep joy of once more wearing the Carmelite habit that was so dear to him, when he was re-admitted to the Order. One of the great riches of the Carmelite Family is the co-operation between men and women who are both dedicated to the same ideal. We live this ideal in different ways and look at it from different perspectives. There are many examples in the history of the Church where the co-operation of a man and a woman in a spiritual venture has produced abundant fruit. The spiritual friendship that existed between Madre Crocifissa and Fr. Lorenzo ensured that the Congregation, a new flower in the garden that is Carmel, would grow strong roots. These roots had to be planted deep in their hearts first. The beginnings of something new are often marked by suffering. Both Fr. Lorenzo and Madre Crocifissa both suffered gladly that new life could be born.

The Mission

13. On 23rd October 1930, Madre Crocifissa and the other sisters were finally permitted to make their final vows as religious. It was a moment of great joy for Madre Crocifissa, who had suffered much to arrive at this point. In 1947 she saw her childhood dream of being a missionary fulfilled in the person of her sisters. At the request of a missionary bishop, she sent four sisters to Paracatu in Brazil. She would have preferred to go herself but her responsibility for the young Congregation and her fragile health made that impossible. Her health was never good and it gradually declined. On 4th July 1957, Madre Crocifissa died. After her death, her Congregation continued to expand and bring her love of the poor and especially children to more missions.

14. Everything she did was to make God loved. Madre Crocifissa was a simple woman with little education but she had a profound relationship with God. All the studies that have been done up until this point have brought out the mystical character of her inner life. It is remarkable that she is able to express herself in such precise theological concepts without ever having had the possibility of studying theology. It is to be hoped that the beatification of Madre Crocifissa will encourage other Carmelites to study her diary and letters through which can be glimpsed deep insights into God's dealings with His creation and also the role of Our Blessed Lady in the spiritual life. From her writings it seems that Our Lady helped Madre Crocifissa be conformed to Christ and led her into the intimacy of the Blessed Trinity. In the Diary, which hopefully will be published and translated into other languages, we can find a woman of deep prayer, who naturally expresses herself in the spiritual language available to her. The document is not a register of daily events but of interior and exterior happenings, generally in the form of short notes. I have no doubt in calling her a profound mystic, in the full Christian sense of that term. However, not only was she a woman of deep prayer and profound spirituality, Madre Crocifissa was also a very balanced and mature individual.

15. Like St. Thérèse to whom the entire Congregation was dedicated, Madre Crocifissa too felt the vocation to pray and sacrifice herself for priests. She desired that her sufferings be not apparent to others. She wrote in her Diary, "I suffered a great deal interiorly all the while appearing to take part in the general laughter and conversation.” (13 December 1925). She also ate the bread of those who had forgotten God or rejected Him: "During the night and the following day I suffered a great deal because of a complete forgetfulness of God and of everything that is essential to my supernatural life.”

16. Madre Crocifissa lived in profound union with God and she wanted that her sisters be faithful to what they had promised. She did not want any half measures. She often said that it was useless to live in a religious house if one does not have the intention to live as the Lord wishes.

Madre Crocifissa and Carmelite Spirituality

17. I have already mentioned Madre Crocifissa's devotion to Carmel. Devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel was common in Sicily but Madre Crocifissa also had a warm relationship with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, to whom she dedicated the Congregation. Also from an early age, Madre Crocifissa had come into contact with, and been greatly inspired by St. Teresa of Avila.

18. However, it was Our Blessed Lady who was the constant presence in Madre Crocifissa's life. She said that the tender Mother of Carmel had grasped hold of her heart while very young and had given her a mission that she was determined to carry out. Madre Crocifissa looked upon Our Lady as a Mother full of tenderness and of human warmth and was attracted by the welcome that Mary gave to God's will.

19. The Diary of Madre Crocifissa is full of descriptions of her visions and locutions, many of these involving Our Blessed Lady and the intimate life of the Blessed Trinity. When reading the writings of Madre Crocifissa, one should keep in mind the culture in which she grew up in order to understand the details of her spirituality. Of special importance is the popular religiosity, which she imbibed from her earliest years. This has shaped the expressions that Madre Crocifissa used to pass on her message. In her Diary where we encounter her intimate experience, we discover a profound intimacy with God, with Mary and with her Son Jesus. It is certainly clothed in a miraculous language due to the Madre's background, but the authenticity of her experience can be gauged from her humility, her detachment, her charity and her fear of illusion.

20. Madre Crocifissa experienced the maternal love of Mary. The nourishment that she received from Our Lady was the love with which Mary loved her Son Jesus. From these experiences Madre Crocifissa received the strength to resist those, who in good faith, opposed the fulfilment of her mission that she was convinced she had received from the "tender Mother of Carmel". Madre Crocifissa passed on the experience of Mary's maternal love to the many children with whom she worked in Santa Marinella and the many poor families who received much needed assistance. It can also be seen in the maternal way in which she directed the new Congregation and the sisters who joined her. From Mary at the foot of the cross, she learned particularly a profound compassion for the "little ones". She herself said, " Feminine, maternal compassion is the most striking expression of love that the Holy Spirit wants to spread throughout the world by means of the Church."

21. Her own Carmelite vocation, she was convinced, came from Our Lady of Mount Carmel herself. The scapular was the external symbol of Madre Crocifissa's relationship with Mary and of her desire to conform her whole life to that of the Mother of God. It seems that the young Rosa Curcio received the scapular as an infant and then later when she was admitted to the Third Order at the age of thirteen. She lived as a lay Carmelite until the age of fifty-three when she was able to take vows as a Carmelite religious sister at which point she was finally permitted to wear the full religious habit, which was always of great importance to her. She understood the habit as an external sign of her belonging to Our Blessed Lady's Order.

22. Madre Crocifissa joined the Carmelite Third Order while still very young and found great support for her spiritual desires from her fellow lay Carmelites. She began to feel "the great mission that the tender Mother of Carmel had predestined for her, that is to unite with my companions and to reinvigorate Carmel in our land and in many others.” When she met Fr. Lorenzo, he encouraged her to follow her dream to found a new Carmelite Institute with a specifically missionary thrust, following the great missionary desires of Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. The influence of these great saints on Madre Crocifissa merits further study.

23. Madre Crocifissa desired that the Congregation be thoroughly Carmelite and indeed play a part in the reflowering of Carmel for the benefit of the whole of humanity. In her letters and regulations for the Congregation, she stressed the great importance of silence and aspirative prayer throughout the day. She was well aware of these elements in the Carmelite tradition. She understood prayer as "a relationship of love with He who is Immense Love”, and therefore is a deeply felt need of the human heart. Madre Crocifissa understood that a part of her mission and that of the Congregation was to undertake an active reparation to the love of God too often forgotten or completely unknown. She proposed several devotions that were dropped in the wake of the devotional crisis after the 2nd. Vatican Council. Madre Crocifissa understood her own vocation as including a very important element of reparation and she sought to pass this on to her sisters in the new Congregation. The sisters would do well to study in particular the aspect of reparation to the Sacred Heart and to renew it with a stress on Eucharistic devotion, which then could be shared with the whole Carmelite Family.

24. Madre Crocifissa looked upon the two Teresas (Avila and Lisieux) as the light and inspiration for her new Congregation. Both were of course cloistered nuns but she wished to found an active Congregation. Madre Crocifissa understood that contemplation was at the heart of the Carmelite vocation and that it must be the source of apostolic activities, which are according to the mind and heart of God. She understood instinctively that there was no dichotomy between contemplation and action. Madre Crocifissa had a great devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and this can be traced back at least to the canonisation ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica of St. Therese, which Madre Crocifissa attended in May 1925. This event had a profound effect on her, on her personal spirituality and therefore on the spirituality of the new Congregation.

25. In this year dedicated to the Eucharist, it is important to point out that devotion to the sacrament was a very important element of Madre Crocifissa's spirituality and was the source of her spiritual strength. In her letters to the sisters she often encouraged them to go to the Eucharist for their source of strength. The love that they received from this source could then be shared with others throughout the day. She often spent entire nights in front of the Tabernacle. She believed that in the Eucharist the individual could be transformed in the infinity of God.

26. The great ideal of Madre Crocifissa was to attain sanctity and Our Lady was her greatest model of what that meant in practice. Her burning desire was that God's will be accomplished in and through her. She desired in some way to make up for people's ingratitude towards God. She stressed very often to her religious sisters that, by their profession, they were obliged to strive towards holiness of life.

Madre Crocifissa and the Carmelite Family

27. The Congregation that Madre Crocifissa founded now numbers approximately 280 sisters in 7 countries. It was affiliated to the Order a few days after the official foundation in 1925. The whole Carmelite Family rejoices with all the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus on the occasion of the beatification of the foundress, Madre Crocifissa Curcio.

28. What has Blessed Madre Crocifissa to offer to the wider Carmelite Family? I have already written about her own love and knowledge of Carmelite spirituality. She was convinced that her vocation was inspired by Our Lady of Mount Carmel so that Carmel would bloom. According to the Book of the First Monks, a very important document for the history of Carmelite spirituality from the 13th century, the twofold goal of the Carmelite life is described in the following way: “One part we acquire by our own effort and the exercise of the virtues, with the help of divine grace. This is to offer God a heart that is holy and pure from actual stain of sin. We attain this goal when we are perfect and ‘in Carith’, that is hidden in that charity of which the Wise Man says, ‘Love covers all offences’ (Prov. 10,12)…… The other goal of this life is granted to us as the free gift of God; namely, not only after death but even in this mortal life, to taste somewhat in the heart and to experience in the mind the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory.” (Bk.1, chap. 2).

29. It would seem clear from the writings of Madre Crocifissa that she did indeed “taste somewhat in the heart and to experience in the mind the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory”. It is wonderful that the Church recognises that one of our sisters has fulfilled abundantly the vocation for which she was created. Carmel has produced very many mystics, both famous and unknown, throughout the centuries of its existence. Mystical experience of course is a pure gift of God and is not something that can be grasped or earned by human effort. We can marvel at the mystical experience of Madre Crocifissa and be encouraged that no matter the external restrictions in our lives, we can still accomplish God's will.

30. From the very beginning Madre Crocifissa had a profound sense of mission. Carmel, since it is part of the Church, must be missionary. In our own countries we are all faced with a great mission received from God to proclaim the Reign of God in word and deed. Madre Crocifissa lived her mission in large part in Santa Marinella but also lived out her commitment to the missio ad gentes through her sisters. The mission to foreign countries (ad gentes) is also an essential part of our Christian and Carmelite vocation. Not all of us can go to other countries but we can have a missionary outlook in the sense that we support those who do with prayer and moral and financial aid.

31. This year (2005) the Church is celebrating the year of the Eucharist. This sacrament was a central pillar in the spirituality of Madre Crocifissa. Her beatification should help us to focus on the meaning of the Eucharist for our own lives. In the Carmelite Rule, it is stated that, " an oratory should be built as conveniently as possible among the cells, where, if it can be done without difficulty, you are to gather each morning to hear Mass.” (Rule, 14) The hermits moved from the individual cells to the chapel for prayers and the celebration of the Eucharist and then, fortified, they returned to their search for God in the solitude of the cell. There is a balance in Carmelite life between the solitude of the cell and community life. St. Paul told the Corinthians to be careful lest what they celebrate in fact not be the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11,20). An essential aspect of Carmelite life is the building up of community. Madre Crocifissa's great humanity was a striking element of her life. She urged all her sisters to strive towards holiness as a consequence of their religious profession but she was also very solicitous about their ordinary human needs. If our Eucharist is truly to be a celebration of the Lord's Supper, it must inspire us to treat one another in practice as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

32. Very few were aware of the intimate mystical life of Madre Crocifissa while she was alive. Her sisters and those she served were aware of her love, which expressed itself in a very practical care and concern for them. The authenticity of any religious experience is seen in how the person treats others day in and day out. Madre Crocifissa is a model of how to follow Jesus Christ. She is an inspiration for all who feel called to Carmel. She inspires us in our life of prayer and in our practical care for others until that day when we will hopefully hear along with her those words of Christ, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.” (Mt. 25, 34).

Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.
Prior General

27th March 2005