Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity

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. I would like to share with you some reflections on an historic meeting of religious superiors that took place in Rome from 23-27 November 2004. A total of 848 men and women took part: superiors general (male and female), presidents of national conferences of religious, theologians, young religious, editors of reviews on the Consecrated Life, directors of institutes aimed at the ongoing formation of religious, some bishops and representatives of the Congregation of the Institutes of Consecrated Life. 394 of the total came from Europe, 250 from the continent of America, 96 from Africa, 92 from Asia and 16 from Oceania. Four members of the Order were present. Fr. Tjeu Timmermans, O.Carm., was there as president of the newly erected conference of all religious of the Netherlands and Fr. Altamiro Tenório da Paz, O.Carm., represented the religious of Mozambique. Fr. Bruno Secondin, O.Carm., had helped to produce the document prior to the Congress and assisted as a theologian. I was there as Prior General. I want to reflect briefly on the experience of the Congress and pose some questions for your own reflection. This letter was written on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. By our vowed lives we seek to live profoundly our own baptismal consecration.

2. The Congress was organised jointly by the USG (Union of Superiors General - male) and the UISG (International Union of Superiors General – female) and it was the first time that such a meeting has taken place. The theme chosen for the Congress was, “Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity”. As religious we are called to “follow him passionately and, motivated by his compassion, to share his passion for each human being”, as the Working Document prepared for the Congress put it. The aim of the Congress was described as recognising the action of the Spirit in consecrated life today, to discern and articulate what God is saying to us through this, and to urge one another to act together with renewed passion for Christ and for humanity. In the following I will try to give you a flavour of what took place in the Congress as well as my own reflection. If you would like to read the documents of the Congress in full, you can do so by visiting the Internet site They will also be published in due course.

Inspirational Models for the Consecrated Life

3. The most striking idea contained in the Working Document was the proposal of two new models for the Consecrated Life. As you know, in the post-synodal document, “Vita Consecrata”, the Pope wrote about the Transfiguration of the Lord as an icon for the consecrated life (VC 14-19). In the Working Document, the two new models proposed are also taken from Holy Scripture. The first is the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4,1-42) and the second is the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10, 25-37). From the Samaritan woman we can learn that Jesus is always looking for that element of brokenness in our character, from which our deepest yearnings emerge. He knows that only a greater desire can put lesser ones in their place. That may be why He let her go on telling Him about her prejudices, wariness and misgivings, until the thirst for life that she was hiding in her heart revealed itself. “If you only knew the gift of God….”. If He had not zeroed in on her brokenness, she would not have recognised her unsatisfied needs. If He had not focused on it, she would have returned home with her jug filled with water that was not quenching her thirst. What are the “wells” where we have met the Lord and received living water from Him? Can we get in touch with our own thirst and “brokenness”? Be ready! He may be waiting for you anywhere, any time of the day, just when you are engrossed in trivial concerns. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the response of Jesus to the question, “Who is my neighbour”? In the Old Testament the Law already commanded love of neighbour. (Lv. 19,18). However in the time of Jesus, some interpreted this to mean only the physical neighbour, or the person of the same race or religion (Dt. 15, 2-3), but not others. There was a great debate about what the term “neighbour” meant. Jesus’ vision was much wider. For Jesus “neighbour” means anyone who crosses my path, independent of race, class or religion. In the story, the Samaritan man was ready to change his plans when he saw the need of the man who had been robbed. This reveals the logic of Jesus: “Don’t measure; don’t calculate. Give and there will be gifts for you”. It is difficult to go forward based on such faith but when we first responded to Christ’s call to follow Him, He never said it would be easy.

The Consecrated Life in the Present and the Future

4. We heard from two different perspectives (Latin American and European) about the impact on the consecrated life of the present situation of our world. We may not be of the world but we are certainly in the world and it does have a profound impact on how we think and organise our lives. Although there are many good things happening around the world, the emphasis was on certain trends in our different cultures that impact negatively on the consecrated life. This way of life is not ours but is a gift of God to the Church for the world and we have a sacred duty of passing on this gift to others. The charism is like a ball of moulding clay. Everyone who touches it leaves his or her fingerprints on it. What is our effect on the Carmelite Family?

5. In our present age, every institution is suffering from a lack of credibility. The Church has had to face up to its own fragility and Pope John Paul II has publicly asked pardon for the Church’s errors and sins of the past. We are the community of believers in Jesus Christ on the way to the Kingdom or Reign of God but we have not arrived yet. During his earthly life, Jesus was a scandal to many because they could not see past the externals and come to believe in him as the Messiah sent by God. In the same way the Church is a scandal for some, who cannot see beyond its human fragility. We must look at the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom or Reign of God from the perspective of the parables of the Kingdom. The metaphors of the leaven (Mt. 13, 33; Lk. 13, 20-21), of the weeds and the wheat (Mt. 13, 24-30) and the hidden pearl (Mt. 13, 45-46), help us to capture the dimension of the interior mystery of the Church, despite all the difficulties that appear on the outside. Without a deep and constant prayer, it will be impossible for us to see as God sees and therefore we will too quickly stop at the externals.

6. It is said that we live in a global village today, in the sense that our modern means of communication have brought us much closer together. However, instead of coming closer, we seem to be moving ever further apart. There even exists a polarisation within the same Church. The consecrated life is a sign that the love of Christ can break down the walls that separate people. Are we prepared to attempt to find ways of dialoguing with people who have different opinions from us? This question is relevant regarding those outside and also those inside our own communities. Diversity should be a cause of enrichment for us but often it is a cause of division. We need to constantly remember and practice the insistent demand of Jesus that we forgive one another, not just once but “seventy times seven” (Mt. 18,22).

7. Another speaker at the conference offered her ideas on some possibilities for the consecrated life in the future. The religious life offers an alternative life within the Church. Religious do not attempt simply to live in this world in a different way. This is the vocation of all Christians. Instead religious seek to create a whole different world. This is part of our prophetic witness. In the Bible, and especially in the Gospel of John, the term “world” is ambiguous. According to the speaker, it can mean the whole of creation, which is good (Jn. 3,16). It can also mean the theatre of human history. Jesus spoke of his own coming into the world as light (cf. Jn. 12, 46) and prayed at the last supper not that God take his disciples out of the world, i.e. out of human history, but that God preserve them from evil as they lived and acted in the world (cf. Jn. 17,15). Third, the world is the human race in its entirety. There is also a negative sense of the word “world”, used as a synonym for evil, that is in the grip of Satan (cf. Jn. 13, 27). “World” in the negative sense is the construction of reality according to the principles that are opposed to the central values of the Gospel. The victory of God over Satan and over the satanic construction of reality, is achieved in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. The paschal mystery establishes definitively that eternal life comes through death, not in the physical and natural sense, but resulting from the refusal to integrate one’s own life into the construction of Satan. The followers of Christ risk and lose their lives in the struggle to bring about the Kingdom or Reign of God. During the Congress, it was announced that a religious had been murdered in Kenya, and this brought home to all the participants the risk that is often taken to live the life of Christ.

8. We religious seek to offer an alternative vision of reality through the vows that we profess. The vows express a commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and a way of participation in the Church’s mission of witnessing to and realising the Reign of God in this world. The Pope, in his message at the end of the Congress, said, “The witness of your chaste, poor and obedient lives, become at the beginning of the third Christian millennium a showing forth of the loving face of Christ.” (art. 5). Religious are constantly challenged to live this witness in the midst of a very ambiguous reality in social settings which are structured to a large extent by the satanic dynamics of sexual exploitation, political domination and economic oppression and which are locked in mortal struggle with initiatives which promote right relationships among all God’s creatures.

9. Jesus did not come to institute a new religion with new boundaries to exclude some people. He came to inaugurate a new world and to give to all people the possibility of becoming children of God. Religious bear witness in every culture and in every era that Christ has come to give life in abundance to all. What do our vowed lives bear witness to? Can people glimpse in us an alternative and attractive way of being in the world?

10. Mgr. Franc Rodé C.M., Prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life, spoke about some challenges facing the religious life today. He mentioned the danger that certain tendencies in society could have a negative impact on our style of life and consequently sap the energy of religious. Mgr. Rodé underlined the importance of the daily celebration of the Eucharist as the source of faithfulness for religious. From the Eucharist we learn a true passion for Christ and for humanity. Our service of others comes from a participation in the total self-giving of Christ.

Some Issues

11. All the members of the Congress were involved in various kinds of groups. I believe that some of the questions posed for the groups can be helpful for our personal and communitarian reflection. I will mention a few of the topics and some of the ideas that emerged.

12. The first issue had to do with Justice, Peace and the Suffering of Humanity and the specific question was: The movement of people through war, famine, displacement and migration is dramatically changing the world. How is this changing consecrated life? How must consecrated life respond to these tragic phenomena? What will this process of uprooting require of our ministries? The group remarked that there were some major obstacles to our commitment in this area e.g. our resistance to change, our lifestyle of security and comfort, uncritical investment policies. How can we best respond to the suffering we see all around us?

13. Another group dealt with the issue of inculturation. The question before the group was: How can consecrated life move beyond a sheltered or “ghetto” mentality to embrace new opportunities especially in those places in which cultures and religions are experiencing violence and tension? It was noted that often there is a dominant culture in an Order and making way for another culture may result in giving up some strongly held opinions. We must be daring enough to break through our personal prejudices. We see in the history of our Order that decisions were made at critical times to move out to new missions in order to preach the Good News and to share our particular charism. How can we embrace the new opportunities being offered to us by God in our world?

14. Inter-religious dialogue was another topic. What is the role and responsibility of religious in the area of inter-religious dialogue? Real dialogue is hindered by the fragility of our faith, by mutual misunderstandings, by ignorance, fear, prejudice, the wounds of history and personal wounds, by the desire to dominate and impose oneself. The mass media influence us to see the other as a danger and tend to make easy generalisations. The Prophet Elijah is of course an ecumenical saint, venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. How can we, like Elijah, be both faithful to Tradition and yet at the same time creative in order to reach out to others who do not share our faith?

15. Another interest group dealt with Mass Media and the communication of values. The question before them was: What steps need to be taken to communicate with integrity the values of the consecrated life? The group pointed out that there is often a fear of technology and a lack of understanding how to use it creatively. Our communication is often in a language that fails to reach its audience. Do we speak the language of yesterday to the people of tomorrow?

16. Liberating the Prophetic: Solidarity in a World of Exclusion. How are prophetic movements and people identified and encouraged in religious congregations? How can leadership foster this new growth? What obstacles need to be removed so that this can happen? Consumerism, individualism, apathy and lack of belief in the prophetic nature of religious life are elements that block growth in this area. The preferential option for the poor, to whom the Kingdom or Reign of God belongs, is a fundamental element of consecrated life. The poor evangelise us. How do we show solidarity with those who are pushed to the margins of our societies?

17. Another group considered the topic of Celibacy and Life-Giving Relationships. A specific question posed to the group was: In what ways has the sexual revolution affected relationships in consecrated life? It was noted that consecrated chastity is a single-minded love for God marked by a passion for Jesus Christ and his Good News. In the tradition of the Order, one of the titles given to Our Lady was “Most Pure Virgin”. She was consumed by a single-minded love for God. Are we single-minded?

18. Thirsting for God and the Search for Meaning was the particular focus of one group. To assist the group’s reflection, the members were given the following questions: Consecrated life is searching for meaning in a world that is searching for meaning. How do our prayer and spirituality respond to this thirst for meaning? How do our lives give it expression? The group saw some obstacles present in the religious life, namely, a flight into activism and a search for oneself, a community life where the focus is put more on structures than on interpersonal relationships. The virtual relationships (TV, internet) can make true relationships with God and others difficult. There is often a lack of silence and listening. Our Rule stresses the importance of silence, which is the cultivation of justice. All our words and actions must emerge from a silent heart. What importance do we give to interior silence?

19. Leadership and Authority: What kind of leadership in consecrated life is needed to bring out the full potential of members to incarnate the mission of Jesus in these times? The group dealing with this issue noted that to come to decisions as a group is a difficult art and that leaders must often make decisions that will be displeasing to some or hurt others. The community can be compared to an orchestra. The orchestra is made up of many instruments, which must all be played in tune in order to harmonise into a beautiful sound. If one is out of tune, the whole suffers. Therefore the spiritual health of one member affects the whole community. How do you affect your community?

20. On the last day of the Congress, the Prefect of the Congregation for Consecrated Life came to visit once again but this time to read the message from the Pope. You will notice that the Pope quoted our Saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi as an inspiration for all religious to love Love and to make Love loved. (art. 4). The Pope reminds us “the only measure of love is to love without measure.” (art. 7).

21. Below are the questions that the whole Congress had to tackle. Perhaps they can assist your own reflection and be a way of taking your own spiritual “pulse” and that of your Province.
a) Can you name some signs of life in yourself, your community, your Province, (Commissariat or Delegation) and the Order?
b) What are the obstacles that impede these signs?
c) Are there some changes necessary in order to encourage these signs of life?
d) As Province, or Commissariat or community or individual, what can be done concretely to encourage these signs of life?

The hope of the organisers of the Congress was to give a new impetus to all religious to live their baptismal consecration more profoundly. May we Carmelites seek to live always in the presence of God and like Mary, our Mother and Sister, allow the Word of God to penetrate our hearts and transform our lives.

Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.
Prior General

9th January 2005
Baptism of the LorD