Dear young Carmelites, from all over the world, who are taking part in this World Youth Day in Krakow, welcome! Make the best of these days of praying, sharing with others and enjoying faith.
In addition to being a wonderful city for its art and beauty, Krakow is a place that has very close links with our Carmelite history. At the shrine of “Our Lady of the Sands” (Na Piasku) that was in the care of Carmelites for many years there is an important image of the Virgin Mary, which under this same title is the object of great popular devotion. In this Carmelite house (that has seen many ups and downs in the course of its history) famous men and exemplary friars have lived, known for their piety and holiness. It is in this very place that, along with other confreres, Hilary Januszewski, the then prior of the community, was arrested in 1940. He would live out his last days, heroically in the Dachau concentration camp, which we will come back to in a moment.
Certainly, Krakow has many memories of our past, which is an invitation to us to recover some of our identity in a way that will be meaningful, attractive and even provocative for religious men and women, for nuns, apostolic sisters, lay people and young Carmelites of the 21st century.
This year, moreover, along with the whole Church we are meditating on the theme of mercy. Pope Francis has invited every one of us to turn our attention to this gospel value that is so fundamental to our faith. It may appear to be a thing of little importance, but this is one of the values that Pope Francis emphasizes most. Again and again he has asked us to turn to what is most essential, to what is most genuinely a part of the Gospel, and to put it into our lives, with great courage, joy and authenticity.
To help you in your reflection, I would like to say a word about three important people in the history of Carmel, that in one way or another are very relevant to what is going on during these days:
1. St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi (1566-1607)
As you know, this year we are celebrating the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi (1566-1607). This Carmelite saint followed her vocation intensely and came into union with God. Indeed, her spiritual experience and teaching is at the highest level. At times Mary Magdalene, just like other mystics, is unable to find words to express the profound mystery of the mercy of God:
And it seemed to me (…) that I could see in God the greatest goodness and mercy, and this mercy was so great, I would not be able to express it. (Quaranta giorni, 229-30)
In spite of this, Magdalene never ignored the problems of her own time. Her mystical experience did not put her at a distance from real life, or from the Church and the people of her time – quite the contrary. During her life, the young Carmelite nun distinguished herself for her ability to serve and her sensitivity towards the needs of others.
It is very interesting, and something for Carmelites of the 21st century to think about, to appreciate what the following equation means: deep union with God, prayer and contemplative life, etc., if these are to be authentic, they have to lead us to a greater sensitivity towards the men and women of our time and to greater solidarity with them. The basis of this is profoundly theological, and for that reason, profoundly human.
How do we live our faith today? Is it a faith that is alive and has passion, that leads us to an encounter with a personal and merciful God? How can we strengthen our experience of faith in a way that will make us more and more human and merciful?
2. Fr. Hilary Januszewski passed the last few years of his life in our house in Krakow. Pawel (Paul) – the name he received at Baptism – was born in Krajenki in 1907; on entering the Carmelite Order he took the name Hilary. Following his studies in Krakow and Rome he was appointment to the community in Krakow. He was the prior of the community when the war began in 1939. As the prior of the community he offered to be arrested instead of some of the members of the community who had be found preaching in Polish, and that was strictly forbidden during the nazi occupation. Moving from prison to prison he finally ended up in Dachau concentration camp. He remained a prisoner there for many years, almost to the end of the war. At a certain point a typhoid epidemic broke out in the camp. Some of the barracks were then reserved for the victims who were left to fend for themselves. Barracks 25 thus turned into a kind of morgue, indeed the inmates began to call it the coffin. History tells us that there were many priests held in Dachau, some 2500, many of whom died there. One day one of the camp guards was heard to say, somewhat sarcastically, that the priests would have to go and look after the sick. All could see that this was a macabre joke, but Fr. Hilary got up and offered to go down to them. Another Polish priest tried to dissuade him, but he had already made up his mind and so he answered, “I know where I am going….”
He died subsequently of typhoid, shortly before the camp was liberated. This Polish Carmelite found the strength to offer his life for the least of the least in that place of horror and death. He had led a relatively simple life. He was remembered as a rather silent man, but when the test came he showed that he was a true Christian, a martyr of love. Fr. Januszewski was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in June 1999.
How do we practice today this closeness to the least of the least, to the victims of injustice, violence, evil, or loneliness? Does our Carmelite identity mean that we are compassionate people and people of solidarity? Does it make us more human? How might we make this aspect of our charism more visible in our groups and in our daily lives?
3. Lastly, we notice that during our stay in Krakow the liturgical commemoration of Blessed Titus Brandsma will occur. You know that right now his cause of canonisation is progressing. Fr. Titus was a very active individual: a Carmelite expert in the history of spirituality, an educator and founder of Carmelite schools, a journalist and professor at the Nijmegan University, Rector of that university, defender of the language and culture of the Frisians, his native province, and a deeply pastoral man who got close to all kinds of people. Throughout his life Titus found himself called upon to mediate in difficult situations, to the point that he was given the name, the Reconciler. In 1940, when the Netherlands was invaded, Fr. Titus opposed the occupying government, especially in matters to do with education, refusing to expel Jewish children from Carmelite schools, and in the area of the press, refusing to allow nazi propaganda to be published in catholic newspapers. The result of all that was that he was arrested in January, 1942 and having moved through a number of prison camps, he died in Dachau on the 6th of July of that same year.
Fr. Titus, in the various concentration camps in which he stayed, always left an impression of serenity, cordiality, affection and understanding towards all, even towards his persecutors. These attitudes reached their climax in the conversations that he had with Tizia, the nurse who took his life with an injection of carbolic acid. The Dutch Carmelite, already gravely ill, gave her a present of a rosary beads made of little pieces of wood, that he used when he prayed in the camp, and he asked her to pray for peace. Many years later, that same nurse would be a witness in his process of beatification in Rome. Among the many interesting things that she said, she related that “the Servant of God (Titus) had great compassion for me ….” Here we can see how this man, a victim of hatred and of a very inhuman system, held on to his dignity and Christian charity in the most heroic fashion – down to the very end. His witness to mercy, reconciliation and peace is of great relevance to the world of today.
As young Carmelites of the 21st century, how can we make a contribution to the work of peace and reconciliation in our family, in our social circle, in public life and politics? Are understanding and harmony what shape our attitudes in a world torn apart by divisions and conflicts?
I hope that over these days you will have the chance to reflect on the witness given by these three exemplary Carmelites. You will perhaps do that in groups, or when you are alone, or, and this is the most important thing, when you are at prayer. As Pope Francis said recently, you, young people, are not only the future of Carmel, you are also its present:
In this sense, our young people have a critical role. They are not the future of our peoples; they are the present. Even now, with their dreams and their lives they are forging the spirit of Europe. We cannot look to the future without offering them the real possibility to be catalysts of change and transformation. We cannot envision Europe without letting them be participants and protagonists in this dream. (Pope Francis, receiving the 2016 Charlemagne Award)
Your reflection therefore will help the Carmelite family to move forward, as we question ourselves about our lives, and seek new ways and new paths to follow by which we will live in accordance with our charism in fidelity, creativity and generosity.
May Mary, our Mother and Sister, be with you to guide you along “this way that is good and holy” (Rule 20)
With deep affection,
Fernando Millán Romeral O.Carm.