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The challenges in the leadership of Religious life today in view of ministry both “ad intra” and “ad extra”

Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm.

Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm.


We have been asked to talk about the problems we faced in our service and animation in our Institutes. I would like to begin this chat but saying that after more than nine years as Prior General of the Order of Carmelites, personally I do not feel “burned out”, exhausted or discouraged.

 There are certainly moments of tiredness and even discouragement, but this also occurs in other ministries. Therefore, I warn you that the issues I will address shouldn’t be considered as “problems” in the strong meaning of the English word, but rather as difficulties, challenges, situations that demand our attention, reflection, and effort. I also don’t want to give the wrong impression that these issues are suffocating, blocking and preventing us from continuing to journey with hope and gratitude


Looking back in time, among the possible topics I can consider as problematic in our ministry at the service of the Order I have chosen the following three:

1. Back in 1980, when I entered religious life, ongoing formation was a fundamental element of our life. The provinces prepared courses, developed programs, and materials; gatherings were organized even at international level, etc. Without using an overly journalists jargon, I would say it was a true “boom.” This interest in ongoing formation has slowly decreased. On one side, the lack of personnel in some provinces makes it difficult to organize these gatherings, as well as “freeing” people so that they can dedicate some time to formation is starting to be considered almost as a “luxury.”

On the other, we also witness in some areas a certain tendency towards an idolized formation. One calls just that specific professor who is “very good” and “well prepared” and who essentially is going to say (somewhat parodying the situation) what we want to hear.

The lack of ongoing formation is leading us in some cases to rather negative situations. For example, poor quality in our pastoral offering, lack of inner reflection in the Institute, routine, meaning doing things simply because we have always done them this way, without any ability to discern and assess ourselves with serious criteria. I would even dare to ascribe to the negative consequences poor enthusiasm in vocation, attraction, the atrophy of certain intellectual, spiritual and charismatic faculties…

Other adverse outcomes are shallowness in our talks and reflections. It is not a matter of always commenting the Grundkurs des Glaubens by Karl Rahner, or position oneself in Saint Theresa’s seventh and innermost mansion, but at least being profound men and women with a rich interiority who have something to say.  Paraphrasing the Spanish poet, I would say that today more than ever we need men and women capable of “telling voices from the echoes..”  

No contribution can be given precisely by what we call “computer addiction.” I warn you beforehand that I am not a reactionary troglodyte against these media.  There is no need here to highlight the advantages that digital media provide to man today and consequently to the Church. A few years ago, in this same venue, Father Antonio Spadaro addressed this topic in a passionate way.  It goes without saying the Church must be present in the media, with conviction, enthusiasm, and generosity.

However, besides all this, we cannot deny that digital media (or better its improper usage) produce in more than a few cases superficial and hasty opinions, a headline culture, short of any in-depth analysis. Information and formation do not always coincide. It is usually accompanied by the culture of tension, of small ecclesial and theological battles (that have nothing to do with a healthy debate) and thoughts, rather than weak, anorexic..

For all of the above, I have strongly stressed the need for an ongoing formation that is not (or not only) an Academic or intellectual exercise. Formation is a human and spiritual attitude. It is a way of being in the world, open to the signs of the time, to the new issues, a serious, thorough, honest reflection that leads us to discern over our presence in today’s world. Even more (and allow me the Carmelite flavored note) I would say that ongoing formation is the typical contemplative attitude, mindful of the small signs of God’s presence in the world. I think that raising this ongoing formation approach is the rewarding challenge in today’s religious life.

2. The second issue I would like to share with you is the balanced and pondered promotion of the “Carmelite Family”. Practically all religious Orders and Congregations have tried to create what is called a “Charismatic family”, that is, a structure or at least the awareness that the charism is not limited just to religious men, but also shared by religious women, such as cloistered nuns and laity. Certainly, according to the type of Congregation, this evolution has been entirely different. In the mendicant orders, for example, they are also known as “third orders” with several centuries of existence and even a canonical identity.

Inspired by Vatican II ecclesiology, religious orders have tried to spur this idea of family, where we share a charism, spirituality, and even a mission, experienced in a different way according to each one’s vocation: a religious, a nun, a religious woman with an active life, a layman.. In our case, the ”Carmelite Family” is already mentioned in a number of the Constitutions of 1971. It was a rather general and perhaps too broad one, but with an important option for it and for this way of living the charism.

During this process, there were times when clerical resistance, misunderstandings, and difficulties had to be overcome. For some, it has been difficult to accept (and, let alone understand) that we are not the owners of the charism, that it is a gift to be shared and not private property. That it is not so much a matter of forming the lay but rather being formed and growing with the lay…Some other times we also had to overcome the “gender” resistance, that continues thinking that the only thing that the “little nuns” should do is follow our directives.

Among other things, these reluctant positions produce an impoverishment of the charismatic existence and reflection, because usually these groups (nuns, religious women, laity, youngsters) provide different views, focuses, discover new interlocutors and enrich, ultimately, the presence of a charism in the world where we live.  

Many different experiences emerge from the notion of charismatic family in the 70s and 80s. In various parts of the world new ways of interaction between laity and religious surface, new forms of “affiliation” in the various Institutes, lay communities with varying degrees of inclusion, etc. It has been, and I say this bluntly, a real blessing for consecrated life. So where is the problem? I would highlight three.

First of all one sees an inevitable loss of “momentum” (enthusiasm, creativity, dedication) in this sense. Without wanting to mention shallow themes, in some areas, some think that the experience time is over and it is better to get back to the usual. However, religious life cannot give up its claim of novelty (in its most serious, beautiful and respectable meaning). We cannot stop exploring new possibilities so that the charism, the gift we received from the Holy Spirit – overcoming routines, comforts and shortsightedness- can be shared and include the highest number of people, and by so doing enriching the entire the Church.

Secondly, I also consider it necessary that those experiences that emerged in the 70s have the wisdom and humility (forgive the tautology) to make an honest and courageous exercise of evaluation and discernment (“verifica” is the word in Italian). The youth of the 70s are no longer young, and some of their experiences have become “mature.” Therefore, with gratitude, enjoyment, humility, it would be useful to review and open up new possibilities and continue to connect to the new generations (the actual youth) to avoid becoming “old rockers” stuck with the music and aesthetics of our grandparents.

The third risk has surfaced due to ”excess.” Sometimes (with the best intentions in the world) these experiences have led to a certain confusion and to blur the traits of each group (religious men, religious women, laity…) It is not a matter of establishing canonical limits, but to preserve its features and therefore, the prophetical power of different vocations or using a more classical language of the various phases of life. The layman must be secular and not an imitator of friars. He must live the joy of secularism. The religious must be religious and radically live their specific vocation.

Sometimes, to trigger a reflection on this theme I used (in a similar and perhaps a bit pedantic way) the image of the Council of Chalcedon to speak about the ontological constitution of Christ: “two natures, without confusion, without division, without separation.” Within a religious family there must be a complete union and communion among the laity, religious men, and women who participate in a unique charism, but at the same time, there must be no confusion (either canonical, spiritual or theological) among these groups.

 3. The third and final problem refers to a subject that seemed somewhat forgotten in our reflections in recent years and that Pope Francis has once again put into circulation: the inculturation of charisms. Allow me to remind you of our meeting with the Pope in November 2013, when the Holy Father stressed "charism is not a bottle of distilled water," but must be inculturated or risks losing its strength and its significance. I will not stretch on and dwell upon the deep theological foundation of this concept (the first inculturation was the incarnation) or on the nuances that today are often made on this issue (for example, today we tend to talk more about "transculturation”, "interculturation "etc.)

It is quite challenging in a relevant part of religious life to abandon the “Eurocentrism” tendency. When I talk about the vocational crisis and religious aging, I’m referring, both consciously and unconsciously, to the situation in Europe or the Western world.  I sincerely do not believe this is done with bad intentions or that there is a neocolonial bias or something of the sort. We must, however, be careful because this can prevent our reflection on other parts of the world. The first time I visited Flower Island in Indonesia, I had a well-prepared speech on the “worrisome vocational crisis.” I addressed fifty young Carmelites who looked at me surprised in trying to understand what I was talking about.

A first step to avoid this risk is acknowledging that the demography of our Congregation is changing, and in more than a few cases, in a couple of years, Europe will no longer be the most relevant part of the Order or Congregation. We cannot ignore this reality and not accept it “a malincuore” (reluctantly) but with joy and gratitude. Undoubtedly in some Orders and Congregations, this charism reflection process, done in different cultural molds and other cultural categories is already providing mature fruits.  These cultures are already developing charism reflection, discovering new possibilities, new messages, a new abundance.. But fair is to recognize, this issue faces resistance, difficulties, and shortcomings.

I tend to compare inculturation with translation. I am convinced that translating is not just a job (a noble one) but also a ministry, a service with a very beautiful spirituality. In order to translate well, one must know well and even love the language into which you are translating. One must also be deeply respectful to the message that is being translated.  With inculturation something similar occurs: we must know well the culture where we work and who we address, aware that that same culture already encloses part of the message and that from there we can enrich ourselves. The translation not only reproduces but also enhances the message and gives it new possibilities and unsuspected beauty.  

When a religious family is unable to translate its charism and life into other languages, when it is unable to “think” in different molds, when inculturation is limited to external aspects (wear a colored stole or translate some songs), then something is wrong. It is a process that always entails risks and even excesses (the Pope warned us about it during our encounter in 2013). We must move prudently and wisely, but this cannot prevent us from carrying out this task because it is inescapable.

The inculturation task presses on. It is part of the announcement. Even more so some even talk about “insubculturation” that is, the insertion of the charism not only in culture but also in subcultures (youth, marginalization, urban tribes). The Word, the Good News, charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit cannot be enclosed in the molds of a single culture despite its richness. The “fruitfulness of our prophecy” is at stake. (The theme addressed in this assembly)  


There are other issues (problems, difficulties, challenges) that focus our attention and call for our effort. I tend to be a bit naive in not seeing them as signs of decadence, nor as an unsolvable group of difficulties, but as opportunities for growth, purification, deep renovation, grateful and joyful of our life and mission.

USG: Assembly November, 2016 - ROME


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."