Some Reflections of the General Congregation MMXI
ORDER OF CARMELITES – GENERAL CONGREGATION
NIAGARA FALLS, CANADA, 5 – 16 SEPTEMBER 2011
QUALITER RESPONDENDUM SIT QUAERENTIBUS
1. The General Chapter of 2007 took as its theme “Praying and Prophetic Communities in a Changing World” and the speakers who addressed the assembly chose to concentrate on the figure of Elijah as an exemplar of contemplation, on the figure of Jesus Christ as the one we follow,
or on the shifting sociological and demographic patterns of the contemporary world. The final message from the Chapter to the Carmelite Familiy described community as a place for authentic human values and respectful relationships.
2. The Council of Provinces held in S. Felice del Benaco, Italy, in September 2009 focussed more specifically and more intensively on the idea and the practice of community itself. The final message reflected this emphasis, characterising community as place of encounter and growth which gave rise to relationships of trust and a place to listen and be listened to.
3. In December 2010 the Definitory of the Discalced Carmelites met with our General Council on Mount Carmel to live together as a community for a few days, to visit some significant sites in the Holy Land and to reflect on the role of religious communities in the Church. In this last task we were aided and guided by Professor Gabino Uríbarri S.J. of Comillas University, Madrid. He noted that some of the reasons for the difficulties communities have in seeing a role for themselves in the Chuch stem from the renewed theology of the religious life propounded by Vatican II.
4. Before Perfectae caritatis, religious had an assured identity and mission in the Church to offer a model of a perfect way of life which was superior to the lay state. Every diocese, every church at the local level, “needed” religious communities to remind them of a higher ideal and a holier lifestyle than that of the laity. Indeed, lay sanctity was seen in terms of imitating a religious ideal and not possessing its own identity or character. This all changed with Vatican II.
5. The ecclesiology promoted by the Second Vatican Council stressed the importance and the efficacy of the lay vocation to holiness in its own right. The Church was no longer seen only as a one-way pyramid with the pope at the top and the laity at the base, with corresponding “degrees of perfection”. There was instead an emphasis on the vocation of all the people of God (lay and religious) based on the baptism of all believers and a share in Christ’s ministry of priest, prophet and king as part of a hierarchy of ministry. In a specifically Carmelite context, the letters and homilies of the former prior general, Fr. Joseph Chalmers, have done much to emphasise the centrality of contemplation in the Carmelite charism – whether lived by religious or by lay people.
6. Professor Uríbarri explained the situation of relgious communities in the church in terms of the evolution of the theolgy of the religious life according to the ecclesiological principles of Vatican II. On the one hand, the Council placed religious life in a relationship of complementarity to the church. Religious communities offer a charismatic presence to the church for its up building. On the other hand, communities feel that the church has failed to integrate religious in its pastoral plans and strategies. This has led to a certain sense of disappointment and disillusionment that the vision of Vatican II has not been realised in many cases.
7. Indeed it sometimes seems that bishops who were given the task of integrating the various gifts and charisms of religious into the life of their diocese, had turned away from the established institutes and congregations and were embracing many of the newer “ecclesial movements”in the Church today.
8. In the discussions that followed Professor Uríbarri’s conferences, it seemed that a common chord had been struck as members of the two councils shared their own experiences and gave further examples of religious communities whose presence in and contribution to the church had effectively been ignored.
9. It is in the context of an evolving understanding of community and the church from the 2007 General Chapter and the 2009 Council of Provinces that the General Council decided to propose the theme for the present General Congregation: “Qualiter respondendum sit quaerentibus”. These are the opening words of the so-called “Rubrica prima” which are found in the earliest Constitutions we possess, those of 1281. This paragraph may well date back in some form to 1247 when the Order took on a mendicant life style and apostolate. It represents an official answer to the question of how to reply to those who asked how the Order originated. The question today, of course, is not so much one of origins, but who we are and what we do in the church.
10. Professor Uríbarri did not confine himself to describing the problem of integrating religious life at a local level, but also offered some suggestions for ways forward in dialogue among ourselves and with the church. The topics for discussion he indicated were:
a. The idea of consecration
b. The vows
d. The eschatological dimension
e. Community living
f. The specific charism of the order, congregation etc.
g. Pastoral and apostolic tasks
h. Universality at a local level
11. These are only some ideas for further conversations and debate and each one of them could give rise to substantial reflection and friutful dialogue with the church. In order to help in the deliberations of the General Congregation, the Council has invited three experts to address us: Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, who will look at what the religious life has to offer to the Church today, Professor María Dolores López Guzmán from Spain who will address the topic from the point of view of a committed lay woman in the Church today and Fr. Michael Plattig O. Carm. who will examine what the Carmelite charism might offer.
12. Although time is now relatively short before the General Congregation begins, the Council would still like to encourage provincials and their councils to reflect on these brief considerations and bring the results of their discussions to the meeting.