REPORT OF THE General Superior
ON THE STATE OF THE ORDER
92nd OCD General Chapter
Rome, September 2, 2021
As is our tradition, we begin the work of this 92nd General Chapter with the report of the General Superior on the state of the Order. To tell the truth, as far as I am concerned, after twelve years of service as General Superior, I feel that I have already expressed all that I have to say about the situation of our Order. I do not think I have much new to add to what can be read especially in the presentations to the Extraordinary Definitors of 2011, 2014 and 2017 and to the General Chapter of Avila of 2015. In order not to repeat myself and to avoid unnecessarily lengthening my presentation, allow me to briefly recall the essential points of those presentations and to try to highlight the common thread that connects them in a unified development.
A retrospective glance
In the Extraordinary Definitory of 2011, I insisted above all on the need to start from real experience, from what our friars and our communities concretely live in their daily lives because only through this "hermeneutics from below" is it possible to see the truth about our Order and the path we are following. Quoting a famous expression of E. Husserl, I invited us to "go to the things themselves," to read the states of mind of the confreres and the human and spiritual atmosphere that is lived in the communities and to compare them with the spirit, motivations, and sentiments of Teresa as they are particularly described in the Way of Perfection. From the comparison which we attempted to make in that forum, several commitments emerged for the six-year period. First among them was that of "establishing Teresian communities that are places of authentic human and spiritual growth and of radiating the truth and beauty experienced in them.” If communities become only "places of transit in the personal journey of each one, whose center of gravity is elsewhere" - the final document said - this is not a simple deficiency that can be compensated for by the richness of other dimensions, such as pastoral work, but it is the failure of the Teresian charismatic project. With community, we concluded, everything else will be given to us, but without community even what we have will be taken away.
The report to the Definitory in Korea in 2014 sought to deepen the analysis of why the Order's vitality appears weakened or stalled. It seems to me that the process of transformation triggered since the 1970s has led to a liberation not only from oppressive forms of legalism and authoritarianism, but also from that objective bond that connects us to the meaning of our lives, namely the end, the telos to which our Carmelite vocation tends. This tension towards the goal is indeed a bond, but an attractive and dynamic bond. To lose it in the name of the freedom of individual self-realization actually means to lose the direction and energy of the movement. A freedom deprived of its goal loses its propulsive dynamism and begins to rotate on itself. In this self-referential static nature, life is emptied of meaning and is easily filled with the small distractions and gratifications offered by the techno-consumerist society. To counter this tendency that leads to demotivation and inner paralysis, we must seriously ask ourselves the question: what kind of person do I want to become? The answer is not so much what we say in words, but what is written in the "practices" of life that we follow and by which we let ourselves be shaped. We have an idea, at least a vague one, that the identity of the Discalced Carmelite depends on the exercise of certain practices, such as contemplative prayer and fraternal relationships, and these are amply described in our Constitutions. But is our way of being shaped by them or by other practices that are consistent with other identities and make us different persons from what we have declared we want to become? From these questions arose the need for a broad and sincere comparison with the texts of our Constitutions and Norms to verify towards which goal the path we are following as individuals and as a community is directed.
As is well known, the General Chapter of 2015 made the decision "that the Order undertake a rereading of its Constitutions, with a view to their possible modification in order to renew our life" (It is Time to Walk! Concluding Document of the 91st OCD General Chapter, n. 28). The primary purpose of this re-reading was the renewal of life through comparison with our legislative texts, in continuity with the previous sexennium dedicated to the re-reading of the works of Saint Mother Teresa. The intention of the General Chapter was to reduce the distance that had been created between the formulation of our ideal of life in the Constitutions and our lived experience: "It is a matter of re-creating - where there is something weakened or lost - the tension between the path and the goal" (It is Time to Walk, n. 27). However, the possibility of a revision of the Constitutions was not ruled out if, more than thirty years after their approval, this proved to be effectively necessary. In this regard, the Chapter considered three possible options: "reworking the Constitutions, revising them specifically and/or drafting a Declaration on the Carmelite-Teresian life" (It is Time to Walk, n. 32).
The program of rereading the Constitutions was carried out from October 2015 to June 2018 with the help of twelve study guides, prepared by a special commission, which guided and facilitated personal study and discussion in community. At the Extraordinary Definitory of 2017, a first evaluation was made of the work accomplished up to that point, an evaluation that was certainly positive, but in which limitations and insufficiencies were also highlighted. The report I presented on the state of the Order on that occasion began with the following observation: "Our Order shares the general situation of religious life today, which we could define as a path of renewal that has remained halfway, a slow or even blocked path because of its uncertain direction, the complexity of the path and the weariness of the wayfarers." I then presented analytically the aspects of the Order's life in which this situation of unfinished renewal appears most evident: the contemplative dimension, self-care, fraternal life in community, the relationship between charism and ordained ministry, intellectual formation, and the relationship with our nuns and the laity.
I conclude this retrospective look with the decisions taken by the 2019 Extraordinary Definitory of Goa which, for the moment, chose not to proceed with a rewriting of the Constitutions, nor to their revision, while it approved the drafting of a Declaration on the Carmelite-Teresian Charism and a revision of the Applicative Norms. Since March of this year, the second draft of the Declaration on the Charism has been available to you and corrected based on the suggestions we received from the circumscriptions and from individual friars. In June, we sent you the proposed revision of some of the Applicative Norms. We will be working on this material together over the course of these two weeks.
Where are we going?
At the end of my second term, I feel that I would not be doing the Order and this General Chapter a good service if I did not dare to draw conclusions from what I have observed and experienced during this period. It is my duty to say frankly what seems to me to be the truth of the transformation taking place in our Order, without attenuating or concealing it. What I am saying has been presented and approved by the General Definitory, so it is in the name of the general government of the Order that I am speaking to you. In order to describe the evolution we are witnessing I will use some data that we observed during the pastoral visitations and that were confirmed by the responses that the circumscriptions sent us during the rereading of the Constitutions. I will take them up by grouping them into four points:
- We are moving toward a Carmel that is more apostolic and less contemplative, engaged more in external works than in prayer.
- The care of community life is losing its centrality and importance in favor of the prevailing demands of pastoral ministry.
- The formation of our young men, if we exclude the novitiate year, is oriented more toward priestly ordination and the exercise of ministry than toward the maturation and consolidation of our friars and charismatic identity.
- The differences that exist between regions and circumscriptions are putting the Order's unity under great tension. The traditional autonomy granted to the provinces by our law risks becoming independent to the point that some provinces have written to us hoping that the Order in the future will take the form of a sort of federation of circumscriptions.
I have deliberately set out these data in the form of apodictic theses, without nuance, to allow you to grasp the reality in all its provocative concreteness. It is no longer time to remain in ambiguity and immobility. Is this a loss of specificity of the Carmelite-Teresian identity and of the unity of the Order? Or is it a question of a legitimate evolution of the Carmelite-Teresian charism, which - in substantial fidelity to its fundamental elements - enhances aspects of particular relevance for today's world? If we agree on the goodness and validity of this evolution, we must say so openly. We are the supreme authority of the Order: our confreres, especially the younger ones, expect from us clear answers at the theoretical and practical levels to the many questions they have about our way of living and working. If a General Chapter believes that this is the right direction for the Order to follow and decides so, we will all accept it and draw the necessary consequences. What we cannot do is affirm one thing on the theoretical level and do another in practice. Inconsistency is in any case an evil, confusing minds and making them incapable of lucid and courageous choices. Moreover, how can we form our young people if we are unable to communicate to them clearly what our vocation and mission in the Church consists of?
For my part, I believe that to continue along the line described would mean reaching a point of rupture with our tradition and altering the balance that links the various elements of our charismatic identity. For this reason, I reaffirm here the need for a serious reform of the Order, as I had already expressed in the 2017 Definitory, in consonance with the appeals that Pope Francis is making to the whole Church, and in particular to consecrated life, which with its propheticism has in the past anticipated and inspired the reform movements of the ecclesial body. In my speech to the 2017 Definitory, however, I refrained from making concrete proposals because - I said - it did not seem right to me "to propose to the whole Order a vision of renewal or reform based on my own personal vision or sensibility." Although I am still convinced of this, I believe that this rightful prudence does not prevent me from presenting to your free discussion some paths that, in my opinion, the Order could or should take to get out of the crisis in which it is struggling and to undertake a renewal that is not imposed by circumstances, but is consciously chosen and coherently pursued on the basis of the gift of grace received and the needs of today's world. As you can see, I am not thinking of exhortations that remind our confreres of the duties of Carmelite life, such as: pray more and be more faithful to community life! We know very well that such recommendations, however just and necessary, are interpreted as an exercise of a parenthetic literary genre from which no practical effect is expected. In fact, it would be naïve and simplistic to think of solving our profound identity crisis with voluntary calls for greater observance.
What I am thinking about and what I want to propose to you is to reconsider more carefully some of the resources that we have in our Order and that we probably have not yet adequately utilized. I appeal, therefore, not to an effort of will, but to an effort of intelligence and to a change of mentality which will allow us to reset our life and to prepare a future free from the conditioning of a history gone by, but at the same time, faithful to the charismatic inheritance that has been delivered to us and for which we are responsible before the Church and the world. This, in my opinion, is the only way to put into practice what we have written in the Declaration on Charism. From many parts we have been asked to make the Declaration more effective and operational in order to avoid the risk that it too remains a document that is discussed, approved, and quickly forgotten. I wonder, however, what we are thinking about when we ask for practical decisions. If one is thinking of norms that impose the observance of certain practices that are essential for living our vocation, one has only to refer to the already existing Constitutions. But it is not a question of simple observance. It is a question of clarity and courage: clarity in order to become aware of the epochal change underway in the history of our Order as well as of the entire Church, courage to make decisions corresponding to a profoundly changed history. We cannot repeat what we have always done if we really want to be faithful to our identity and prepare a future for it.
It is extremely difficult to make predictions about the future of our Order for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the demographic picture of the Catholic Church and of Christianity in general is changing rapidly. I will mention just a couple of statistics. According to a survey a few years ago, 61% of Christians live in the Global South and only 39% in Europe and North America. It is predicted that "by 2050 there will probably be more Christians in Africa (1.25 billion) than in Latin America (705 million) and Europe (490 million) combined.”
If we look at the Order's current statistics, we find that Europe still has the largest number of members, 1401 (35.2%), followed immediately by Asia with 1313 members (33%). If we add the number of members from Europe, North America, and the Middle East, we arrive at a total of 1626, or 40.8% of the total. The African Carmel, for the moment, has 552 friars, equivalent to 13.9%, while Latin America, with 487 friars, makes up 12.2% of the total.
Obviously, these numbers do not consider the age of the friars. If we were able to make a statistic that also takes age into consideration, we could easily predict the imminent overtaking of Europe by Asia and the rapid rise of Africa and Madagascar. We can, however, get an idea of the future by looking at the number of religious in formation which are currently distributed as follows:
Asia 390 44,6%
Africa-Madagascar 255 29,1%
Europe 128 14,6%
Latin America 79 9%
North America 15 1,7%
Middle East 8 1%
Clearly the face of the Order, which already presents itself in the range of those in formation with 75% of its members in Asia and Africa and only 16-17% in Europe and North America, is profoundly different from what we have known only thirty years ago, as shown by the statistics presented in 1991, in which 57.4% of the members lived in the North of the planet and only 26.1% in Asia and Africa (and the remaining 16.5% in Latin America):
Europe 1897 51.1%
Asia 781 21%
Latin America 610 16,5%
Africa-Madagascar 190 5.1%
North America 167 4.5%
Middle East 65 1.8%
On the other hand, the internal data of our Order corresponds perfectly to the general statistical picture, so that it can be said, in extreme synthesis, that for the moment 40% of Discalced Carmelites live in the North of the planet and 60% in the South, but in about ten years it is foreseeable that the balance will tilt even more in favor of Africa and Asia, which will host up to 75% of the members of the entire Order. This geographical and cultural change is so profound that it throws into crisis any attempt to imagine the future from the traditional framework of European and North American Carmel. The consequences are innumerable so as to constitute genuine challenges for the future, especially at the level of the general government of the Order.
A particularly instructive example concerns the Generalate and the other houses dependent on the General Definitory: the community and faculty of the Teresianum, the International College and the Cites of Avila.
As we can see, the presence of European friars is by far the majority: out of a total of 50 friars, 34 (68%) are European, a proportion that reflects a demographic situation of the Order that has long since been overcome. At the same time, it must be said that the replacement of European friars with non-European ones is by no means simple, nor can it be taken for granted that it will be successful. Not a few attempts to insert non-European brothers into international houses have proved unsuccessful for various reasons, among which cultural differences with all their implications are certainly present.
The concrete case of international communities at the service of the whole Order brings to light one of the major challenges for the future of our Order, namely, the ability to overcome cultural barriers and promote interculturality in our circumscriptions and communities. It is now time to face this fundamental challenge, which has been put off for too long. Even though the Order is made up of thousands of members from very different cultures, we can say that there are no experiences of intercultural communities or initiatives. If we exclude the centers that depend directly on the General Definitory, in Rome, Avila and the Holy Land, and some sporadic experiences of collaboration at the service of some Provinces, our communities are strictly monocultural. It seems that we apply the logic of aut-aut, not et-et. If Africans are growing in a mission in Africa, it is time for Europeans or Americans to leave. In Europe and the United States, we have witnessed the multiplication of presences of friars, especially Indians, in the territory of other Provinces without any concern for integrating themselves into the life of these Provinces. For twenty years, these phenomena continued on parallel tracks until the General Definitory intervened to put an end to this practice that contradicted the structure of our Order. We hope that we have finally succeeded in stemming the phenomenon, but it is nonetheless significant that it has happened and that a decisive intervention by the Order's supreme authority was necessary to put an end to it and to direct our confreres towards forms of collaboration among the Provinces. In this way, a great weakness of the Order came to light, namely, the fact that diversity is not at the service of unity but becomes rigid in parallel structures that do not communicate with one another.
In many religious congregations this work of intercultural exchange has been going on for many years. In our Order this has not happened, either because of the general resistance to change or because of the importance and strong autonomy that our tradition assigns to the provincial community. In fact, the form of interculturality adequate to our charism does not pass through the weakening of the structure of the province, but through the overcoming of "provincialism," understood as the withdrawal of the province on itself and on its internal dynamics. We need to get people moving again and into dialogue, just as is happening in our countries and cities, which are increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Allowing this current wave to enter our homes and our districts will force us to question many habits, behaviors. and ways of thinking. But it is precisely this that we need: to come to terms with a history that has changed, with respect to which we have remained behind, suffering it passively without grasping its novelties and opportunities.
We cannot, however, forget or hide the difficulties and obstacles that stand in the way of achieving this goal. The first and most obvious difficulty, but not necessarily the most serious, concerns the advanced average age of the European provinces which generally count among their ranks a high number of elderly people and a small group of young or less elderly people. It is not automatic, but it is certainly common, that advanced age corresponds to a lesser willingness to change, even more so, if these changes are not only external, but of mentality. Adapting to new situations and different companions on the road is something that young people do best. In this respect, the Old Continent does not have many resources to deploy.
The greatest difficulty, however, depends on the path the Order has taken in the last thirty to forty years. In fact, the Order has developed and changed profoundly in its geographical and cultural composition, but this change does not seem to have been guided and directed by the orientations coming from our legislative texts. We have grown or declined without much questioning of the identity of what was being produced through these processes. We quickly dismissed the question of identity by answering that one can be a Discalced Carmelite in many different ways. This answer, however, takes for granted the very thing that was the subject of the question, and that is actually being consistent with the identity of the Carmelite-Teresian charism. What we have witnessed is not the unfolding of a multiplicity from the one charism, the blossoming of a tree firmly planted on its roots. To give an idea of what I think has happened, I would use a different metaphor, that of an image, of a photograph of which some details are enlarged to excess until the sharpness of the contours is lost. Instead of the richness of different perspectives, each in its own way restoring the fullness of Carmelite life, we have witnessed the production of a series of copies of the same image that have blurred its original clarity by enlarging or shrinking one or another aspect.
This situation today makes the effort to bring the various regions and circumscriptions of our Order into dialogue with one another extremely complicated after decades of unrevised journeys and processes that are often not in dialogue with one another. But precisely for this reason we urgently need to begin to dialogue starting from a shared experience of life, a mutual knowledge, and a common commitment to collaboration. Only in this way will we be able to put our strengths back into circulation. If we continue to remain closed in our own monocultural shells, we will allow the grace that the Lord is offering us to emerge from the crisis to pass us by without grasping it.
Several concrete steps could and should be taken to bring us closer to one another. Among these is, for example, the learning of one or two common languages with which we can communicate freely among all the members of the Order. Many other religious Institutes have long since chosen to use one or, at most, two official languages, while we have so far resisted this change, which is small in itself, but which has in addition to its obvious practical usefulness, a great symbolic and spiritual value: the effort to leave our linguistic-cultural comfort zone in order to reach out to others.
Even the structures of communion and collaboration provided for by our law have generally been little used. The Conferences of Major Superiors, with the sole exception of Latin America, have played a very marginal and in some cases non-existent role. The tendency in recent years has been to invest even less in these structures, despite the objective need for greater collaboration. Yet there are important coordinating functions and services, once assigned to the center of the Order with its various secretariats, that today could be carried out more effectively at the level of the regional conferences (in the area of formation, vocation promotion, specific apostolates). Even the possibility of establishing interprovincial communities, especially for initial formation, has been little actualized. It is surprising to note how Provinces with very small numbers of friars believe that they do not need to collaborate with other circumscriptions to offer a better formation to their candidates and in view of a more shared future. A similar point can be made in the area of ongoing formation, which could be a valuable opportunity to develop opportunities for meeting, exchange, and dialogue among members of the same region.
A reform has its privileged place of implementation in formation, that is, where we strive to "give historical form" to the gift of the Spirit that we received with our vocation to the Teresian Carmel. When I speak of formation, I do not simply mean the initial period, but to the lifelong care and cultivation of one's vocation. Without a solid formation it is not possible to face the complexity of our times and give credible answers to the many questions that are asked of us. Even more radically, without a constant commitment to formation we will easily fall prey to a worldly mentality, we will yield to the pressure of a system that homogenizes us and, beyond our different subjective positions and beliefs, reduces us to the anonymous condition of producers/consumers in a society dominated by the market. The detachment from the world, of which Saint Teresa speaks, requires today more than ever not only an ascetic dimension of defense and distancing, but also the development of critical thinking, capable of discernment in the light of faith.
Also in this area, at the theoretical level, we all declare ourselves convinced that formation is the priority commitment of each circumscription and of the entire Order, in line with what is stated in the documents of the Church. Unfortunately, however, these declarations of principle are not followed by consistent choices. How many and which persons do we invest in formation? How much time, energy and financial resources do we dedicate to initial and ongoing formation? Do we ask ourselves some questions about the need to rethink the modalities of formation in order to make it more effective and adequate for the times we are living? I am thinking, in particular, of our youngest members, both those who are still in the initial phase of formation and those who have only recently made their solemn profession or received presbyteral ordination. I wanted us to listen directly to their voices at the beginning of this Chapter so that all the Chapter members would have an idea of what is stirring in their minds and hearts.
We are moving with great strides towards a globalized world. The younger generations, especially in Europe and America, but the trend is spreading everywhere, are increasingly in contact with each other beyond political borders and cultural barriers. The typical place of this meeting is the virtual space of the web where one can communicate from one border of the Earth to another, thanks also to English, which has become the koiné of our time. I believe that our Order has not yet come to terms with this epochal change, especially in the area of initial and ongoing formation. We still have a very local image of formation, which in part is well justified and should be preserved, but which becomes an obstacle and a brake when it becomes rigid and closed to novelty. It is right, in fact, that in forming the young people of a province we should take care that they become integrated within the provincial community, getting to know it, and being known by it. There is a whole local tradition that a young person entering a particular circumscription must learn and assimilate. But this rightful concern should not turn into a fear of confrontation, dialogue, and sharing with young people from other provinces and traditions, as if this could alter the purity of the formation given or weaken the sense of belonging to a given community. Let us not forget that we are all members of the same Order and participants in the same charism. If we are unable to accept the challenge of opening our borders and overcoming barriers, we risk closing ourselves off in a small world, which sooner or later will be too narrow and artificially separated from the rest of the Order and the Church.
In recent years, the general administration has tried to promote formation experiences at the interprovincial level, unfortunately meeting with strong resistance. Some timid steps forward have been followed by decisive steps backward. Far-reaching proposals, such as that of a year of formation a few years after solemn profession and presbyteral ordination, were not accepted. As European Provincials may remember, at the meeting of the Conference of Provincials