Carmelites are members of a Catholic religious order founded in the Holy Land about 800 years ago, at the time of the Crusades. The Order is thought to have begun in 1190 A.D with a small community of hermits on Mount Carmel. Little is known of the first Carmelites: it is likely that they were pilgrims who had made the long journey to Palestine with the intention of staying there permanently in “the Lord’s own land”. They were part of a larger movement of church renewal which sought a simple and fraternal Christian life focused on the following of Christ and the living out of the Gospel.
Because Mt Carmel had always been associated with the biblical prophet Elijah, they adopted him as their patron and spiritual ideal. Elijah was considered a model of contemplation and faithfulness to God, a champion of social justice, and the father of all monks.
Their principal patron is the Virgin Mary. They called her their sister because they wished for their lives to have the same values as hers: centred on Jesus, lived out in the community of his disciples, faithful to God’s call heard in the depth of the heart, prayerful, sensitive to the needs of others and generous in service. The official name of the order is ‘The Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel’.
In approximately 1207 the Carmelites asked their local bishop Albert of Vercelli, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, to write a rule of life for them which brought together their spiritual values and the practical realities of living together in community.
By 1247 the Carmelites had to abandon their original foundation on Mount Carmel because the Saracens were reconquering the Holy Land from the Crusaders. Thereafter ‘Carmel’ was not one place but many, to be found wherever Carmelites sought to follow their vocation. The pilgrimage to the Holy Land became not so much a physical expedition but the inner spiritual journey. They began to make foundations in Europe, where they joined the thriving new friar movement and added preaching and pastoral care to their contemplative tradition.
The Carmelites migrated to Ireland in 1271, and from Ireland came to Australia in 1881. Their main work here has been in parishes, education, spirituality and missionary work in Zimbabwe and Indonesia. There is also Whitefriars College here in Donvale and a meditation community in Warburton, The Carmelite Library, Carmelite Centre and National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Middle Park. Since 2001 the Australian Province has included the Carmelites of East Timor.
Similarly to the other older orders in the church, the Carmelites consist of three ‘orders’ or branches. The first order of Friars (priests and brothers), the second of nuns, and the third of laypeople. There are also Discalced Carmelites, a separate but related order with its own three branches, which dates back to the reform of the Order by St Teresa of Avila in the 16th century.
There are Carmelites in over 40 countries, and all together represent about 50,000 people who continue to live according to the inspiration of the Rule of St Albert – the Carmelite Way. In recent years the idea of the Carmelite Family has been extended to embrace many more people who feel drawn by the long Carmelite spiritual tradition.