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 Mount 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. Since 2001 the Australian Province has included the Carmelites of Timor-Leste, where similar works to those in Australia are conducted and many young men are in training to be Priests or Brothers for the future.
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.
The Carmelite story differs from other mainstream orders in that there was no founder. Life began merely as a small group of lay men or hermits who wished to follow a life of prayer, adopting the great Old Testament prophet Elijah as their model and Mary, Mother of Christ as their protector.
These men gathered on the slopes of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land and became known as the first Carmelite Community at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These men received a formulae vitae (The Rule of Life or Carmelite Rule) from St Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem and although short in content, the values that it expressed have helped people to live the Carmelite charism in a concrete way ever since.
Soon after the community was established on Mount Carmel, war took hold of the community, forcing the hermits to return to their countries of origin. By the end of the thirteenth century the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel had become part of the well-established mendicant movement.
These Carmelite men who had returned to Europe embrace the idea of becoming a ‘new order’ of mendicant, working with people in the cities and towns and especially amongst the poor in the area of Apostolic Ministry.
As the Carmelites went about their Apostolic Ministry their Rule underwent some changes so they could minister to the people of Europe. After receiving approval from the papacy, the Carmelites became active in their ministry.
The Carmelite understanding of ‘constantly searching for the face of the living God’ (P. Slattery, O.Carm), has to this day been the mantra of this Order. The Carmelite Charism, which has sustained this Order for eight hundred years is a gift freely given and ‘we have a sacred duty to pass it on to future generations and to share it with people among whom we live’ (Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm)
Today, in the 21st Century, we embrace the Carmelite Charism as we continue the mission of Christ that began with the first few men who gathered on Mount Carmel.
The Whitefriars motto, ‘Almae In Fide Parentis’ (In the care of a loving mother) captures what Whitefriars means for the Carmelites. It is a ministry of care for others, specifically young people, inspired by Mary, Mother of God, the Prophet Elijah, the Carmelite Saints and the Carmelite ideals of contemplation, community and service. It seeks to advance young people on the journey to the fullness of life, which is life in God.
Fr Paul Cahill, O.Carm