† Pope St. John Paul 11’s Letter to Discalced Carmelite Nuns


To the well-beloved Sisters, the Nuns of the Order of Discalced Carmelites of our Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel
on the Occasion of the Fourth Centenary of the Death of St. Teresa of Jesus

With profound joy and particularly deep affection I address you, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, on the occasion of the Fourth Centenary of the blessed death of St. Teresa of Jesus, your Foundress and a Doctor of the Church, which took place at Alba de Tormes on 15 October 1582.  You, her daughters, and the Discalced Carmelite Fathers, have wished to prepare for this event by dedicating an entire year to the memory and honor of your venerated Mother.

Right from the beginning of this ‘Teresian Year,’ I have encouraged the aims and projects of the sons and daughters of this great Saint: with this in mind, on 14 October 1981, I addressed a letter, Virtutis exemplum et magitra (AAS 73, 1981, 692-700) to the Very Reverend Father Philip Sainz de Baranda, Superior General and, through him, to the entire Order.

Now it is to you, daughters of St. Teresa, that I wish to address myself directly, because you are the first fruits of her maternal care and of her work as Reformer and, hence, you are very anxious to reap abundantly the spiritual fruits of this Centenary.  Moreover, by means of this letter of mine, I wish to respond to the numerous testimonies of obedience and fidelity to your contemplative charism, as well as your generous promise of prayer and sacrifice for my ministry as universal Pastor, which continue to reach me, especially in this Jubilee Year, from all parts of the globe.

Pope thanks Carmelites

On this occasion, therefore, so full of significance for you, I want to express to you my heartfelt gratitude, while at the same time offering you a word of warm encouragement.

Yes, in the first place, I want to thank you, because I am aware of all you do for the glory of God and for the world by means of your life of prayer and sacrifice.  With regard to this, I am pleased to recall to your minds the words of your Holy Mother who, referring to the need of saving souls, thus addressed her daughters:

This is why He – the Lord – has gathered you here together.  This is your vocation.  These must be the business matters you are engaged in.  These must be the things you desire, the things you weep about; these must be the objects of your petitions (Way of Perfection 1:5).

And with expressions still very timely, she added: ‘The world is all in flames, and they want to sentence Christ again, so to speak, since they raise a thousand false witnesses against Him; they want to ravage His Church’ (ibid.).

Hence, for her the purpose of the Reform and of the Foundations was above all that of procuring the glory of God and the ‘good of His Church’ (Way of Perfection, 3:6).

Only the Lord knows all that the daughters of St. Teresa, in the course of these 400 years, have done in achieving this ‘good.’  Nevertheless, glancing over the chronicles of your Monasteries and admiring the luminous examples of sanctity offered us in the past – for all let St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, heavenly Patroness of the Missions serve as an indication – as also the present day witness to evangelical perfection offered by your Religious Families, we do succeed in getting a glimpse of this mysterious fruitfulness in the Church and for the Church.

And so it is that I cannot refrain from expressing, in the name of Christ and of the Church, my gratitude to you, daughters of so great a Mother, for all you have achieved and continue to achieve for the salvation of souls and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Church approves the Way of St. Teresa

Hand in hand with these expressions of dutiful gratitude, I want to offer you my warm encouragement to continue always with ever greater conviction and success along the way of St. Teresa, so as to offer the Church and the world all they expect from you.

The Second Vatican Council confirmed the legitimacy in the Church of Institutes which, like your own, ‘are entirely devoted to contemplation, in such wise that their members attend solely to God in solitude and in silence, in continual prayer and intense penance . . .’   The Council reaffirmed their utility for the Church herself, to which ‘they give increase by a mysterious apostolic fruitfulness,’ so that they constitute for her ‘a glory and a fountain of heavenly graces.’   At the same time, the fundamental conditions for this fruitfulness were indicated and attention was called to the fact that the work of updating of the said Institutes be done ‘with respect for their separation from the world and for the exercises proper to the contemplative life’ (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, n. 7).

Encouraged to remain withdrawn from the world for the sake of contemplation

Now you will readily find in these Council norms the teaching and directives of your Holy Mother.  Was it not in order to obtain a life ‘entirely ordained to contemplation’ that she undertook the Reform?

She had in truth fully accepted the pressing call of the Lord: “I will have you converse now, not with men, but with angels’ (Life 14:5), and she had dedicated long hours contemplating the example of Jesus Who ‘teaches us to pray in solitude’ (Way of Perfection 24:4), so that she warned her daughters: ‘We have to separate ourselves from all so as to approach God interiorly’ (Way of Perfection 24:5).

Better than anybody else, your Foundress knew that such solitude is only a means and, referring to this, she said: ‘In would in truth be a great pity if we could only pray in little corners of solitude’ (Foundations, 5:16).  But at the same time, she knew by experience the importance of this means, and she was well aware that the desert is the place par excellence for meeting the Lord, as Sacred Scripture says: ‘That is why I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart’ (Hosea 2:16).  This explains her continual insistence on the observance of the enclosure, which is the concrete means of actualizing this contemplative solitude; an observance for which I also, in my address to the participants at the Plenary Session of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and the Secular Institutes, strongly recommended ‘appropriate austerity’ (AAS 72, 1980, 211).

And together with enclosure and the external signs of which it is composed, the Holy Mother forcefully recommended all the other means, which guarantee separation from the world, among which excel that silence which ‘highly facilitates prayer, the foundation of the Monastery’ (cf. Way of Perfection 5:9).

Necessity of Penance

Then as regards the ‘intense penance’ indicated by the Council as a characteristic – together with prayer – of a purely contemplative life, more than by her exhortations, it is the very life and Constitutions of St. Teresa which tell you of its importance, or rather of its absolute necessity.  Hence, an updating that would lead to a lessening of penance, that is to say, to a less generous, less joyful, less complete sacrifice of yourselves, would certainly not be in keeping with the Council or with the charism of your Holy Mother.

In fact, fidelity to the practice of penance also promotes exercise of fraternal charity, total detachment and authentic humility, which remain the three hinges of the way of perfection (Way of Perfection 4:4).   At the same time, penance denotes that characteristic and essential element of Carmelite experience which St. John of the Cross, intrepid co-operator with St. Teresa in the reform of your Order, has with masterly skill expressed in the absolute of the todo-nada.

I have no doubt but that the Carmelite Nuns today, no less than those of yesterday, tend with joyful hearts towards the attainment of this absolute, so as to offer an adequate response to the generous inspirations that are born of an exclusive love for Christ and of a total consecration to the mission of the Church.

Totus Marianus est Carmelus

Along this path, let the Most Blessed Virgin be your help and your guide, since she is an incomparable example for all contemplatives, and especially for you, daughters of an Order which from the very beginning took an ‘entirely marian’ shape, in keeping with the motto of your Fathers of the Middle Ages: Totus marianus est Carmelus.

In her purpose in bringing back the Order to its original fervor, your Holy Mother had as her one aim to work ‘for the Lord’s service and the honor of the habit of His glorious Mother’ (Life, 36:6) and in founding the monastery of St. Joseph in Avila, her most burning desire was that ‘the Rule of Our Lady and Empress be observed with the perfection with which it was observed from the beginning’ (Way of Perfection 3:5). Our Lord Himself comforted her in this sense, when having achieved this foundation, ‘He thanked her for what she had done for His own Mother’ (cf. Life 36:24).

Numerous other circumstances of her life witness to the extent to which the charism of St. Teresa of Jesus bore the sign of Mary.  From Mary, in the year 1562, the great Saint received, so to speak, her investiture of Reformer (cf. Life 33:14) and in her hands she once renewed her profession (Rel. 48).  Hence, it does not at all surprise us to hear St. Teresa repeatedly calling her nuns ‘daughters of the Virgin’ (Life 32:11,14; 36:6,24,28; Way of Perfection 13:3; Interior Castle 3:1,3; Foundations 19:5; 24:23), and exhorting them with these words: ‘Imitate Our Lady and consider how great she must be and what a good thing it is that we have her for our Patroness’ (Interior Castle 3:1,3).

After the example of your Reformer, meditating on the mystery of Mary whose Heart, in virtue of her intimate union with Christ, is a fountain of life for the Church (cf. Encl. Redemptor Hominis n.22), you penetrate ever more deeply into the radiant light of your vocation and of its demands for solitude, silence and total sacrifice, convincing yourselves, at the same time, of its secret fruitfulness, which appears to you all the more urgent today, in that, more than 400 years ago, ‘the world is on fire’ and threatened by very grave dangers.

Live your vocation more generously

Dear beloved daughters of St. Teresa and of the Virgin of Mount Carmel, while thanking you once again for all you do for the Church, for its Bishops, Priests, and Missionaries, of whom you are the hidden, silent but necessary helpers, I exhort you to live ever more generously this dimension of your vocation.

May the ‘Teresian Year’ help to deepen your correct understanding of fidelity to the charism of your Holy Mother and obtain for you the indispensable graces for an ever greater commitment.

As a pledge of this, and as a sign of my special favor, I impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.

(From the Vatican, 31 May, Feast of the Visitation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, 1982, the fourth year of our Pontificate)