† Pope St. John Paul 11’s Letter to Father General


To our beloved son, Philip Sainz de Baranda, Superior General of the Discalced Nuns and Friars                                                                      of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel

Beloved son, Health and Apostolic Blessing!

Saint Teresa of Jesus, model and teacher of virtue, died at Alba in the Diocese of Salamanca on 4 October 1582, the day which according to the Gregorian Calendar just then introduced, became the 15th.  She was not of a great age or weakened by sickness but was always a fervent spirit on fire with love for God and the Church.  Hurrying on her long journey, illuminated by the gift of grace, namely the ‘true way of perfection,’ in which she schooled herself in prayer, she became free for the service of love and penetrated deeper and deeper into the ‘castle of the soul.’  She learned by experience that charity impels one all the more strongly to unite oneself more closely with God, so that she thought with the Church and devoted herself to it.  The book written about her life, dealing with the contemplation of the living God, and her work of founding monasteries according to the reformed rule of the Carmelites, clearly ends in a way which makes that mystery and that presence, of which the Church is a sacrament, more accessible.

When she was dying, St. Teresa exclaimed, ‘I am a daughter of the Church.’  She clearly showed her spiritual way of thinking according to which the contemplation of God in Christ becomes the loving contemplation of His Church.  The desire to devote oneself to God becomes the desire to give oneself to the Church.  The sacrifice of oneself for the sake of Jesus is transformed into completing those things which are lacking in His Passion for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church.  Also, the book the “Way of Perfection,” which she set out to write, fixing her eyes on Jesus and His Church, ends with the same exclamation already mentioned (cf. cc. 1-3), and in which the perfect way of thinking with the Church, of sharing in it by one’s way of life and of helping it, is made known, proposed by St. Teresa as the fruit of the fullness of the mystical life (cf. Interior Castle VII, 4,4).

Always a woman of the Church

Bathed, as it were, in this ecclesial light, this distinguished virgin presents herself to us four centuries after her death.  When Paul VI, Our Predecessor of recent memory, declared her to be a Doctor of the Church in the year 1970, he publicized her message of the need to give oneself to prayer, so that ‘she might be able with greater authority to carry out her salutary mission in her own religious family, in the Church at prayer and in the world’ (cf. A.A.S, 62, 1970, p. 592).  At this time, and with the tendency for renewal which has followed the Second Vatican Council, the fourth centenary of the death of St. Teresa acts as a strong stimulus for us to concentrate on those supreme realities for which St. Teresa spent her life and which the Second Vatican Council put forward for the people of our time.

As a rare example, this woman, directing her thoughts especially to the Church in a way which one would almost call charismatic, stirred up the age in which the Council of Trent took place.  She considered the Church to be the sacrament of salvation (cf. Interior Castle V, 2, 3), which is at work in the sacred liturgy (cf. Life 31:4), through the mediation which belongs to the bishops and the priests, whose concern it should be to be ‘lights of the Church.’  For this reason she wanted her experiences and her writings to have the approval of the Church and she wanted her daughters to accept this teaching while keeping in full communion with the Church and giving it their obedience (cf. Way of Perfection Prol. Ibid. 30,4).  Practicing what she preached, this could be said of her: ‘She always was, as even now she is, subject to the holy Catholic Church in everything, and the intention dominating all her prayers and the monasteries she founded was the spreading of the faith’ (cf. Relations IV, 6).

Love made her serve the Church

These words show her love for the Church which she fostered in her prayer and in her works.  But the instructions which, in her anxiety, she gave to her spiritual daughters to pray for the Church and to sacrifice themselves for it, not only throw light upon the plans for the reform of the Carmelites which she carried out, they also in some way single out the special character of Carmel (cf. Way of Perfection cc.1-3).  They reveal her intention of doing everything she could so that more and more every day the Church should be seen to be the Spouse without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph 5:27).  Teresa felt keenly the martyrdom of the Body of Christ which was divided and defiled (cf. Way of Perfection I:1-2), and she rightly understood that her love for God should compel her to work generously for the Church.  These are her words:

Since love does not consist in spiritual delights but is to be found in it so that we may desire to please God with greater constancy in all things and that we may be careful as far as possible not to offend him by serious disputes, we should ask him fervently that the honor and glory of His only-begotten Son may always increase and that the Catholic Church may be extended further and further (cf. Interior Castle IV, 1,7).

For this reason, in the book which was written about her life, after speaking about those who really serve the Church, she exclaims: ‘Those fortunate lives which are given to this work’ (Life 40:15).  And while she experiences great sorrow and anguish as she sees the one Body of Christ divided, her spirit is uplifted when she sees new fields for missionary work being opened up in America (cf. Foundations I, 7).  Certainly for her to contemplate Christ was the same as to contemplate the Church, which while existing in time, expresses in her life what He has done and His mystery.  The holy mother ‘was ready to lay down a thousand lives for the liberation and salvation of even one soul’ (Way of Perfection I:2), and she wanted her spiritual daughters to sacrifice themselves willingly and to endure hardships in order that ‘the Lord might protect His Church’ and apply themselves to this.  She spoke to them in this way:

If your prayers and desires and disciplines and fasts are not performed for the intentions of which I have spoken, reflect that you are not carrying out the work or fulfilling the object for which the Lord has brought you here (ibid. 3,10).

Teresa considered that her vocation and her mission was prayer in the Church and with the Church, which is a praying community moved by the Holy Spirit to adore the Father with and in Jesus ‘in spirit and in truth’ (Jn 4:23).  Meditating on the mystery of the ‘suffering’ Church in those times, she saw the violation of unity, the betrayal of many Christians, the corruption of morals as a sort of rejection of, a contempt for, and profanation of love; ultimately a violation of divine friendship.  Men who do not accept the Church, who do not live with it, who do not follow its teaching, reject Christ and His love.  The result of all this is that the reform of Carmel is specially singled out by the fact that it has no desire for dispute or opposition, but is as it were ‘the friend of God’:

My whole yearning was … that as the Lord has so many enemies and so few friends, these last should be trustworthy ones; I determined to do the little that was in my power, namely, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and to see that these few nuns who are here should do the same (cf. Way of Perfection I: 2).

Prayer, a conversation

Therefore, she felt so strongly about prayer that she became a generous follower of Him Who ‘loved us so much’ (cf. Life 11:1).  For her, it was ‘nothing else than a conversation between friends and acting towards God in a friendly way.  We treat with Him in secret and we know we are loved by Him’ (cf. ibid. 8,5).  In prayer we surrender ourselves to the love which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts uniting us as brothers and friends to Jesus as He cries: ‘Abba, Father!’ (cf. Rom 5:5,8,15).  Teresa was convinced that when one prays in the Holy Spirit the whole Church prays.  Whence it happens that any kind of supernatural contemplation worthy of the name, arising from faith and love, whether in the sacred Liturgy, or in listening to the praises of, or praising God, or in silent adoration – by which the Father is glorified and union with Christ is established – is at the same time a ‘help to my dear Jesus,’ offered in the Church, as the holy Virgin and teacher asserted (cf. Way of Perfection I,5,2).

Experiencing prayer

Therefore, when anyone prays, when he lives his prayer, when he experiences the living God in prayer and surrenders himself to Him, the result is that he has a greater appreciation of the Church in which Christ continues His mysterious presence by means of grace.  He experiences that he is being urged to show great fidelity to the Spouse of Christ.  Deep down in himself he is being moved to work and spend himself for the Church.  When prayer resulting from the stronger action of the love of God shows signs of a close friendship with God and reaches the point that it is a relationship or union of love – the friendship then become an apostolic leaven, a cause of joy to the Church and to men, as if it were a very powerful voice reaching to the Heart of God for the good of all His people (cf. Way of Perfection 32:12).

St. Teresa teaches these things with that authority which comes from one who made the journey.  She understood from her experience in life that there cannot be a love for Christ which is not a love causing one to devote oneself to the Church.  Nor can the will of the children be said to adhere to the Church if it does not express itself fervently in good works which derive their strength and force from prayer.

According to the definition of prayer suggested by St. Teresa, namely that it is a friendly meeting and conversation with God, it is required that one attain a certain lasting presence, that is, the presence of Him who is the instigator of that meeting and Who has the chief role in it as a Friend, Who speaks ‘although He does not use words’ (Way of Perfection 25:2), and gives Himself in an unspeakable way.  St. Teresa considered the life of prayer to be the greatest manifestation of the theological life of the faithful, who, believing in the love of God, free themselves from everything to attain the full presence of that love.  The experience of God consists in that wonderful communion with Him, while the soul is open to His action, with a certain prudent wisdom infused by the Holy Spirit.  At the same time the mind and heart adhere to the Incarnate Word, ‘to that sweet Jesus,’ ‘the gate’ through which one goes to the Father and He gives to anyone a friendly relationship with Him. Teresa says:

We must enter through this gate, if we want certain great secrets to be revealed to us by the
Supreme Majesty. Therefore, one should not look for a different way, even if one were to reach the heights of contemplation, because by this way one walks safely and securely.  This Lord of ours is He through Whom all good things come to us (cf. Life 22:6-7).

For this reason at no time does this teacher of holy conversation not lean fittingly on Christ, the Son of God made Man, Whose friendship and company light up the way of the spiritual life and lead to the highest experience of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, because the creature ‘is convinced that these Divine Persons are never far from one or abandon one, but one sees clearly … deep down within oneself, in some very deep recess, that this Divine Indwelling is present to one and one experiences it ” (cf. Interior Castle VII, 1,7).

A gift obtained by prayer

It is a question of the lofty gifts of God, which is in the intimate familiarity with Him brought about by grace, and in the certitude of the presence of God arising from faith and love, flourish and bloom ‘in the little heaven of our soul’ (cf. Way of Perfection 28:5).  Wherefore, whoever in his way of living is entirely faithful to the love of God dwelling in him, whoever seeks Him with faith, whoever fervently does His will in his actions, especially to the point that he devotes himself to his brothers, can share that experience which God does not deny to the little ones in His Kingdom to whom the Father reveals the mysteries of His love (cf. Mt 11:25).  God forbids no one to come to the water of contemplation, as Teresa affirms:

Indeed, what is more, He calls us publicly and in a loud voice to do so.  Yet, as He is so good, He does not force us to drink, and what is still more, He enables those who wish to follow Him to drink in many ways, so that none may lack comfort or die of thirst (cf. Way of Perfection 20:2).

According to St. Teresa, the experience of God is a gift connected to fidelity with prayer.  For this reason she urges us ‘to practice contemplation’ (Way of Perfection 18:3).  But God, Who is always faithful, as He discerns those souls who are prepared, desires nothing else than to fill them with His gifts (cf. Conceptions 5:1).  While ‘He does not want to force our will, He does not give Himself totally to us before we give ourselves totally and unreservedly to Him’ (cf. Way of Perfection 28:12).  Thus one sees why the holy mother exhorts the spiritual man to give himself to prayer ‘even though he may die on the way’ (cf. Way of Perfection 21:2).  ‘Certainly,’ she says, ‘I am convinced that this living water of contemplation will not be wanting to all those who do not falter on the road’ (cf. Ibid. 19:15).  This is an outstanding gift which God gives so that we may experience His presence.  This presence is a gift which uplifts man and carries him to a degree of love and salvation itself of which the Church in the world is the sacrament.

Taste and see

The time through which we are passing and which is distinguished by a renewed feeling for the Church and for prayer, seems to be a time of grace suited in a special way to the teaching and experience of Teresa of Jesus.  Endowed with the strength which is drawn form her experience and her way of life, she invites all to love Christ and His Mystical Body, so that moved by the Holy Spirit, Who loves It, in It they may ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (cf. Ps 34:9).  From the beginning of Our Pontificate We have forcefully voiced this message.  And if in Our first Urbi et Orbi message from the Sistine Chapel, and later, We urged fidelity to the Church (cf. A.A.S., 70, 1978, p. 924), at the same time We have repeatedly exhorted her children to give themselves to prayer, to adoration, to listening to God speaking to them from within and to contemplation.  In the last chapter of the Encyclical Letter Dives in Misericordia We stressed that prayer and the invocation of the goodness of God is a right and duty of the Church (cf. A.A.S., 72, 1980, pp. 1228-1231).  There in a certain measure We highlighted the primary obligation of the communion of faith and love which is brought about by prayer and is the experience of Mercy.  This is translated into the unceasing hymn of the Mercy of God, as happened in the case of St. Teresa.

This invitation applied especially to those who with an added reason have vowed to follow Christ the Virgin, Who was poor and obedient, and whom we have often reminded of their special connection to the Church, since it is never permissible, especially in the religious life, for ‘fidelity to Christ to be separated from fidelity to the Church’ (A.A.S., 71, 1979, p.1255).  While exhorting them to unite themselves to Christ through prayer, We stated that ‘the religious life without prayer has no meaning, it is cut off from its source, it loses its substance, and does not attain the end which is proper to it’ (cf. Ibid.).

For all religious

As we commemorate St. Teresa of Jesus, We wish to address these words to all religious, but especially to those who have her as their mother and founder of the special form of life for which they are known in the People of God.  For in her family, the model of a renewed life – which at no time is not characteristic of the saints – the mother who gave them their laws, and repeats to her spiritual sons and daughters these words which carry the weight of her office: ‘I am a daughter of the Church,’ and she reminds them of their chief obligation in the Church (cf. Way of Perfection 17:1) – an obligation which We say is of the greatest importance – which is imposed on them by the Rule (cf. ibid. 4:2) according to which they are bound to pray without ceasing (cf. ibid. 21:10), and that of living an interior and exterior life which is poor and austere (cf. ibid. 4:2) which distinguishes them as true friends of Christ.  St. Teresa again addresses these words to them: ‘All of us who wear this holy habit of the Carmelites are called to practice prayer and contemplation’ (cf. Interior Castle V,1,2).  Indeed, the Discalced Carmelites, both men and women, must be faithful to prayer and the habit of praying and be consistent in it so that they may experience the living God, which gives them the title to their dignity, their special vocation and their salutary mission.  They should strive more and more each day to become the adorers in spirit and in truth whom the Father seeks, being convinced, as holy mother wrote, that the journey they have undertaken in this ‘way of perfection’ is of benefit not only to themselves but to many souls (cf. Life 11:4).

The Carmelite missionary

Observing even in this age the spirit of their Rule, the Carmelite sisters should be faithful to those things which that ‘desert,’ as it were, demands of them in their daily life, in which, according to their vocation and mission it is necessary for them to be completely contemplative in a special way.  Their enclosure lacks meaning without this contemplative life which St. Teresa shortly before her death described to very clearly in Chapter II of her book Foundations.  Our punctilious advice, which We also explained in the message to the Plenary Session of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, in 1980, that ‘the enclosure should be observed with rightful rigour,’ seems to call to mind the instructions of St. Teresa.  Agreeing with her who was convinced that good does not remain hidden (cf. Way of Perfection 15:6), We stated at that time that ‘the enclosure does not isolate . . . from the communion of the Mystical Body.  On the contrary, it puts those who adhere to it at the heart of the Church’ (A.A.S., 72, 1980, p. 211).  And so they should lovingly fulfill their mission and their vocation and strive after the example of St. Teresa of Jesus ‘to be at the heart of the Church.’  They should remember her exhortation that ‘only by prayer and by the desire to sacrifice ourselves can we be useful to the Church’ (Last interviews 9, VII, 16).

But the male Discalced Carmelites, whom Teresa wanted to be ‘contemplative hermits’ (Letter 21, X, 1576 to Fr. Mariano) and ‘heavenly men’ (Letter 21, X, 1576 to Fr. Gracian) were also urged by her to engage in apostolic activity with a view to helping the Sisters to attain perfection according to the same Rule (cf. Foundations 2:5; 10:14), also that they might announce the Gospel to the lowly and humble (cf. ibid. 14,8) and so that at the same time they might exert great influence in the theological and missionary field.  For this reason she desired that there should be among them ‘teachers and prospective teachers’ because she knew that a truly learned man never leads astray the souls he is counseling (cf. Life 5:3).  She was convinced that true learning when coupled with humility is very effective for following the way of prayer.  St. Teresa saw this brought to fruition in her first-born son, St. John of the Cross – the teacher and guide in the ways of God.  He first restored the renewed life of the Carmelites at the monastery in Duruelo.  After his example the Discalced Carmelites should be leaders and teachers of men in the world today who are thirsting for communion with God and the experience of God.  This is their mission which springs from their vocation.

The devout mother turns lovingly also to those Institutes and Congregations which follow her spirit and her form of perfection in the apostolic life to which they dedicate themselves and which is so fruitful in the Church and in the various fields of charity and social work.  She urges their members to be men of prayer.  They should be such that they turn any association with their brother into an invitation to communion with God.  This exhortation of St. Teresa seems as it were an incentive, urging them to prayer and action, while preserving the unity of life which fidelity to contemplation gives:

In this way anyone who is more advanced in prayer is to that extent the more eager to console and save his neighbors, especially their souls, and it seems that he will give many lives to lead even one soul from the state of sin (cf. Meditations on the Song of Songs 7:8).

Even now, St. Teresa lives and speaks in the Church.  May our minds, stimulated by a renewed zeal, be effectively directed to her example and her teaching, especially through the year dedicated to her memory, which has already begun.

In conclusion, We graciously impart the Apostolic Blessing, as a pledge of heavenly favors, to you, beloved son, to the Friars and Sisters of the Discalced Carmelites, and to the other followers of the Teresian way of life.

Given at St. Peter’s, Rome, on the 14th day of October in the year 1981, the third of Our Pontificate.