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Exclusive Interview with Father Miceal O’Neill, Prior General of the Carmelites

On July 16, the Solemnity of the Virgin of Carmel Is Celebrated Worldwide With Great Joy and Tradition

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by Jose Antonio VarelaVidal

On July 16 the Solemnity of the Virgin of Carmel is celebrated worldwide with great joy and tradition. We are before a devotion that is both ancient and present in the life of the Communities of Religious and laymen that venerate Her as the “Flower of Carmel,” or which popular religiosity calls Her simply “Mama Carmel.” It was She who in the mid 13th century gave Saint Simon Stock the brown and white scapular that the Friars, women religious and faithful wear with so much devotion, having made this scapular their protection and way of perfection.

To prepare for this significant feast, which this year won’t have processions or fanfare, Zenit talked with Father Miceal O’Neill, Prior General of the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, known as Carmelites.

Already immersed in his duties in Rome, assumed some months ago, the Irish Prior reflects on these times of pandemic, as well as on the Church in Europe, while hoping that the Carmelites will keep alive their response and commitment to Pope Francis’ calls and reforms.

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–Q: We are suffering the consequences of a worldwide pandemic, with close to one million dead. How can we discover God’s Will in this tragedy for humanity?

–Father O’Neill: During this time of pandemic, I have thought often of the words of the Gospel that speak of how Mary meditated on all these things in her heart. Following this model, we can also meditate and give meaning to all that is happening, and the meaning always goes in the direction of salvation. For instance, the pandemic has shown us that we can do nothing without God; that what has saved so many lives has been the responsibility, seriousness and solidarity of many and, if there is no honesty and transparency, much harm is generated. All, including the leaders of nations, by meditating and analyzing <what is happening>, will find the most important meaning of it for each one of them.

–Q: In your Message to the Carmelite Order for this year’s Feast of the Virgin, you have pointed out that this pandemic has made it possible to discover in the Communities what the truths of the faith are and of the religious vocation. How can this be understood and appreciated?

–Father O’Neill: Again, I answer in a personal way. I am thinking of what I’ve seen in our Curia’s community, and what the members of other Communities have told me. To stay longer at home together has enabled us to hold prolonged conversations, in which we speak of our impotence and the need to pray much. We have seen among us how each one has reacted to the problem of the virus, supporting one another in difficult moments. We have shared the concern over the virus, and the people’s needs. The idea saddens me that we could lose all this when we return to so-called normality.

–Q: The Feast of the Virgin of Carmel won’t be able to be celebrated as in other years, especially in regard to processions. How would you invite to live this feast in homes and Communities, especially in Latin America, which expresses its popular religiosity a lot?

–Father O’Neill: It’s impossible to substitute a feast, a procession, a concert, a real celebration. I think this year we are going to be fasting. We have already experienced a Eucharistic fast. Now we are also going to feel the lack of all that would be normal in the celebration of the Solemnity. It might be that fasting leads us to understand better the beauty of what we easily take for granted. Moreover, to listen to the Word of God is of primordial importance. To read, listen, meditate on the Word alone or in small groups, could be a very valid way of honouring the Virgin, She who more than anyone was able to obey the Word.

–Q: Having your headquarters in Rome, you can follow very closely the development of Pope Francis’ activities and Messages. How do you value his pontificate, seven years after his election?

–Father O’Neill: It’s incredible that already seven years have passed of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and that even now, at his age, he continues with the same strength, guiding us every day. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit for the Church and for the world in this period of history. The dimension of his life that inspires me most is his constant attachment to the Gospel, and the very consistent way in which he continues to proclaim the Gospel, despite strong opposition in the heart of the Church. He is reforming the Church, but with his rhythm, and with his wisdom, in face of opposition. The reform is now in the heart of the faithful, who feel that they belong to the Church again and don’t feel excluded. The reform that still must come is the reform of the attitudes of certain circles of power in the Church.

–Q: A recurrent subject of his has been what refers to the environment. How have the Carmelites taken up the Holy Father’s call for the care of our common home?

–Father O’Neill: A few years ago, our Order began to be represented at the United Nations through the Carmelite NGO. One of the platforms of our presence in the United Nations organizations is the safeguarding of our common home and sustainable development. Moreover, in the last General Chapter, we assumed strong positions regarding its daily practice in our Communities: this means using less plastic, keeping a correct recycling discipline, reducing our dependence on coal. And, finally, in our schools an effort is being made to promote this same sensibility and sense of responsibility towards our common home.


–Q: Another phenomenon the Pope refers to is migration and he has also incorporated a new litany to the Virgin Mary as “Consolation of Migrants.” What must the attitude be of Religious Congregations in face of this very painful phenomenon?

–Father O’Neill: Perhaps the most obvious answer is that we must continue believing and preaching that every man and every woman is a son or daughter of God, loved by God and created in His image and likeness. Then the idea of rejecting an immigrant contradicts our faith radically. Second, the search for justice means that we must work a lot to identify the cause and reasons of migration and address the problem of human trafficking. Third, if we have the possibility, we must offer all the hospitality we can to persons that need it.

–Q: In your opinion, what is the religious life’s main challenge in face of the New Evangelization, especially in Europe?

–Father O’Neill: The context is a secularized Europe, a Europe that has discovered the defects of the Church and a Europe that, having abandoned an ancient wisdom, has replaced it with a way of thinking that is less demanding, less profound, and with a very impoverished vision of the human person. In this secularized society, the Church must not enjoy any privilege, but neither must she suffer an obstacle. That’s the part I like, because it invites us and enables us to have much confidence in the value of the Gospel and, with that, to take part with humility, but also with certainty, in all types of debates and programming in both public as well as private life in today’s Europe.

–Q: And at the level of vocation to the consecrated life? How can religious life be <made> attractive again for European youth?

–Father O’Neill: Every human person has a spiritual life and I believe that many young people and older people, have within a conversation that could be called spiritual. We, men and women religious, must be those persons with whom those people have the possibility to converse. We must also build an environment in which a person who begins to recognize an interior call can be helped to strengthen his feeling and intuition. In regard to the consecrated life itself, it’s true, the moment in which life, or the way of living, no longer speaks of Jesus, or of the Gospel, or of openness to the Holy Spirit, or of Christian maturity or a real missionary spirit, so we must change and be able to change all that could be a false testimony, all that is purely a human creation and certain obviously alienating styles.

–Q: Almost ten months have passed since your election as Prior General. What are the main challenges and objectives that you have posed yourself for your term and what difficulties have you all decided to overcome?

–Father O’Neill: The General Council is already working on its global and organic plan for the six-year term on the basis of what the General Chapter is asking us. The priorities are formation, community life, and an examination of our witness in face of the exigencies of today’s world. The reunion of the Community is an element we are going to stress. If we celebrate well the community’s reunion, we can talk there of all the important dimensions of our life. Then, something that needs attention is the care of our common home, love of the Liturgy, and the need to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable persons. Finally, we will publish our new Constitutions, hoping that all this will contribute to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to all nations, and for us to be Good News for the poor.

–Q: How is the Order spread around the world? How many members do you have at present? In what countries are you more extended?

–Father O’Neill: If I speak only of the Friars, we are about two thousand in the world. The strongest Province is that of Indonesia. There is a certain “Alienization” of our Order that, I believe, is not only something <that is true> of the Carmelites. I rejoice over the energy we have in Latin America and in Africa, and I follow enthusiastically the budding of life in North America, Europe and Australia. I’m also quite encouraged by the way that we are talking about the Carmelite Family, trying to strengthen the sense of family everywhere, and collaboration between various sectors, be they nuns, Congregations of Apostolic Life, the Third Order and new forms of Carmelite life among laymen and laywomen. Several of the new latest foundations were born as fruit of collaboration within the Family.

–Q: We are also close to the feast of Blessed Carmelite martyr Titus Brandsma (July 26). What is the message of this Religious and journalist for today’s society?

–Father O’Neill: Titus is the man who wanted to win the world for the Lord. An educated and profoundly committed man, he demonstrated the truth of the Carmelite vocation to leave room for God in our life, to live in intimate union with Jesus and Mary, to be opposed to evil and give one’s life for others. A Religious and journalist, he accepted the responsibility of the Gospel to the ultimate consequences.

–Q: Finally, what is your message to all those Religious and laymen that wear with faith the scapular of the Virgin of Carmel?

–Father O’Neill: I wish for all a significant celebration of the Feast of Carmel, may we always be protected and guided by the Virgin Mary, and may we be capable of recognizing all that we have received from the Lord.  And, with Mary, meditate on and thank the Lord for the wonder he wrought in Her and in us.

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