No one would doubt that Pope Francis is a man who has many responsibilities. He is the spiritual head of over 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and oversees the administration of a vast and complex Vatican bureaucracy. But one of the more important tasks the Pope has, and something that is often overlooked in all his meetings with foreign dignitaries and global travels, is to teach. As the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis regularly takes time to instruct the faithful on various aspects of the Catholic faith. One way he carries this out is by offering a series of catecheses on particular topics during his weekly general audiences. He has previously addressed themes related to hope, faith, discernment, and St. Joseph. Just last year, he gave a series of 18 short talks about the meaning and value of old age.
As an admittedly not young man himself, the topic was particularly personal to him, and he noted that we are living in an age when there has never been as many elderly as there are now. He went on to state that even though there are so many elderly people among us, they are not as valued and appreciated as they should be since they are not considered “productive” by societal standards. He asks “But is it true that youth contain the full meaning of life, while old age simply represents its emptying and loss? Is that true? Only youth has the full meaning of life, and old age is the emptying of life, the loss of life?” The wisdom and experience of the elderly is often overlooked and unacknowledged; their opinions are resented by those who feel that they “have had their time already and now need to step out of the way.” This fragmentation between the young and old, Pope Francis says, is contrary to God’s plan for humanity, and does both old and young a grave disservice. Both groups have something important to offer the other: the elderly have wisdom and experience, and the young have enthusiasm and hope.
Pope Francis expresses this imaginatively as he says “the elderly are like the roots of a tree; they have the history there, and the young are like the flowers and the fruit.“ Both are necessary for the tree not to just survive, but to thrive. And for the tree of humanity to thrive, there must be a conversation between the young and old, an ongoing and deep relationship where both are given the time and space to share. If the old stay mired in their ruminations about their idealized past, then the young will simply spend more time looking down at their phones. But when the old and young are brought together, and allow the other to speak from their experience, the separation between the generations can be overcome. The young can reverence the experience of the old, and the old can support the young in their dreams for the future.
Mother Angeline points to her own relationship with her grandfather as the initial inspiration for her vocation to serve the elderly. As a young girl, she was able to recognize and appreciate the great gift that the elderly are to us. Rather than being “throwaway material”, Mother Angeline wholeheartedly believed “that old people whether they are 65 or 85 or 100, have a great need for individual care.” It is Mother’s guiding philosophy that the elderly are entitled to spend their final years in a loving, home-like setting that still provides the foundation for the homes that Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm, and their lay associates administer. May we, as Pope Francis asks us, be able to see the beauty and importance of being old, and follow Mother Angeline’s example seeing the person of Christ in each and every old person.
On May 15, 2022, Carmelites around the world rejoiced as one of our own, Fr. Titus Brandsma, O.Carm., was canonized by Pope Francis in Rome. For those who may not have ever heard of St. Titus Brandsma, he was a Dutch Carmelite who used his position as a prominent journalist and scholar to denounce Nazi ideology in Catholic publications, and demand that Catholic newspapers refuse to publish their hateful propaganda. Because of his outspokenness, he was eventually arrested in 1942 by the Gestapo and sent to a state prison. While detained, Fr. Titus still held fast to his belief that National Socialism was based on dangerous pagan philosophy and completely contrary to Christian values. His persistence in his convictions kept him from being released, and he was eventually sent to the notorious Nazi work camp, Dachau. Though St. Titus was only in Dachau for five weeks, he quickly gained a reputation among the other prisoners for being a generous, hope-filled man who, despite being in poor health, was more concerned for others than himself. He ultimately met his end when he was given an injection of carbolic acid by a camp nurse as part of the Nazi’s “experiments” on prisoners. As a testament to God’s grace, the nurse who gave Fr. Titus the lethal injection – and eventually converted to Catholicism- testified as to his holiness at his beatification ceremony.
Fr. Titus’s powerful witness was rooted in his deep prayer life and his embodiment of the Carmelite mystical tradition. He believed that one did not have to escape the world to find God. Rather God was found by looking deeply, from the heart, at life all around us, and he once wrote, “Prayer is not an oasis in the desert of life; it is the whole of life.” Prayer allows us to see as God’s sees, in all the varied circumstances that come our way, and be open to the subtle, but powerful way, that grace operates in our lives. While Fr. Titus did not seek out suffering, he knew that suffering was part of every person’s journey in life, and when joined to the suffering of Christ on the cross, it could be a profound way of experiencing God’s love for us. So even in the horrors of the Dachau death camp, St. Titus radiated peace since he knew that God was with him amid the beatings, daily deprivations and humiliations.
Mother Angeline, almost a contemporary of Fr. Titus as she was born 12 years after him, also knew the transformative power of suffering. She once wrote to her sisters, “Let us cheerfully, generously, and wholeheartedly take up the cross given to us and, with it, let us purchase Heaven and an eternity of bliss. Is any price to high to pay for the eternal possession of Him for whom we have given up so much?” She wanted her sisters to know that in their work with the elderly and in the daily struggles that they will face, they should pattern their lives on their Master, who was not afraid to embrace his Passion and death. And like Jesus, they should avoid the temptation to bitterness, resentment, and despair and always remain hopeful and faithful.
Fr. Titus paid the ultimate price with the willing surrender of his own life, and thankfully most of us will be spared this kind of martyrdom. But none of us can escape the trials and difficulties that are a part of any life. But what our Christian faith tells us is that suffering is not the end of the story, and that it is Easter Sunday, not Good Friday, where our destiny lies. While there is no crown of glory without the cross, we can trust, as Fr. Titus did, when he said while in prison, “We are in God’s hands. We are in good hands.”
When Mother Angeline founded the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm almost 100 years ago, she did so because she felt a divinely inspired call to care for the elderly in a new way. Starting a new religious community is in no way a straightforward or trivial undertaking. One has to find a suitable place to live, benefactors who are willing to provide economic support, and young women who want to share in the mission—all this in addition to obtaining the necessary approval of the local bishop. Breaking away from her previous religious community, along with her six companions, was a risky venture with no guarantee of success. Much of what Mother Angeline had to do to begin this new community she had to learn on her own. There were no workshops she could attend or consultants to tell her all the steps she needed to follow to give life to this new community.
I have had the opportunity recently to read Mother Angeline’s circular letters—letters she wrote regularly to the Sisters in the Congregation as a way of instruction and inspiration. Over the course of 46 years, Mother sent out scores of these letters to the Superiors of the Congregation, and these letters were really Mother Angeline’s way of being a mother to her spiritual daughters. As just as any mother, sometimes she would have to correct and admonish, and other times she would gush with praise over the accomplishments of her “children”. What I found striking in reading these letters was the amount of attention Mother gave to the spiritual formation of the sisters. Mother was not only concerned with how well the Congregation cared for elderly men and women; she was also deeply invested in how her sisters were continually and seriously attending to their spiritual lives. She felt personally responsible for the young women who believed that by joining this Congregation they would be following an authentic path to holiness. To Mother, a religious vocation is an invitation that God bestows on those who feel called to serve Him in a more intimate way: “I want to instill in your minds and hearts a deep and lasting gratitude for the vocation which God has given you, a gift so precious that only in Eternity will you fully realize its true worth.” To this end, Mother regularly reminded her sisters that they needed to safeguard their vocations, to be wary of “worldliness” and things that distract them from the spiritual life. Even their work with the aged was not to be a detriment to their lives of prayer: “It makes us [Religious] realize more and more that without God’s grace we can do nothing. It reminds us that we must first be women of prayer. Many people can care for the aged and infirm. But not everyone can bring Christ to them in lives of dedication and inspiration.”
Mother maintained this “prayer first” perspective throughout her many decades of leadership. And as times changed, so did Mother’s understanding of the various particulars of religious life. But one thing that Mother always held fast to was that prayer and one’s relationship with God was the one essential thing for perseverance in one’s vocation. While this is true for the religious vocation, by extension, it is true for all of us who call ourselves Christian. Whether we are single or married, employed or retired, our success in living out God’s plan for our lives depends on a regular and intimate relationship with our Lord. Mother knew that so many things in the world can distract us from this, can seem more interesting, but when we reflect on how much God is interested in us, it doesn’t seem too much to return the favor.
My name is Brother Robert Chiulli. I am a Carmelite Friar and member of the Commission for the Cause and Charism of Venerable Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory. The Commission proposed having a Day of Prayer for Mother Angeline for several reasons:
First, it is an opportunity for members of the The Mother Angeline Society to come together in order to pray and socialize together; Second, we wanted to try a new way of spreading Mother Angeline Teresa’s charism. We have already created website, blogs, Bulletins, etc., and so this event is something different for us. Lastly, we want a special way of marking the significance of the 25th Anniversary of the Opening of Mother Angeline Teresa’s Cause.
I would say that most of us here are familiar with Mother Angeline Teresa’s story. She was born as Brigid McCrory in Ireland in 1893. She moved with her family to Scotland as a young girl and felt a call to religious life. She joined the Little Sisters of the Poor and came to the United States as a Little Sister of the Poor. She left this religious community to start a new one, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. It was Mother’s vision to establish Homes that were more homelike and reflected more of the American mentality. Since then, the Congregation has grown and has opened Homes all over the East Coast and the Midwest, including one in Ireland.
I have given you Mother’s story in very broad strokes. However, what we have been able to do in the past 25 years since her Cause for Beatification began is engage in a sustained, deep look at who Mother was. We want to discover what motivated her, to know more about the person that she was, and to explore her spirituality. The reason we do this is that we believe she has something to say to us today and that her message and witness are very much relevant. We have had this time and opportunity for research and I can say that we know more about Mother Angeline now than when we did 25 years ago.
How did we do this? First, we gathered a lot of information. We assembled and studied all her written works. We listened to people who knew her well and examined the impact she had on the care for the aged. We had the time to look at the entirety of her life and saw the grace, which operated in everything she did. It really does take time to examine another person’s life. These 25 years since the Cause for Mother Angeline opened, it has been like painting a portrait, one that has gradually become filled-in and detailed. Our hope today is share this portrait of Mother Angeline with you as incomplete as it still is. So what are some of the things we have learned? In what ways did we deepen our understanding of Mother Angeline? There are many. What I would like to explore is Mother Angeline’s Carmelite identity, and perhaps the reason why she chose to affiliate her new religious community to the Order of Carmel.
I stated before that Mother Angeline was originally a Little Sister of the Poor, a French religious community dedicated to caring for the indigent elderly. When Mother felt the grace of God calling her to leave the Little Sisters and start a new community, she knew that she was taking a risk, one she believed was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, it was a risk. In order to provide spiritual support for this fledgling community, she wrote to Cardinal Hayes the following: “Our only aim in requesting this affiliation (to Carmel) is that of leaning up our work, so young and inexperienced, against one of the greatest religious families in the Church.”
However, why Carmel? Why not the Franciscans as they are known for the service of the poor? Why not the Dominicans when in fact there was a Dominican convent right across the street from the home where Mother Angeline and her six companions were stationed? In fact, these Dominican Sisters first took Mother Angeline and her companions in after they left the Little Sisters of the Poor and sewed interim habits for them so they could still identify as Religious Sisters. Why not any other established religious community other than Carmel? Carmelites are known for being in the cloister and not for their active apostolates. It was not an obvious choice at all.
First, there was a personal connection with the Carmelite Friars living in the Bronx already at Saint Simon Stock Parish not too far away. In her last year with the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angeline received a bouquet of roses on the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux. The roses were brought to her by a Carmelite Friar, Father Larry Flanagan, O.Carm. Perhaps Mother Angeline took this as a sign and it might have been. However, I think that there were still other reasons for Mother choosing to become a Carmelite.
For those who do not know about the Carmelites, we are a religious community founded about 800 years ago, on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel. The first Carmelites were hermits who wanted to live lives of silence and solitude. They looked to Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as their Protector. They also looked to the prophet Elijah as their spiritual founder because, as told in the Book of Kings, he withdrew from the world to live in silence and prayer. After some time, the Carmelites migrated to Europe and eventually established the female branch of the Order, the Carmelite nuns.
When Brigid McCrory was a young woman and was ready to leave Scotland to join the Little Sisters for the Poor, her pastor invited her to take any book from his shelves. The one she chose from all the books present was the Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Perhaps this too was a sign that, like Saint Teresa, Mother Angeline would be involved in establishing a new religious community.
Saint Teresa of Avila was a 16th century Spanish Carmelite nun who spent her early religious life living in a large convent. She had difficulty praying and felt that busyness and activities in the convent were not conducive to contemplative life and prayer. Her intent was not to start a new Order but rather wanted to return to a simpler Carmelite ideal of contemplative prayer thus imitating Carmel’s original roots.
From this perspective, I think that Mother Angeline felt a natural kinship with St. Teresa because both experienced a feeling of having one’s vocation hampered by one’s circumstances. Both felt compelled to create something new in order to be authentic to one’s original call from God. Teresa had to be both a woman of deep prayer and an effective leader, if this new venture was to succeed. Again, I think Mother Angeline very much identified with her. Starting something new is rarely easy and there are usually many trials, misunderstandings, false starts, etc. Both St. Teresa and Mother Angeline experienced these and I think that Mother Angeline saw in the Saint an example of how to persevere through them. In a way, I think St. Teresa provided a necessary model, an inspiration for Mother Angeline as she thought, “How do I do this?” “How do I start a new community?”
Another Carmelite Saint who helped steer toward an affiliation with Carmel was St. Therese of Lisieux known as the Little Flower. When Mother Angeline left the Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Therese was only canonized four years and was an immensely popular saint. The appeal for St. Therese for so many people is this idea that God can, and does, use the weakest and smallest among us to do great things (if we let Him). It is in the small things in life, the small gestures, and the kind words that truly lead to sanctity of life. Given this example, it is easy to see how Mother Angeline would be attracted to this perspective. Mother Angeline never considered herself a bold personality, and only reluctantly became a Foundress. Like Saint Therese, she allowed herself to be used by God for His will. She was well aware of her own limitations. About the ministry to the elderly, this spirit of St. Therese of doing small things with great love, was the real guiding principle in Homes she founded. I think it is an interesting coincidence that just as Therese was the youngest Sister when she joined the Carmel of Lisieux, Mother Angeline was the youngest in the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm when it was founded. So, perhaps here was another Carmelite model for Mother Angeline that God can work through the youngest in a community.
An essential aspect of Carmelite spirituality is the importance of prayer. If the Franciscans are known for poverty and the Dominicans for preaching, the Carmelites are known for prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. By affiliating her new community with the Carmelites, Mother Angeline sought to build into this fledgling community a life and love of prayer. In her writings over the years, Mother Angeline constantly reminded her Sisters on the importance and necessity of prayer. She encouraged them on how everything they do, any success achieved, should done through prayer. Working hard is fine and necessary. Yet, if it is not rooted in prayer, if it is not oriented towards God, then it is essentially hollow. Her words, “Do not neglect prayer, for if you do, you will not succeed in accomplishing in a whole day that which you could have done in one hour, and your work will be imperfect.”
The Carmelite Order does not have a historical Founder like St. Francis, St. Dominic or St. Ignatius. Rather, we look to Mary and Elijah as our spiritual founders. Both of these figures had a profound attraction for Mother Angeline in her life as Carmelite. Certainly, Mother Angeline was deeply devoted to Our Blessed Mother before she became a Carmelite as any good Catholic should be. However, as a Carmelite, she looked to Mary, as St. Therese did, as “more Mother than Queen.” Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a very maternal, protective image of Our Lady, as she holds the Scapular along with her Child. This simple and humble view of Mary is one that Mother Angeline was very much attracted to. She wrote, “Our Blessed Lady practiced poverty and knew its blessings as not another creature could know them. It is significant that in the moment of her glory when she gave Jesus to the world, Mary had not even the ordinary comfort of an ordinary poor woman. She was surrounded by poverty that was actually abject. But she had Jesus, and He was all to her. Let us learn from her so that we may truly abandon all things and find Christ.”
As for Elijah, it relates to another aspect of Carmelite spirituality that Mother Angeline adopted: prophetic vocation. Prophets are those who have the task of bringing people back to faithfulness to God. This is a powerful theme in the Old Testament. Carmelites, who look to the prophet Elijah as their spiritual founder, see this as part of our charism and tradition. Mother Angeline, with her role as Foundress and advocate for the elderly, was prophetic. I have wondered why it was Mother Angeline, what was it about her, that allowed her to see that the old people in the Home she was serving deserved something better? What did she see that others did not? She believed that the old people should be living in places more homelike, less institutional, that married couples could be together, and that people should have things from home to make their room more welcoming. Nothing radical, at least in our modern way of thinking. However, this was not done 90 years ago. It was radical enough idea that Mother Angeline felt that she had to leave her religious community, one that she deeply loved, in order to bring it to fruition. For a prophet, the message is never about themselves, it is something carried out in obedience to God (and not always willingly, and usually never without a personal cost). To follow this call for a new type of ministry to the aged, Mother Angeline had to give up the security of the Little Sisters of the Poor to venture out into the unknown. She had six companions with her but no money and no guarantee of success. All this at the beginning of the Great Depression. It was by no means easy and I can imagine that Mother Angeline wondered in those early days if she was really doing the right thing. Maybe she had made a mistake. Maybe she should go back to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Yet, her call was strong enough to see her through these doubts and helped her persevere.
Interestingly, and indicative of Mother Angeline’s character, she never saw the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm as “her” congregation, as it flowed from her imagination and that she alone was responsible for its success. Rather, while she recognized that she was the Foundress of the community, she knew that her role was in service to the congregation and its charism. That it was more important than she was. She was a strong leader and an effective and efficient one, but she never identified herself as the community. It was like, “It is not about me. It is about the old people. It’s about treating them as you would treat Christ.”
It was necessary for Mother Angeline, as it was for the new Sisters who joined the community, to develop a Carmelite identity, to learn what it was to be a Carmelite. Therefore, as the Foundress, while she was busy establishing new homes for the aged, she herself was learning what Carmel was all about. It becomes evident in her writings that she does take on this Carmelite identity as she constantly reminds her Sisters about the importance of prayer. It has been said that Carmelite Spirituality is about transformation, a lifetime of transforming our wills to God’s will. It is learning to see as God sees so that we become attuned to the activity of grace all around us, in the joys and sufferings of life, and not necessarily in the extraordinary circumstances. I would say that this certainly was Mother Angeline’s perspective, particularly in the ministry to the aged. She encouraged her Sisters to be attentive to the residents’ moods and to make their golden years happy ones. Even though old age is marked with decline, illness and infirmity, she saw that God’s grace was still active, that His love was present among the residents, staff and the Sisters. If we can learn to see as God sees, then we can perceive the priceless value in those that society says are less useful.
Mother Angeline had to move from knowing about the Carmelites to being a Carmelite. She had to do this as the community was just taking shape. She was responsible for imparting a Carmelite character as she herself was also learning about the Order, its heritage, its charism. By joining Carmel, it provided the community with a spiritual identity, a connection to a history, a tradition. However, Mother Angeline also knew that it was a challenge of having to live up to this identity. We have to be who we say we are. We just cannot look like Carmelites. We have to be Carmelites. Carmelites with this active apostolate.
I wonder if she wanted to fuse this desire for a new apostolate for the aged with a spiritual tradition. It came from her experience from the Little Sisters of the Poor, of something she felt was lacking in her previous community. I think that her choice of being a Carmelite was more than a way of establishing some kind of legitimacy for the community, of being pragmatic, but a reflection of Mother’s genuine desire for her community, her Sisters to be Sisters who prioritized prayer, who sought God in all that they did in their work for the aged, and to keep that focus on God and on doing his will. It is significant and telling that we are honoring and remembering this woman known for her work with the aged in a very Carmelite way- a Day of Prayer. What we are doing today is a result of her legacy, her vision, which is of uniting care for the elderly with a spirit of prayerfulness.
Each of us in our own way feel a certain gratitude and admiration for the life and legacy of Mother Angeline. Perhaps the best way we can honor this legacy is to follow the example she has provided for us. With these words of Mother Angeline Teresa, I think we would do well to remember them and to live by them.
“I would ask that you make God the very center of your existence. The human heart is made to love. God should continually be in our thoughts.”
In a world that moves as quickly as ours does, it is comforting to know there will always be a certain stability to the Catholic Church. It is no great secret that the Catholic Church changes slowly, very slowly. She does so because she wants to be confident that, after much prayer and reflection, any developments will bring about a more authentic and Gospel oriented Church, and not one that is merely giving into contemporary ideas and values. The Church recognizes it has a great responsibility for the spiritual lives of its members and for their eternal destinies. Therefore, any modications in Church teaching, practice, or worship must be done carefully and judiciously. is, of course, frustrates those
who think “Why can’t the Church get with the times and change their teaching on x, y,
and z ?!” , but the Church has never felt the need to be “trendy”. In recent times, at least from the perspective of the long history of the Church, one place that has experienced a great deal of change is religious life. For centuries, priests, nuns and brothers maintained a lifestyle that was fairly regimented and uniform. And while these consecrated men and women served the church and the world selflessly, Vatican II encouraged religious congregations to look back to the reason why their communities were founded in the first place, and recapture the initial enthusiasm and spirit their founders had. The world in which many religious congregations began was a much different one than of today. Some communities were founded with a very specific mission, e.g. to teach poor girls how to do domestic work, or to ransom Christians taken by non-Christians, or to minister to a particular immigrant group.
When the need for these apostolates disappeared, the congregations founded for these particular works were then left asking, “what is our role in the world to be ?” So, they examined the situation around them, discovered what the current needs are, and adapted their charism so that they would continue to live out their religious vocation in a modern context. This was not an easy process as it meant modifying traditions and customs that may have existed for centuries; it meant years of careful discernment and
study, and it meant experiments that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. Always attentive to the Church’s directives, Mother Angeline embraced the Vatican Council’s call for revitalizing religious life. She sent Pope Paul VI’s Exhortation on the Renewal of Religious Life (1971) to all of her Sisters, and had the Sisters read and reflect on this important document. She believed wholeheartedly that religious life was not some static, never changing reality, but a way of living that is open to adaptation: “since we were established in 1929 we have not allowed ourselves to stand still”. And while Mother certainly believed the homes her community administered should be up to date with the
latest advances in geriatric care, she told her Sisters, “we must never allow ourselves to forget our original purpose, and our growth spiritually must never suffer as a result of professional training.”
Mother Angeline was not afraid of change. In fact, she was courageous enough to leave her former religious community when she discerned that the Holy Spirit was leading
her in a different direction. But Mother, by temperament, was not in any way reckless
or impulsive. When she did decide to leave her community, she only did so after a long
period of prayer and in consultation with people whose judgement she could trust.
In the same way with the new community she founded, she made sure that she and her
Sisters understood what was being asked of them in terms of religious renewal. Any changes would have to be carefully studied; the consequences would have to be prayerfully considered. She wrote, “We have endeavored to keep our Congregation in step with the times, holding on, however, to the basic principles of religious life, and remaining faithful to Rome.” Ultimately, Mother Angeline reminds us that, regardless of our state in life, our lives must be oriented towards the Divine. How we do this may change over the years, but the goal always remains the same: faithful service to God and to our brothers and sisters.
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