From the Pen of Brother Bob

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.

From the Pen of Brother Bob

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.

From the Pen of Brother Robert Chiulli, O.Carm.

Brother Bob Chiulli, O.Carm.

Just as our bodies need refreshment and rest, so too do our souls. And for centuries, Catholics have established places where we can step away from our busy schedules and contemplate the deeper mysteries of life. Whether it be at a retreat house, shrine, or hermitage, these holy places help to reorient and refocus ourselves back to an existence centered on God.

Most often, these springs of spiritual refreshment tend to be located in rural, pastoral locations, for to be surrounded by God’s creation tends to foster deep prayer and reflection. The vast ocean, the soaring mountains, the serene forest immerse us in a reality that is larger than ourselves, and remind us of how all of it came to be through God’s hand.

Early in the history of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, Mother Angeline purchased a large tract of land in the Hudson Valley, with sweeping views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, to serve as their motherhouse. Generations of sisters have spent their formative years here, a place of quiet and serene beauty. And it not uncommon to see sisters strolling the long road that cuts through the property, praying their rosary or simply reflecting on some spiritual matter. Through all the varied seasons, the sisters there are immersed in God’s creation. It was important to Mother Angeline to have this place, a place of natural beauty, for the spiritual renewal and nourishment of her daughters in Carmel.

The Catholic tradition has always looked to the natural world as evidence of God’s Providence and design: The earth is the LORD’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it. For he founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers. (Psalm 24). Who, but God, could create both the striking magnificence of the redwood forests and the delicate engineering of the hummingbird? Who, but God, could establish the vast canvas of stars in the night sky, or the great variety of animals that populate our planet?

In recent years, our reverence for the natural world has taken on a more serious tone as we witness and experience the effect of climate change. While some may not regard this as a traditional Catholic concern, both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have urged Catholics to be attentive to this important issue. Pope Benedict wrote in the Papal Encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009): The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.

Essentially, care for our natural world is a pro-life position, as Pope Benedict himself wrote, “Today, more than ever, it appears clear to us that respect for the environment cannot fail to recognize the value and inviolability of the human person in every phase of life and in every condition. Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same, but they will both be able to develop and to reach their full dimension if we respect the Creator and his creature in the human being and in nature.” To be pro-life is, certainly, to fight vigorously for the unborn and to protect the dignity of our elderly. But it is also to value and reverence the world that God has entrusted us with, the world that God has made us stewards of. To ignore the plight of our earth is, as Pope Benedict says, essentially suicide. Our interdependence with nature is not a trivial matter, but necessary for our survival.

Our current ecological consciousness postdates Mother Angeline’s time on earth, but were she alive today, one would expect her, with her sensitivity and with concern for the most vulnerable, to reflect deeply on how we can better care for the world that God has given to us. And Mother, in her day, was regarded as “ahead of her time” (and by suspicion by some) as she introduced a new way of caring for the elderly. However, at the heart of everything she did was her profound love for the elderly and for the Church. Mother understood that her “new” ideas were only radical in that they demanded caring for the elderly as Jesus himself would. Sometimes looking at things in new ways can be disorienting and seem “radical”, but if we do so rooted in our faith and trust in the Lord, we can be assured that we will not be led astray. May we take to heart the words that Pope Francis has written, “Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

From the Pen of Brother Robert Chiulli, O.Carm.

BrRobert  The Motherhouse for the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm sits serenely on a bluff overlooking the majestic Hudson River, and commands an impressive view of the Catskill mountains. The scenic property of 86 acres was purchased by Mother Angeline in 1946 and renamed Avila-on-the-Hudson. Mother Angeline not only intended it to be a place for the administration of the community, and for the formation of future Sisters, but also a place of beauty and contemplation where the Sisters could be spiritually and physically renewed in their work with elderly.

002 Statue of St. Teresa, Avila Grounds

When the Sisters first acquired the property, there were wide lawns, groves of trees, and a large, white residence of 19 rooms. Certainly a suitable locale for establishing a Motherhouse. Over time, as the Community grew, more buildings were added: a Generalate, a Novitiate, and a gymnasium. However, the most important building, the building Mother Angeline was most eager to have completed was the Chapel. In the span of buildings that comprises the Motherhouse complex, the Chapel is located right in the middle, in the center of everything. This is hardly an accident of design. Rather it is an expression of Mother’s vision, her philosophy that prayer (both liturgical and private) must be at the center, at the core of all we do.

ph-10055 Saint Teresa’s Chapel Chapel

In the Carmelite Sisters’ nursing homes that I have visited, I have noticed that the Chapel is always located in a prominent location, a place that is centrally located and easy to find. This is not always the case in other nursing homes or hospitals, where the Chapel (if there is even one) is often tucked away in an obscure corner of the facility. Again, Mother Angeline’s values continue on in the homes her Sisters administer, as they hold fast to the belief that God must be at the center of all we do, He should be the focus of all our desires, He should be the One around whom we build our lives.

Buildings are quite literally concrete expressions of our values and priorities as a society, and if we take a cursory survey of architectural history, we see how our values have shifted over the years. For example, in medieval cities, the dominant structure was the cathedral, usually an impressive edifice of stone and glass which provided the medieval imagination with a taste of heaven. With the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, massive factories with towering smokestacks dominated the horizon. Wealth, and the acquisition of material goods, took on a new prominence in people’s lives. And now today, our cities contain glass and steel skyscrapers, where transactions of high finance are carried out, and where millionaires (and billionaires) take up residence. It seems that our cities no longer have a place for God; or maybe, more accurately, God no longer has a place in our lives. And as creatures of flesh and blood, we need concrete (or brick or stone) reminders of faith and worship; we need to constantly recall this world is just passing, and that we are meant for eternity. This is why the first building Mother Angeline constructed after she purchased the property for the Motherhouse was a Chapel. Without a firm and solid grounding in God, she knew all her plans and dreams were in vain, as she herself said, “Our work with the aging will only be successful to the extent that it is the fruit of our prayer”. Let Mother Angeline be a reminder to us about keeping what is truly important at the center of our lives, even in the midst of all the distractions around us.

From the Pen of Brother Robert, O.Carm.


As I write this article for this edition of the Mother Angeline Society Bulletin, I can’t help but be grateful for the technology that allows me to be able to carry out this task with relative ease. The software automatically corrects my spelling, the margins and tabs are automatically set, and I can always go to Google, rather than dust off my dictionary, when I want to look up a word.  It wasn’t so long ago though that when we wanted to write something, we would have to use the typewriter, and when we wanted to carry out some research, we would head to the library and open up the encyclopedias.  Yes, technology has done great things to speed up our lives and make things more efficient.  Just recently, I was in one of the Carmelite Sisters’ Nursing Homes and saw that they had just recently placed flat screen computers on all the floors as a way of modernizing and facilitating all the laborious record keeping involved with resident care.

But with all technological developments, there are benefits, and there are downsides.   For example, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) allows us to connect with family and friends all over the world.  We can keep track of who’s on vacation, who is heading off for college, and who just got married.  We can learn about the sad events that happen in life, and offer prayers and support for those who are sick.  It has made the world seem that much smaller, knowing that we can instantaneously connect to anyone, anywhere on the planet.  On the downside, however, all this technology has so pervasively worked its way into our lives, that for many people, as soon as they open their eyes in the morning, they reach for their phone, desperate to find out what happened in the virtual world while they were slumbering. This obsession keeps on all day until they go to bed. Who hasn’t been to a restaurant where there isn’t a table full of people, all looking at their phones, not talking to one another?

Along with this, social media has precipitated a level of personal sharing never before seen in modern society.  All day, every day people put up pictures of the most banal events, hoping that someone will “like” them.  Younger people love to post “selfies” of themselves, hastily composed self-portraits taken with their phone.  Relentless self-promotion has become the norm as we all scramble for more and more ways to expose our lives to the world, seeking approval and affirmation.

In this “look at me!” culture that we currently inhabit, where people can become their own “brands”, I sense that Mother Angeline would have us reevaluate the role that technology has in our lives.  Mother certainly was in favor of using modern techniques and advances in the Nursing Homes that her Congregation administered, particularly if they enhanced the lives of the residents living there. It was one of the founding principles of the Congregation that their homes be “up to date” and equipped with best possible facilities.

But when technology increases our human tendencies for narcissism and self-absorption, it impedes our relationship with God.  When we continually focus on ourselves, our accomplishments, our desires, we close ourselves off from the deeper relationship that God wants to share with us.  Mother wrote what she believed true happiness to be:  “The secret of happiness for me is self-forgetfulness and continual self-denial.  My love for God should be strong enough to destroy all love for self and bear weariness and sickness with no outward signs.“   Mother knew and believed that the Christian life was to be patterned after Christ’s own life, who lived not for Himself but for his Father and for our salvation.   His miraculous works were not intended to glorify Himself, to garner attention for Himself, but as signs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is this interior life, not a superficial virtual one, which gives life its meaning and worth.  It is with a spirit of detachment, a very Carmelite theme, do we move ever closer to God, as Infinite Mystery.  Again, Mother found this to be true in her own life:  “When we make it the habit of living in the Presence of God, we soon learn to live retired interiorly in complete silence and abandonment.  We feel moved by a mysterious action which directs, supports, and influences us.  To dwell within our own soul is to have heaven on earth, to become the intimate companion of Jesus and to contemplate the Blessed Trinity assiduously.”

Mother’s words are quite a contrast to some of our contemporary values; not many today people speak about self-denial and abandonment in any kind of positive way.  Yet, they have been known as key elements of the spiritual journey since the foundation of Christendom.   As we continue through this 2016, may Mother’s wisdom and guidance help us to seek out what is really of value and not to be lured by only what is passing.