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Encyclopedia > Carmelite
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Origin and early history

Carmelites (in Latin Ordo fratrum Beatę Virginis Marię de monte Carmelo) is the name of a Roman Catholic order founded in the 12th century by a certain Berthold (d. after 1185) on Mount Carmel, whence the order receives its name. Carmelite tradition traces the origin of the order to a community of hermits on Mount Carmel that succeeded the schools of the prophets in ancient Israel, although there are no certain records of monks on this mountain before the ninth decade of the twelfth century. Berthold, who had gone to Palestine from Calabria either as a pilgrim or as a crusader, chose Mount Carmel as the seat of his community because it was the traditional home of Elijah. It was but natural that this community of Eastern hermits in the Holy Land should gain constant accessions from pilgrims, and in 1209 they received a rule from the patriarch Albert of Jerusalem. This consisted of sixteen articles, which enjoined strict obedience to their prior, residence in individual cells, constancy in prayer, the hearing of mass every morning in the oratory of the community, poverty and toil, daily silence from vespers until terce the next morning, abstinence from all forms of meat except in cases of severe illness, and fasting from Holy Cross Day (September 14) to Easter of the following year. This rule received the approval of Pope Honorius III in 1226. With the increasing cleavage between the West and the East, however, the Carmelites found it advisable to leave their original home, and in 1238 they settled in Cyprus and Sicily. In 1240 they were in France, while by 1245 they were so numerous that they were able to hold their first general chapter at Aylesford, England, where Simon Stock, then eighty years of age, was chosen general. During his rule of twenty years the order prospered, especially by the establishment of a monastery at Paris by Saint Louis in 1259.


Habit and scapular

The original rule of the order was now changed to conform to that of the mendicant orders on the initiative of Simon Stock and at the command of Dominican, except that the cloak was white. They also borrowed much from the Dominican and Franciscans rules. Their distinctive garment was a scapular of two strips of gray cloth, worn on the breast and back, and fastened at the shoulders. This, according to the traditions of the order, was given to Simon Stock by the Virgin herself, who descended from heaven and promised that all who wear it in this world, or at least in the hour of death, should be saved, she herself going each Saturday to purgatory to rescue those to whom this might apply. Thus arose a sodality of the scapular, which affiliated a large number of laymen with the Carmelites. The order speedily became infected with arrogance, however, contesting the invention of the rosary with the Dominicans, terming themselves the brothers of the Virgin, and asserting, on the basis of their traditional association with Elijah, that all the prophets of the Old Testament, as well as the Virgin and the Apostles, had been Carmelites. Their second general, Nicholas of Narbonne (1265-1270), protested in vain, only to be deposed from his office.


Reforms within the order

In the 14th and 15th centuries the Carmelites, like other monastic orders, declined, and reform became imperative. Shortly before 1433 three monasteries in Valais, Tuscany, and Mantua were reformed by the preaching of Thomas Conecte of Rennes and formed the congregation of Mantua, which, was declared independent of the order by Pope Eugenius IV. In 1431 or 1432 the same pope sanctioned certain modifications of the Carmelite rule, and in 1459 Pope Pius II left the regulation of fasts to the discretion of the general. John Soreth, who was then general, and had already established the order of Carmelite nuns in 1452, accordingly sought to restore the primitive asceticism, but died of poison at Nantes in 1471. In 1476 a bull of Pope Sixtus IV founded the Carmelites of the Third Order, who received a special rule in 1635, which was amended in 1678. The sixteenth century saw a number of short-lived reforms, but it was not until the second half of the same century that a thorough reforation of the Carmelites was carried out by St. Theresa of Avila, who, together with St. John of the Cross, established the Discalced Carmelites. In conscious opposition to Protestantism the order was now inspired with an asceticism and a devotion hitherto unknown to it. In 1593 the Discalced Carmelites had their own general, and by 1600 they were so numerous that it became necessary to divide them into the two congregations of Spain and of Italy, or St. Elise, the latter including all provinces except Spain. Henceforth there were four Carmelite generals: the general of the Observantines, of the independent congregation of Mantua, and of the two congregations of the Discalced Carmelites.


Controversies with other orders

By the middle of the 17th century the Carmelites had reached their zenith. At this period, however, they became involved in controversies with other orders, particularly with the Jesuits. The special objects of attack were the traditional origin of the Carmelites and the source of their scapular. The Sorbonne, represented by Jean Launoy, joined the Jesuits in their polemics against the Carmelites. Papebroch, the Bollandist editor of the Acta Sanctorum, was answered by the Carmelite Sebastian of St. Paul, who made such serious charges against the orthodoxy of his opponent's writings that the very existence of the Bollandists was threatened. The peril was averted, however, and in 1696 a decree of Rocaberti, archbishop of Valencia and inquisitor-general of the holy office, forbade all further controversies between the Carmelites and Jesuits. Two years later, on November 20, 1698, Pope Innocent XII issued a brief which definitely ended the controversy on pain of excommunication, and placed all writings in violation of the brief upon the Index.


Present status

The French Revolution and the sequestration of monasteries in southern Europe were heavy blows to the Carmelites. At the present time there are many provinces of Calced or Old Order Carmelites including Indonesia, Ireland, Australia, Italy, Rio de Janeiro (Rome, Malta, Iceland, England, and Galicia) and eight of Discalced (Rome, Genoa, Lombardy, Venice, Tuscany, Piedmont, Aquitaine, and Avignon), in addition to a number of isolated cloisters and priories of both Calced and Discalced Carmelites in various countries.


Initial text from Scaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion - revision and extension, and correction in some places, needed.






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Carmelite tradition traces the origin of the Order to a community of hermits on Mount Carmel that succeeded the schools of the prophets in ancient Israel, although there are no certain records of monks on this mountain before the ninth decade of the twelfth century.
In 1593 the Discalced Carmelites had their own general, and by 1600 they were so numerous that it became necessary to divide them into the two congregations of Spain and of Italy, or St. Elise, the latter including all provinces except Spain.
The peril was averted, however, and in 1696 a decree of Rocaberti, archbishop of Valencia and inquisitor-general of the holy office, forbade all further controversies between the Carmelites and Jesuits.
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