Teresa, the Counsels and John Paul II

The Evangelical Counsels, Teresa’s Chosen Way of Working for the Redeemer, in the Light of the Theology of Consecrated Life Pope John Paul II

Paper given at InSpiRe Conference on Teresa June 2015, Durham University © Mary Stevens


In the Book of her Life St. Teresa wrote:

I answered [Dom Pedro Ibáñez] that I didn’t want to benefit from theology if it wasn’t conducive to my following my vocation, my vow of poverty, and the Counsels of Christ with total perfection…[1]

At the time to which she was referring in this passage Teresa was considering the foundation which would eventually be St Joseph’s, Avila. The foundation would be built on the convictions which developed in her mind and heart through prayer, through her own experience at the Incarnation and through her meeting with the beata María de Jesús and her reading of the Primitive Rule to which María de Jesús had introduced her.[2]  Nevertheless she did always want to consult theologians, wise and holy people, both to check her own ideas and to deepen her understanding. If her prayer had led her to reject the ideas of theologians she would have done so, but only within the framework of obedience to the Church and the quest for perfection; she would have abandoned the whole idea of the foundation if it were in the least contrary to obedience or perfection.

Her thirst for obedience to the Church and the advice of learned men would surely have inspired her to listen to the reflections of a canonised pope. In this paper I propose that Pope St John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum[3] articulates a theological analysis of the Evangelical Counsels which contributes a new layer of understanding to the apostolic orientation of Religious Life which was fundamental in St Teresa. As Teresa had found an identity for Consecrated Life in a friendship with God in which His “good friends” participated in the loving sacrifice of Christ for the world, so John Paul described a theological identity of Consecrated Life which participates in Christ’s saving action for the world.

My paper comprises three parts followed by a brief conclusion. I will introduce Redemption in Pope St John Paul II. I will then place together the theme of the consecrated life working for redemption found in John Paul and the Teresian theme of the apostolic aim of the Consecrated Life. I will then look at the pope’s discernment of the redemptive aspect of the Counsels.


Redemption is at the very centre of Pope Saint John Paul II’s understanding of God’s relation with humanity: the Trinity made known to us and making us known to ourselves through the saving intervention of love in the Incarnation. At the centre of Redemption is Jesus Christ the Redeemer. He began his first encyclical:

The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history. … Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him – because there is salvation in no one else but him, the Son of God – repeating what Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”[4]. [5]

What is meant here by a redeemer, by redemption? Catholic Theological Commission at the request of Pope John Paul, published a paper on Redemption in 1995 in which they said:

..the doctrine of redemption concerns what God has accomplished for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, namely the removal of the obstacles lying between God and us, and the offer to us of participating in God’s life.[6]

The saving work of Christ removed the obstacles and once more presented the offer to share in God’s life. Human life itself is a gift given for fulfilment in a multi-layered relationship of love between God and creation, culminating in a participation in God’s life. Thus the human person experiences an incompleteness that is satisfied only in God.  Redemption opens the way which sin had closed in order that creation can come to fulfilment in God’s faithful love. Theological Commission said:

In other words, redemption is about God as the author of our redemption before it is about us.”[7] As a foundation for understanding Redemption John Paul takes a verse from St. John:[8] God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.[9]

He emphasises the sheer gift of the gratuitous love of God as the source and means of Redemption effected through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In human life there is a universal experience of suffering and evil which is a sign of the need for salvation and Redemption. If we look at the human person vis à vis the problems of the world, we find that we cannot overcome the ills of human life and of the world on our own: we are simply not able to do it, as the Council document Gaudium et Spes points out.[10] This is not because the difficulties are quantitatively too great, but because the root of these ills lies in the rupture of our connection with God, a connection which only God can repair. This brings to mind the attitude of St Teresa as she surveyed the ills of the world around her. To her I now turn.

Consecrated Life, Apostolic and Redemptive

As everyone knows, Teresa insisted on the apostolic meaning of the life of her Discalced Carmelite sisters. “The main reason” she insisted, for the foundation of St Joseph’s was to help to remedy the great evils that she had seen in the world and the Church.[11] Looking at the trials of the Church in her own times and the efforts to use force to overcome them she longed for a way in which she might help. She wrote:

It has seemed to me that what is necessary is a different approach…[12]

This “different approach” was reliance on Christ and His power to save, a reliance in which friendship with Christ would be an efficacious bridge between His power and the place of human need. Prayer played a large part in this “different approach” linking trust to need through friendship, for prayer:

is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.[13]

This friendship with God in Christ is formed by the willing co-operation with His saving grace which is demonstrated in a life of conversion and virtue made possible by the outpouring of the love of God in Christ. Prayer must be rooted in and accompanied by a way of living and being which is governed by faith and love in action. The almost universally known quotation which I have just cited continues:

In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord. [14]

So it was that:

All my longing was and still is that since He has so many enemies and so few friends that these few friends be good ones. As a result I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical Counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same.[15]

At the beginning of the Exhortation Redemptionis Donum John Paul situates the call to follow the Evangelical Counsels within an interior encounter with the love of Christ in which the one called is also commissioned to work with Christ:

This love embraces the whole person, soul and body, whether man or woman, in that person’s unique and unrepeatable personal “I.” The One who, given eternally to the Father, “gives” Himself in the mystery of the Redemption, has now called man in order that he in his turn should give himself entirely to the work of the Redemption…[16]

Through Profession of vows the Religious becomes a co-worker in Redemption, his or her entire life becoming co-redemptive. This co-redemptive efficacy comprises a participation in the relationship of God’s redeeming love given to the world in Jesus Christ. The connection between the Evangelical Counsels and redemption is specific in John Paul’s Apostolic Exhortation  Redemptionis Donum.

The Evangelical Counsels and Redemption

Redemptionis Donum was written in 1984, a Holy Year dedicated in a special way to the Redemption. In this Holy year all Christians were urged to “Open the door to the Redeemer!”[17] and Redemptionis Donum was offered to all Religious as a reflection on their vocation in the light of the redemption. In the course of this theological reflection of Pope St John Paul II he turns to the Counsels, identifying the ways in which each of one both structures and facilitates participation in the work of Redemption. John Paul points out that there are many Counsels in the Gospel, “exhortations that go beyond the measure of the commandment, indicating not only what is “necessary” but what is “better.””[18] He points out that among those many, three have been chosen according to Tradition as the elements of Religious Profession and he identifies these three as having a “clear importance as key elements and in a certain sense as a “summing up” of the entire economy of salvation”.[19]

Chastity, poverty and obedience, as Evangelical Counsels, each identify an aspect of the particular way in which the God chose to bring about Redemption in the life of Jesus Christ. As elements of Religious Profession each Counsel in the life of the Religious is an efficacious sign and participation in the particular ways in which Redemption was brought about by God’s love in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Chastity assumes the Religious into the spousal love of Christ. Poverty continues the self-emptying of Christ who made us rich through his poverty, it creates within the Religious the source of enrichment for others not with material goods but with the gifts of God. Through obedience the Religious is transformed into the likeness of Christ, who “redeemed humanity and made it holy by his obedience”. Through the choice of this specific threefold way of consecration and sacrifice in response to the call of God’s redemptive love,[20] the Religious lives within and according to the redemptive self-gift of divine love. The Religious is herself formed anew by the saving love of God as she or he lives the total self-gift in love of the Counsels. This personal transformation effected by the love of God and the choice of the individual to live in virtue and self-gift co-operates in “the transformation of the entire cosmos through the heart of man, from within.”[21]

The Son of God is given by the Father so that man might not perish but might have eternal life: the infinite gratuitous love given by Christ is redemptive, removing “the obstacles lying between God and us, and … [making the] the offer to us of participating in God’s life”.[22] It is this gratuitous redemptive love of God for the world, for every person in the world, which determines the form of Religious Profession through the three Evangelical Counsels which have traditionally formed the Consecrated life and which constitute its specific identity. The person making profession of the Evangelical Counsels is not only following and imitating Christ in these particular virtues and attitudes. As a baptised member of Christ the Religious is consecrated with Christ’s consecration; and through Religious Profession, vowed to live according to the Counsels, the living and the loving of the Religious, the unique person of each Religious, is taken into the economy of Redemption


St Teresa is a doctor of the universal church and so although she wrote largely for her own Discalced Carmelite nuns no one would question the wider application of her work. Pope St John Paul addressed to all Religious a theological reflection on the Evangelical Counsels which penetrates and explains the insight which can also be found in her thought concerning the efficacy of the Evangelical Counsels.

In a word, this reflection suggests that the participation of the Evangelical Counsels in aspects of the Redemptive love of God an the economy of Redemption gives to Consecrated Life a co-redemptive identity. This identity is not founded on the life of prayer nor on apostolic work and service as such, but on the vowed profession of the Evangelical Counsels. The individual, his or her unique “I,” in the most intimate depths of his or her personal being, is taken into the economy of redemption. The gratuitous love of God consecrates the individual in religious profession and by that gratuitous love the entire life of each Religious, united with Christ, becomes co-redemptive.







[1] St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila.  Vol. 1, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976). 304

[2] Ibid. Footnote 2 for Chapter 35: “Footnote for Chapter 35 found at page 486: “A beata was a woman who wore a religious habit, but lived a life of recollection and virtue outside a community. Maria de Jesus, a young widow, after entering the Carmelite monastery in Granada, felt called to leave before making profession and to found a reformed Carmel. She founded the Carmel in Alcala, a year after Teresa founded St. Joseph’s, the life she inaugurated there was extremely rigorous, and in 1568 it was mitigated by Teresa herself.”

[3] Pope John Paul II, “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption,”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html. §1

[4] Jn 6:68; cf. Acts 4:8-12.

[5] Pope John Paul II, “Redemptor Hominis,”  http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0218/_INDEX.HTM. 1, 7

[6] Catholic Church International Theological Commission, “Select Questions on the Theology of God the Redeemer,” in The International Theological Commission. Vol 2, 1986-2007: Texts and Documents, ed. Rev Michael Sharkey and Fr Thomas Weinandy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009). § 2

[7] Ibid. § 2

[8] Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994). 54.

[9] Jn 3:16.

[10] “Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (New York/Dublin: Costello /Dominican, 1996); Pope  John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979).

[11] St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila.  Vol 2, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington DC: ICS, 1980). 47

[12] Ibid. 47

[13] Life. 96

[14] Ibid. 96

[15] Way of Perfection. 41

[16] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. §3

[17] “Aperite Portas Redemptori,”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/jubilee/documents/hf_jp-ii_doc_19830106_bolla-redenzione_it.html. § 1

[18] “Redemptionis Donum”.§ 9

[19] Ibid. § 9

[20] Mk 10:17

[21] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 9

[22] Commission, “Itc Vol 2.” § 2


Commission, Catholic Church International Theological. “Select Questions on the Theology of God the Redeemer.” In The International Theological Commission. Vol 2, 1986-2007: Texts and Documents, edited by Rev Michael Sharkey and Fr Thomas Weinandy, 465. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.

“Gaudium Et Spes.” Translated by O.P. Ambrose McNicholl, Ronan Lennon, O.Carm., Senan Crowe, O.P. In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery. New York/Dublin: Costello /Dominican, 1996.

John Paul II, Pope. “Aperite Portas Redemptori.”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/jubilee/documents/hf_jp-ii_doc_19830106_bolla-redenzione_it.html.

———. “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption.”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html.

———. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.

———. “Redemptor Hominis.”  http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0218/_INDEX.HTM.

John Paul II, Pope Redemptor Hominis [in Translated from the Latin.].  London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979.

Teresa of Avila, St. The Book of Her Life, the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila.  Vol. 1 [in English]. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez.  Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976.

———. The Way of Perfection, the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila.  Vol 2 [in English]. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez.  Washington DC: ICS, 1980.