Ascetical and Devotional Observances in the ancient Rule booklets




(1536 – 1641)



a work of

from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, volume I, pages 1492-1494.

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

As Fidel Elizondo correctly observed in what he wrote about the booklets which contained the Rule and were given to Novices and young religious, these small documents are very important in the study of the forma mentis (frame of mind) that prevailed in a long line of ascetical customs and practices of piety that formed part of the Capuchin way of life.[1]

The oldest booklets that we have come from the last decades of the Sixteenth Century. These were reprinted in the centuries that followed in editions that contain additional material, corrections and explanations that make interesting reading. They are pocket editions, an authentic vademecum (guidebook) for the friars, which are small encyclopedias of Franciscan spirituality. It would seem that the protypes of these booklets were the Latin edition by Plantin (Anversa 1589) and the Italian edition by Giunti (Venezia 1597), Regola e Testamento del nostro serafico padre san Francesco.

However, this title does not convey any idea of the vast range of topics that was contained in these pocket editions. Anyone who sifts through these booklets with patience will find that they contain information on a wide range of subjects. They usually begin with a very short summary of the history of Franciscan reform movements which is presented as justifying the Capuchin reform. This is just as controversial as what was contained in the Chronicon by Angelo Clareno, the Croniche of the Order and what was put together in the Speculum Minorum, Monumenta Ordinis or Firmamenta.[2]

The early Capuchin historians followed the same train of thought when they explained the origins of the Order. They connected it with a Franciscan vision that had always existed in the history of the Friars Minor. This was how they justified the choice that Matteo da Bascio and the early Capuchins had made about wearing a habit which had a pointed hood. They said that it was “antichissima” (very ancient) and backed this up using paintings and what remained of old habits.

This brief history of the various reform movements was followed by the Bull of Pope Innocent III, the Approved Rule, the Testament of St Francis the Breve discorso sulla povertà by Giovanni Pili da Fano and other documents. They summarised all this. They often translated it or commented on it adding to it, quoting passages from the Speculum and the Monumenta that treated historical, juridical, or spiritual matters or dealt with the observance of the Rule, how to imitate the perfection of St Francis, or extracts from some Papal Bulls etc.

This subject takes up about one third of the content of the books.[3] Documents that deal with how the friars practice piety, the formulars of prayer that they used, the exercises that they used, the way in which the aroused feelings of devotion during the day, and a summary of the teachings of various authors regarding the nature of spirituality are all quoted so it would be easy for them to learn and remember how to act. A method of mental prayer is discussed. The rudiments of Christian doctrine are outlaid. Devotional practices centred on the Madonna and on the saints are proposed.

All of this is meant to teach and form young people, through providing a series of explanations on how to carry out various penitential exercises, prayers and devotions that will become part of the daily life of a friar.[4]

We have chosen some texts that appear to be very clear in the way that they describe the traditional spiritual formation of the Novices.

We could not overlook these pieces of evidence because they exerted great influence on what took place in the Order for a long time. If there are not many copies left it is because the old friars went to the grave with these booklets in their hands.

We have chosen documents that contain an assortment of ascetical and doctrinal material (doc. 1-9), including those that describe what was happening so as to illustrate what was important in the daily life of the friars, such as going to Confession, receiving the Eucharist, the examination of conscience, the emotions that accompanied prayer, the repetition of ejaculations which was spread throughout the day and the week and especially when going from their cell to the choir as they followed the community timetable. (doc 10-16).

Finally, we have presented some texts to show how the Capuchins regarded the Rule as having been presented to Francis by Christ and was therefore something that was perfect, seraphic and to be cherished. These texts also show how the Rule was observed spiritually by avoiding “proprietà di voluntà” (being headstrong) which is most dangerous.

  1. Cf. F. Elizondo, Edictiones capuchinas de la regla franciscana publicadas en lengua castellana o catalana, in Est franc. 77 (1916) 67-103; id., Ediciones capuchinaas de la regla franciscana publicadas en lengua aemana, ibid. 80 (1979) 301-342; id., Edictones Latinas de la regla Francescana por C. Plantin en 1589, in CF 49 (1979) 22-74; id., Edictiones capuchinas de la regla franciscana publicadas en lenguas Italiano, ibid, 50 (1980) 169-226.
  2. There is an interesting mistake in the title of this and it was repeated in every edition. Instead of saying Firmamenta trium Ordinum it says Fundamenta, the 1589 Latin edition has: De initiis et progressu religionis S. Francisci, extractaex Fundamento trium Ordinum, Speculo Minorum atque aliis libris tractantibus de eadem Religione; while the 1579 Italian edition has; Dei principio e progresso della Religione del serafico Padre san Francesco, cavato dal Fondamento de tre Ordini dallo Specchio de’ Frati Minori et da altri libri che trattano della stessa Religione.
  3. Cf. C. Cargnoni, L’imagine di san Francesco nella formazione dell’Ordine cappuccino, in L’immagine di Francesco nella storiografia dall’umanesimo all’Ottocento. Atti del IX Convegno internazionale. Assisi 15-16-17 ottobre 1981, Assisi 1983, 120-195.
  4. In the Latin texts the intent to provide education is quite clear. In fact, it says on the first page: Et alia plurima ad formandum verum religiosum. (ed. 1589, p. 2). This is put more clearly in a later edition in 1692. It says on the front piece: Regula et Testamentum seraphici Patris Francisci, cum declarationibus eiusdem alique instructionibus, adinstitutionem nouvitiorem quam maxime necessaris. This is stated even more clearly in the “Aprobatio” of the 1589 edition which says: “Haec Regula et Testamentum beatissimi Patris seraphici sancti Francisci, una cum adiunctis declarationibus, exhortationibus documentis et aliis optima ac plane divina pro reverendis patribus capucinis, per eos debita observatia, novitiis proponenda et docenda, ac semper abomnibus penes se habenda, imprimi meo iudicio poterunt. Datum Antuerpiae XVI Calendas Augusti 1589” (ibid., p. 452).