Capuchin life as described in granting of obediences




(1536 – 1641)




a work of


from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, volume I, pages 1597-1602.

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

One of the most significant and important documentary sources that helps us understand and interpret the minutiae of the mentality that was behind the way that the early Capuchins lived is to look at the many different documents that contain the formula that was used when granting an obedience.

These documents show us the development and application of the spiritual concept of obedience during the time when the Franciscan-Capuchin fraternity was growing.

When St Francis read the Gospel and listened to it, he recognised and experienced the presence of Jeus Christ and His Spirit very strongly: “I know Christ Crucified.”[1] It led him to discover the meaning of being a consecrated religious person and the importance of obedience. Christ submitted Himself to death on the cross and showed what it meant to be obedient.[2] From birth to death the Saviour was obedient to the Father.

It was for Christological reasons such as these that Francis described how to receive a brother into the fraternity in these words: “let him be received into obedience,” and “after that … he may not wander about outside obedience” so that he will not be “cursed.”[3] He repeated this in his Testament: “And I firmly wish to obey the General Minister of this fraternity and the other Guardians whom it pleases him to give me. And I so wish to be a captive in their hands that I cannot go anywhere or do anything beyond obedience and his will, for he is my master. … And let all the other friars be bound to their Guardians.” [4] He explains in Admonitions III how “a friar casts aside everything he possesses and surrenders his body and completely places himself in the hands of his superior in obedience.”[5]

By meditating on these words, the early Capuchins gained an idea of how to live their daily lives in obedience to their superiors in imitation of Christ and St Francis by not doing anything that was not subject to obedience or just doing what they liked doing.

Such total obedience was already obvious in the ordinances of Albacina, where “the permission and blessing of the Superiors” is stressed repeatedly. They refer to “obedience to the Vicar General” when a friar passes over to another Province. They contain rules that state that “none of our friars shall go from place to place or from Province to Province without an obedience and even then, he shall travel with a companion if possible.”[6]

These details become more precise in the 1536 Constitutions which present obedience and poverty as the basic virtues and the environment in which a friar carries out his daily activities based on the principle that humble obedience “to the most holy Son of God” is the best way to come close to God. Our Seraphic Father wished that “his friars should be subject to every creature for the love of Christ who emptied Himself for love of us”. Therefore, “imitating Christ all the friars should always desire to be subjects and obey, rather than wishing to be prelates and to command others.”[7]

This theological, ascetical, and mystical norm was adapted and applied to the structure of the friar’s daily activities in such a way that it implied that “he should do everything because of holy obedience and with the correct religious motivation.”[8] On most occasions a written obedience was given to friars when they left the friary. It was like an “identity card” or “license” without which a friar would not be admitted to another friary. “The friars shall not travel alone but must be accompanied. They shall not travel without a written obedience (in scriptus) from their Superior that was stamped by the Vicar of the place, in line with the ancient custom among religious.”[9] Visiting friars were required “to present themselves to the Superior and show him their obedience since without this no friar was allowed to leave our friaries.”[10]

As the number of friars increased, the Superiors if they were to carry out their ministry in a spiritual way in line with the Gospel, had to adopt a kind of “spiritual” bureaucracy which involved continually increasing the restrictions placed on the way of life of a friar from birth to death. This bond meant that the friar depended on the wishes and blessing of the Superior who could send him wherever he wished. There were several authorities who had to give their consent: the local Superior in each friary, and the Minister Provincial and the Minister General at a higher level. The formularies used in the documents, showed the solemnity and importance of the move that the friar was undertaking.[11]

We do not have copies of the obediences that were issued during the first decade of the life of the Order. The earliest documents which have been discovered so far date back to thirty years after the Order was established. The formularies used continued to change, with some of them containing the personal opinions of various Superiors. However, following the Council of Trent they use precise legal terms, follow decrees issued by the Church without omitting Franciscan and Capuchin spirituality. Therefore, it is easy to identify a “Capuchin” obedience from one not issued by the Capuchins even when both were written in a Franciscan style. When we compare those that were written in the old Franciscan style with those contained in the Speculum o Firmamento, we can see an interesting difference in the terms used.[12]

Therefore, as we have already said, the Capuchin friar is branded with obedience from birth to death. We have discerned various types of obedience by considering what normally takes place in the Capuchin way of life with its different activities and how they are connected to one another. There are six situations in which these obediences are required.

First there are the obediences that are needed at different times during formation and those that involve directors and lectors. These include 1) obediences that are related to the year of the Noviciate which is like the birth and baptism of a Capuchin friar and obediences that involve the Master of Novices (docs 1-4). 2)There are obediences that pertain to the clerical student. (docs. 5-10). 3) There are the lettere dimissoriali for Holy Orders (docs. 11-25) 4) There are obediences for lectors. (Docs 26-30).

The second situation concerns obediences for preaching. (Docs 31-47).

The third situation concerns obediences for travel and transfers, for gatherings, health, and holidays (docs. 48-66).

The fourth situation concerns obediences for those who hold offices in the Order that is 1) obediences for Commissary Generals (docs 67-71), 2) obediences confirming Vicar Provincials (docs. 72-74), 3) various Provincial obediences for Custodes. Provincial Commissaries, Guardians, Local Vicars, lists of the fraternities and for hearing the Confessions of lay people (docs. 75-85)

The fifth situation concerns letters of recommendation for pilgrims, the poor, benefactors, and matters pertaining making clothes (docs. 86-95).

The sixth situation concerns obediences issued to expel members of the Order (docs. 96-97).

The seventh and final situation concerns letters of spiritual affiliation to the Order. (docs. 98-115).

The great variety of subjects reflects how the Order had developed and organised every detail that confronted a self-governing organisation.

Seen from another perspective these documents fall into three categories that are not very different from what we have said above. These categories feature the original documents and how they were connected to various individuals and historical events. They were issued during a period that covered a hundred years form 1554 and from a letter concerning Holy Orders by Mario da Mercato Saraceno when he was Vicar Provincial of the Marches, to a letter of affiliation to the Order which was written and sealed by Giovanni da Moncalieri when he was Minister General in 1641.

In-between these historical documents there are some that are particularly interesting such as the letter affiliating St Philip Neri in 1576, some of the affiliations made by St Lawrence of Brindisi in 1602, the obedience issued to St Joseph of Leonessa to go to the mission in Constantinople in 1587 and the various obediences issued to Matia Bellintani da Salὸ and another by Lorenzo da Brindisi.

There is another series of documents that deal with the various kinds of obedience contained in the formulars used in the final decades of the seventeenth century which show how the Order had begun to develop. These are the formulars that were used by the secretaries in the Provincial Curia and the General Curia. In the assortment of documents that we have chosen to illustrate the history of the Order they reveal a development in the way the documents were written and how that changed. We have included documents written by Giovan Maria da Tusa, who was both Minister Provincial and Minister General. These documents can be found in his Manuale which is still preserved at Messina.

There is a third kind of documents which contain the official formula that was adopted in the seventeenth century by various Provincial Secretaries in Bologna. These examples also show what was used in other Provinces. They demonstrate how the Order had developed in the way it understood different aspects of religious and community life.[13]


  1. Cf. 2 Cel. 103.
  2. Cf. Phil 2:8; Heb. 5:8.
  3. ER 2, 8-9; 5, 19-20; LR 2, 12.
  4. Test. 33-34, 36.
  5. Adm. 3, 3.
  6. Cf. Alb. nn. 23, 31-33, 38, 57 and 60.
  7. Cf. Const. 1536, nn. 151, 64, 7, 97 and 133.
  8. Ibid., n. 129.
  9. Ibid., n. 46.
  10. Ibid., n. 128.
  11. Regarding these documents see Giacomo C. Bascape, Note sui sigili dei francescani (secoli XIII-XVII), in CF 32 (1962) 148-164.
  12. For example, cf. Monumenta Ordinis Minorum, Salamanca 1511, tr. II 277r-285r (= Formulae litterarum), also Firmamenta trium Ordinum, Parigi 1512, pars. III, II, 63va-66rb (= Aliquae communes formulae aliquarum litterarum obœientiarum communitum in Orde ex formulares antique Ordinis et aliis in parte extractae et prout praefatis statutis et declarationibus Ordinis magis congruere videntur). These collections contain about forty different formulars.
  13. To appreciate this look at each of the documents.