Defence and Endorsement of the Capuchin way of Life: Introduction




(1536 – 1641)



a work of

from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, volume I, pages 1177-1182.

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap


The first decades of the existence of the Capuchin Reform were plagued by lack of confidence and uncertainty which was only moderately reduced by the legal protection afforded by Religionis zelus, the Papal Bull of approval. There were doubts not only concerning the future survival of the Reform, but also regarding how such an idyllic way of life could be maintained.

A deep feeling of uncertainty manifest itself when Matteo da Bascio chose to undertake on his own itinerant preaching and thereby, unconsciously, brought the Reform into public view, without being able to claim that this was why it had been founded.

Another wave of uncertainty arose when Ludovico Tenaglia da Fossombrone, boldly and skilfully, brought the “scattered branches” together, placing them under the official supervision of the Church and giving an initial social and communal tone to the life of the reform, but left the early friars without any precise planning as they were about to expand throughout the peninsula.

There was uncertainty not only about the official charism of the Order, but also because there was fluctuation between the emphasis placed on living the life of a hermit without any contact with people, without being involved in the grand ceremonies that were held in large religious houses, without undertaking the studies undertaken by Church leaders, and the emphasis that was placed on the demanding apostolate of preaching.

Eventually this state of uncertainty was revealed in attempting to find a balance between the new recruits coming to the Order, predominantly from the ranks of the Observants. The problems at hand were numerous and required concrete choices. In the structure of self-sustenance, there was first a tendency towards manual work and then it swayed towards questing. Many opportunities arose in the field of the apostolate and many of these became permanent functions in the Order. Friars were called to serve in hospitals, to work in schools, to develop catechetical schools for children and adults, to look for places for orphans and children who had been abandoned, to assist poor people by questing or helping in institutes that had been set up in the town such as monti di pietà, and to establish confraternities for devout people. In addition to this their preaching had to be supported by serious academic preparation that involved “devout” but serious study.

We know that the influx of very lively observant friars produced a new wave of inspiration which although it caused some conflict at first eventually developed into gentle accord with what already existed.

What emerged was a well-ordered modus vivendi that was guaranteed and clarified by drawing on a variety of Franciscan approaches. This was expressed clearly in the 152 paragraphs of the 1536 Constitutions which were obviously the copious fruit of compromise and spiritual discernment, both by individuals and the community.

In 1526 and in 1550/51 Bernardino d’Asti, who was a master at collecting the various approaches, sent his Memoriale (doc. 1-2) to the Holy See. He not only intended to defend a modus vivendi that he understood as being “an austere way of life, the perfect way to follow Christ, and Blessed Francis, a closer union with Christ, a purer way to observe Christ’s counsels and those contained in the Rule.” (doc. 1, n. 1079). The Observants who entered the Reform were the symbol and epitome of this. To stop them entering would have impoverished, indeed suffocated, the innovative way of Capuchin life. “The Holy Spirit witnesses to this”. It would have extinguished “ambitions to attain the greatest charisms.” It would have obstructed “a stricter way of life” and that would be contradictory to “ecclesiastical prescriptions” and “divine law.” (doc 2, nn. 1102-1103). Although there was a gap in time between the two documents, but the fact that the content is substantially the same shows the importance of the topic and that, in other circumstances, it might have been easily resolved.

The Memoriale of Mario da Mercato Saraceno which he submitted in 1589 (doc. 3), focusses the justification of the Capuchin modus vivendi on protecting their choice of “the way to dress” because they were convinced that they were doing so in imitation of St Francis. Fabiani said that because the habit was poor it clearly demonstrated “the austere nature of the way we Capuchins live” (n. 1107). This is evident because fifty-three years later the Procurator General, Girolamo da Castelferretti had to speak to the Pope once again to defend the way the Capuchins were dressed. He said that their way of dressing was a treasure that should not be stolen by anyone else because it was intangible private property. The habit was different because of the parts that were spread throughout its length from top to bottom: the hood, the tunic, the mantle, the cord, and the sandals. It became the unmistakable symbol of the Capuchins, a sign of their literal fidelity to an evangelical way of life which was based on the “five precious gems and what had been left to us by our father St Francis and which we have kept since the beginning of our Reform to the present day.” (doc. 6, n. 1110). Because the habit resembles the cross of Christ the five gems shine like wounds in the man who has been called to be crucified with Christ.

It would take a long time to gather all the little crumbs of documentary evidence that defended this Capuchin way of life during the first century of the existence of the Order. We prefer to dwell on two writings which were written about the same time and are well qualified to represent the mentality within the Order in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The authors of these works are very different in their educational backgrounds and because of this they are more important.

The first author was Celestino Colleoni da Bergamo (+ 1635) a Capuchin from the ancient Province of Brescia. He was born in Martinengo. In his historical journals Bonari described him as being “a seventeenth century historian from Bergamo.” [1] He was a knowledgeable collector and commentator on ancient documents that delt with the city and Diocese of Bergamo. He had a taste for the kind of local historical research that characterised the Capuchins from Lombardy. He wrote about them in one of the chapters of his book: Histoia quadripartita di Bergamo in which he dealt with their friaries, the origin of the friars and what habit they wore. This chapter was written in 1617. In 1622 the content of this chapter was used to compose a booklet. He returned to the topic in the thirties when he composed a large manuscript that was probably his last work.[2]

However, what is more interesting is the way in which he refers to the Capuchins as being “the genuine heirs and sons of St Francis.” (doc. 7). It was a gentle but candid rejoinder to what Francesco Gonzaga had written in De origine seraphicae religionis franciscanae in 1587 which implied that only the Observants had the right to be called “genuine heirs and sons of St Francis.”

Unintentionally the debate became interesting because of a phrase in the Capuchin Constitutions. Colleoni based his observations of an expression in n. 6 in the Constitutions. “If we are sons of St Francis let us do what St Francis did.” Therefore, without referring to who was a Conventual, Observant or Capuchin, only the person who does what St Francis did is his true and genuine son. The Poverello wanted the Rule to be observed ad litteram and this is what the Capuchins are doing. Therefore, they are the true sons of St Francis and no one can deprive them of this “honour.”

This was the situation in the early days. What was important was to prove that the Capuchins “were not satisfied to observe the Rule literally, as the were doing already, but that they were trying to do much more by doing what their father intended them to do,” as set out in number 6 of the Constitutions where it says: “We command that everyone should try to imitate what our father said … not only in the Rule and Testament, but in his fervent words and loving actions.” Based on this proposition there developed a debate about the meaning of the intentions of St Francis as they were portrayed in in the Book of conformities by the Pisan, from what Bonaventure wrote, in the declarations of Nicholas III and Clement V, in the Chronicles of Giovanni da Fano and in the Capuchin Constitutions.

In reply to the accusation that the Capuchins had walked out of the Order which was governed by the Minister General of the Observants, Colleoni replied by citing the Bulls of Clement VII, Paul III, and Paul V. Regarding other critical points including the habit and the name of the Order, he based what he asserted on the Brief of Paul V as well as the Decree of the Council of Trent. Indeed, the various alternatives in the Capuchin modus vivendi were set out clearly in the early Constitutions.

The second author was probably an anonymous Capuchin friar who had been a Franciscan in the Province of Lione. He might have come from Slovenia as can be seen from the fictitious name, Benito Combasson, which appears on the manuscript. The work bears the title: Vera et dilucida explicatio praesentis status totius seraphicae fratrum minorum religionis. It was aimed at more specific events rather than issues that were to develop latter. It focuses mainly on the reasons why the Capuchin Reform, which was then flourishing, had succeeded, while not neglecting to mention other Franciscan reforms. (doc. 8).

In order to demonstrate that the Capuchins live a very strict version of the Franciscan modus vivendi he used a method that was like the method used by Colleoni. He made a comparison between the way St Francis lived and how the Capuchins ought to live. However, what is new and interesting about the book is that it sets out various points regarding how “by preserving the purity of seraphic discipline the Capuchins have grown in number’’. The anonymous author gives four main reasons. In his judgement, they constitute the “four pillars” of the Capuchin Reform. Today we could say that they are made up of 1) a very good initial and ongoing formation programme, 2) superiors who were really inspiring, 3) the emphasis placed on contemplation, 4) seclusion and detachment from the world. These four points form a coherent image of Capuchin life, its stability and each of them should be considered carefully.

  1. Cf. I conventi ed I cappuccini bergamaschi, Memorie storiche, Milano 1883, 73s.
  2. This manuscript is held in the Bibl., Civica di Bergamo with the shelf mark Gabinetto fila I, 17 e 18 (autografo e copia per la stampa). It is entitled Pieno ragguaglio intorno al vestire di S. Francesco e dell’Ordine suo, ed intorno al cominciamento, vestire, accrescimento e propagazione per lo mondo dei Frati dell’Ordine d’esso padre San Francesco, appellati Cappuccini, nel quale si contengono molte cose deghe da sapersi da’ devote, da’ studiosi e da’ curiosi. Concerning Celestino da Bergamo see also Palma Marco, Clestino da Bergamo (+ 14. 3. 1635) in DBI23 (179) 415s.