In defence of the autonomy and external identity of the Capuchins








(1536 – 1641)



from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, volume I, pages 1197-1202.

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

3. In defence of the autonomy and external identity of the Capuchins

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

To give an idea of the tenacity with which the Major Superiors defended the autonomy and reputation of the Capuchin Reform we present the following “Memoir” which can be found amongst the few old historical documents in the general Archives. The document contains no date. However, it gives us a good idea of the historical situation that prevailed. It was undoubtedly written after the Council of Trent, that is after 1563, since the text makes mention of the Decree in which the Council approved the Capuchin Reform. The memoir was probably composed in 1596 when some people in Rome were trying to have the Capuchins amalgamated to the Observants or the Conventuals. Fr Marco Fabiano da Mercato Saraceno, who was the Vicar General at the time, was making his canonical visitation in Sicily. When he returned to Rome, he immediately intervened in the matter by speaking to the Cardinals who supported the Capuchins and wrote this memoir which, as the heading states, was addressed to each one of these Cardinals. The copy that is held in the Archives is the original copy. We believe that it was signed by Fabiani and that this makes it more valuable.

What it contains clearly displays the contemporary mentality. It claims that the arguments that were used to defend the separation of the Capuchins were “inspired” by St Francis. It makes use of an argument “ad hominem” by recalling that the Council of Constanza had allowed the Observants to break away from the Conventuals to observe the Rule more strictly. Now the Capuchins were asking for the same thing. They wanted to break away from the Observants for various reasons which, at that time, appeared to have juridical and psychological repercussions. For example: the General should come from the ranks of the reformed friars; it should not be possible “to dispense without legitimate cause” from the observance of the Rule, and, what is more, nobody should be able to stop a friar from “living a stricter way of life.”

In any case, the tone of the memoir is one of anxiety. It is not harsh. Fabiano did not want this memoir to be “cast aside.” It would be enough if Pius V looked at it calmly and put the friars at ease.

Memoir of the Capuchin Friars concerning the shape of their habit

Your Most Illustrious and Reverend Lordship

1104 The shape of the habit that we Capuchin friars use is based on the habit worn by St Francis and everyone in the Order since the time of Pope John XXII, which is about forty years after the death of St Bonaventure. You can see countless pictures of this in the Chronicles of the Order.[1] In France there is a habit with a hood which they say that St Francis was wearing when he received the stigmata. At La Verna the Observant friars, and in Assisi the Conventuals, have some of the habits of the companions of St Francis and these habits have a hood. At Borgo San Sepolcro Blessed Rainiero was buried in a habit with a hood. He died thirty years after the death of St Bonaventure. In S. Giovanni Laterano and in the large chapel there are images of St Francis and St Anthony wearing a hood. There are two other hooded friars beneath them and the year which shows that this was twenty years after the death of St Bonaventure. Some wanted to ruin these artefacts but miraculously they were rebuffed three times, whereupon the Supreme Prontif said: “Cease, cease, lest the saints be displeased”. In commemoration of this you can still see the marks of a hammer on the hood. In S. Maria Maggiore you can still see four hooded friars with writings like those of St John. In Bergamo and in S. Maria Maggiore you can see St Bonaventure wearing a hood even though this was painted forty years after he died. In Spain and in Italy you can find seals that show religious wearing a hood.[2]

We want to do this because this mode of dress has been used by our father St Francis, and all the friars for many years. We have used it since the time of Pope Clement to the present because it had not been forbidden. Past Supreme Pontiffs have approved it with Bulls and the Council of Trent has called us the Capuchin Friars of St Francis. We hope that you will not withdraw what the Council and past Pontiffs have granted since this is not something that we have invented, but something done by our Father St Francis. Some lie, saying that the hood started with Bernadino da Siena, when they existed long before that.[3]

1105 During the Council some friars who were zealous asked to move away from the Conventuals because the friars were wearing strange habits, wearing shoes when it was not necessary, riding on horseback when it was not necessary, accepting money on altars and elsewhere in the church, living in friaries that are like palaces, possessing extra valuable paraphernalia and church vestments contrary to our vow of poverty, storing more grain and wine than they need and then selling it.[4] All of this goes against the precepts in our Rule which bind under pain of mortal sin as the Supreme Pontiffs , especially Nicholas III and Clement V, have stated. The sacred Council allowed Observant friars to move away from the Conventuals so that they could observe these precepts. We Capuchins have moved away from the Observants because they are no longer observing what they promised at the Holy Council as is obvious when they wear shoes and ride horses unnecessarily, do not wear shabby clothes, accept money on altars and in other places, live in friaries that are like palaces, use expensive paraphernalia and church vestments against the poverty that we have professed, and store wine not only to nourish life but to sell. We wish to be allowed to move away from them to observe these precepts as we are obliged to do by the vow we have made at our profession, something that these friars are not doing. May we receive approval just as they received approval.[5]

1106 During the pontificate of Leo X it was laid down that the Minister General had to be a friar who lived a strict way of life and who was elected by friars who lived a strict way of life, otherwise the election was void and invalid. The Minister General of the Observants does not live a strict way of life and was not elected by friars who live a strict way of life. Therefore, according to the Bull issued by Leo X his election appears to be void and invalid.[6] He wanted the Minister General to be someone who was living a strict way of life so that he would inspire others to live a strict way of life. A crocked object does not cast an upright shadow. Therefore, it was desirable that the leader of the Order was someone who lived a strict way of life and was elected by those who were living a strict way of life.[7]

What is more in the Bull of union His Holiness Leo X stated that the General and the Provincials of the Observants personally or through a Commission, were not to intervene in the conduct or government of the Conventual Friars, or to exercise any jurisdiction over them. We Capuchins also desire that the General and the Ministers of the Observants not be given the right to conduct a Visitation or to intervene in our administration, or to have any jurisdiction over us, since they would pressure us to emulate them and they would persecute us if they had the authority. Undoubtedly, they would ruin us quickly just as they have ruined some of their own friars.[8]

1107 The kind of austere life that we Capuchins live is imposed by the vow we took. According to many theologians and canonist, it cannot be laid aside except for a legitimate reason, alias dispensatio esset dissipatio. If somebody who asked to be dispensed from the vows is granted what he asks, how much more should somebody who asks to observe the vows be granted what he requests. St Thomas stated that a Prelate should not deny permission to a subject who desired to progress ad arctionem vitam [towards a stricter life].[9] Surely a prelate should not prevent a subject from living a stricter way of life. We wish that you consider [how] the obligation to observe the Rule is in accord with the declarations of the Supreme Pontiffs. If we are mistaken, we submit to correction and punishment immediately. However, if you acknowledge that we are observing what we have vowed and following the Rule, we desire that you protect us and grant what we ask so that we may persevere to the end.

So that what we ask might not be misunderstood, we beg you to choose some wise and educated people or prelates, who understand the Rule, the vows and what we have professed, and who are familiar with the declarations of the Supreme Pontiffs and other documents, to make an honest assessment of what we are asking. In all of this we place ourselves in total subjection at the feet of Your Holiness.[10]

  1. Mario a Mercato Saraceno will say a lot about this in his third Relazione which is entitled Narratione dell’origine della congregatione de’ frati capuccini. Cf. MHOC 1, 89-157.
  2. All these points were used by the ancient Capuchin historians.
  3. Other accusations that were often raised by their adversaries are systematically rejected by the Capuchin historians and by Mario Fabiano himself. Cf. MHOC. 1, 82. 309, 458s.
  4. These thoughts were presented in the booklet entitled Quaderimoniae that was presented at the Council. It can be read in Spec. Minorum, Venetiis 1513, f. 151rb-158ra, or other similar collections.
  5. This ad hominem style of argumentation was also used in the memoir against the Observants.
  6. The Bull Ite et vos which was issued by Leo X can be seen in AM XVI 42-48 and AIA (1858) 333-353. Cf. P. J. Meseguer Fernandez, La bulla ‘Ite et vos’ (29 de mayo de 1512) y la reforma cisneriana, in AIA cit. 339.
  7. This is what he said: “Volumus et declaramus sub nomine reformatorum ac pure et simpliciter Regulam sancti Francisci huiusmodi observantium …” (ibid., 345).
  8. This was so true that s early as 1595 Pius V had to command the Ministers to erect a house of recollection in every Province. Cf. the Brief Inunctum nobis, in Orbis seraphicus II, 459s.
  9. This is the strongest argument that the Capuchins invoked in their defence.
  10. Such conformity and obedience to what the Pope says was a fundamental characteristic of the reform movement. It was emphasised by Bernardino d’Asti in the previous memoir.