Spiritual and Social Life of the Capuchins in France





a work of

I Frati Cappuccini, Documenti e Testimonianze del Primo Secolo. A work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1992, volume IV, pages 171-177.

Translated by Lam Vu OFM Cap

Here for original text in Italian

With the protection of the Queen-Mother Caterina de’ Medici, the Italian Capuchins, from 1575 onwards, were able to establish themselves in French territory, starting from Paris. After an initial governance by the ‘Milanese’ friars, under the guidance of Mattia Bellintani da Salò,[1] a great preacher and spiritual writer particularly on the practice of mental prayer, starting from 1578 the Minister General Girolamo da Montefiore (1575-1581) entrusted the direction of the Capuchins in France to the friars of the Marche. They were known for their Capuchin-Franciscan intergralism, of which the General himself was a typical example. Prominent among them were Anselmo da Tiano, the first General Commissary in Paris; Bernardo d’Osimo, Minister Provincial from 1581, Giuliano da Camerino, Master of novices at the friary of Saint-Honoré, Felice da Lapedona, future co-founder of the Capuchins in Belgium and formator of candidates, and finally, Girolamo da Castelferretti, Guardian in Paris, later Provincial Minister and finally Minister General for eight years.

The reference to this ‘Marche’[2] line is important to better understand the austere standard of living and distinctly mystical spirituality of the early French Capuchins of the Province of Paris, as well as, somewhat later, the early Belgian Capuchins, many of whom trained first in France.

Writing about Onorato Champigny da Parigi (novitiate companion of Benet of Canfield), Angelo da Joyeuse, Arcangelo Ripaut da Pembrock and Leonardo da Parigi in the year 1587, while Giuliano da Camerino was Novice Master, Girolamo da Castel-ferretti Guardian, and Bernardo d’Osimo Provincial, J. Mauzaize summarizes his analytical research on the Province of Paris as follows:

“The rigidly eremitical inspiration of the origins had given way to a more apostolic commitment, and quite a few of the “poor hermits” of the origins had revealed themselves to be fervent orators and brilliant controversialists. The number of religious grew continuously: 111 in 1596, 173 in 1599, and, according to statistics presented to the General Chapter, in 1602 there were 308 friars in France, dispersed in 16 friaries and apportioned as follows: 126 priests, of whom 30 were preachers, 83 students, and 99 brothers. The reason of this success is to be found in their austere life […]. France felt their need acutely because of the luxury and profligacy of the last of the Valois, which had fostered misery and moral turmoil.

Little by little their charitable activity made them popular: fires, famines, epidemics, as well as their preaching and love for the poor, won them the trust and sympathy of the people.

The part they played in the movement of spiritual renewal that occurred in the first thirty years of the seventeenth century and the work they did for the reform of the monasteries caused an increase in numerous vocations to their communities from every social class: nobility of spirit and blood, middle-class men, and men with wads of money, intellectuals and humanists. Such was the Province of Paris when, in 1587, Carlo Bochart de Champigny asked to be admitted among the Capuchins.”[3]

Elsewhere the author especially mentions the practice of daily meditation lived and preached by the Capuchins among the people. It responded greatly to the need for interiority then strongly felt as a reaction to the many political-religious wars. By means of this practice, open to the mystical experience of God, the early French Capuchins contributed profoundly to the creation of the great golden century, the seventeenth century, which at the end of the sixteenth century was precisely beginning, among other things, in the Parisian circle of Madame Acarie, where the young De Bérulle, the Beaucousin Carthusian and the English Capuchin Benet of Canfield gathered.[4]

After the Council of Trent, during the Counter-Reformation, the Church considered the Capuchins, alongside the Jesuits, as a renewing force in countries threatened by Protestantism and as apostles of the countryside abandoned by Renaissance culture, including ecclesiastical. And civil governments hailed them as valuable collaborators in the times of desolation of frequent epidemics. This healthcare was one of the most convincing reasons for bringing the Capuchins from Italy to countries beyond the Alps, such as France, Belgium, and Holland. And the sacrifice of many hundreds of brothers who gave their lives in this generous service to suffering humanity was not in vain.[5]

As far as spirituality is concerned, we are dealing with a mysticism very similar to that of the early Capuchins in Italy. They, coming to France and Belgium, undoubtedly brought there this precise climate. It is in fact a ‘mystical’ spiritual observance of the evangelical Rule, inspired particularly by Chapters 5 and 10 of the Regula Bullata, where it speaks of the spirit of prayer to which all temporal things must be subject, and of the Spirit of the Lord, desirable above all else and who devoutly promotes the spirit and life of prayer with a pure heart and gives patience and humility in suffering and persecution.

The ‘spiritual’ observance, simple and pure, as we read in the Testament of Francis of Assisi, under the influence of the Holy Spirit leads the soul to intimate union, even mystical, with our Lord Jesus Christ, poor, humble and crucified, Son of the Father, God-Man.

This Christocentric-Trinitarian mysticism, which can be called Franciscan, is also strongly influenced by the modern Devotion and the so-called Nordic school, whose main leaders are Henry van Herp, John Ruusbroec, John Tauler etc., which in turn depend on the Bonaventurian and Ubertinian current.[6] The direct historical links are Bartolomeo Cordoni da Città di Castello and Giovanni Pili da Fano, without forgetting Margherita Porete, whose Specchio delle anime semplici was highly esteemed by them.[7]

In this mysticism, on whose orthodoxy today one can make a positive judgment, there was however a serious risk of excessive passivity and naive “quietistic” enlightenment for those who were not well prepared and guided. This danger had already manifested itself among the early Capuchins, particularly in the period of Ludovico da Fossombrone and Bernardino Ochino. The first exaggerated the hermitic-contemplative aspect, the other neglected prayer and works of penance, relying on faith-trust alone.[8] In France and Belgium this sublime mysticism, not without somewhat ambiguous results, arises and develops around the person and doctrine of Benet of Canfield (doc. 1) and his followers.

And just as in Italy, particularly in the climate of the counter-reformist and anti-Protestant ‘Tridentine’ Church, there was no lack of criticism against this ‘Nordic’ spiritual current, and the same happened in the Capuchin Order, so too in France and the Netherlands the anti-mystic reaction soon made itself felt. In fact, this high mysticism exposed simple people, those who were not well trained and poorly guided, to great risks in practical life. True mystics, such as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, complained about the lack of spiritual directors and the incomprehension of theologians who distrusted ‘experimental’ mystical terminology.[9]

History demonstrates that the Italian, French and Belgian Capuchins knew how to overcome, although not without difficulty, the risks inherent to their great ideal of reform in the Church and in the world, grounded in the life-giving spirit beyond any literalism that kills.[10]

In Italy the convinced and prudent champion was the Minister General Girolamo Geradoni da Castelferretti, well aware of the problems debated in France and Belgium.[11] In France we find Giuseppe Tremblay da Parigi (doc. 4), Lorenzo da Parigi (doc. 2), Onorato Champigny da Parigi (doc. 3). In the Netherlands Constantino di Barbanson, Cipriano Crousers d’Anversa, Giovanni Evangelista di Bois-le-Duc.[12] These authors in their mystical doctrine try to explain, correct, and adapt Canfield’s doctrine, which was at the centre of the mystical controversy, to people’s practice.

To preserve and continue this mystical tradition in the practice of daily life, a great contribution was made, for example, by Marziale d’Étamps († 1635), who was Novice Master for many years (1614-1634), and author of a highly esteemed manual book (doc. 5). In this way the friars learned to live Francis’ so-called prayer Deus meus et omnia, and the words of the Regula Bullata, chap. 10, which above all valorise ‘the Spirit of the Lord and his holy operation.’

The same goal was understood and proposed by Paolo da Lagny and Giuseppe da Dreux in their books on Conduite intérieure, interior conduct during the Capuchin’s day, of which the central exercise was always to live the pure intention of the will of God, the glory of God, pure love or the presence of God (doc. 7): different words, but fully identical in substance to the spiritual doctrine that Benet of Canfield, Lorenzo da Parigi, Giuseppe da Parigi and Marziale d’Étampes had taught at the beginning of the century in the early days of the Capuchin province of Paris.

Of this Capuchin-Franciscan tradition Bernardino da Parigi in 1665 will give a precise synthesis, based on Chapter 10 of the Regula Bullata and the Capuchin constitutions (doc. 6). We recognise in it especially the mysticism of Giuseppe da Parigi and Onorato da Parigi, but also that of Benet of Canfield and Lorenzo da Parigi, that is, the priority of the spirit over the letter in the life of pure love, a ‘Capuchin’ tradition cultivated from the beginnings of the Order and always preserved, despite the various difficulties encountered.[13]

The secure basis was found in the same constitutions of 1536, in which the ‘spiritual’ observance of the Regula Bullata, in the light of the Testament of Saint Francis and his exemplary life, led to a desire above all for the Spirit of the Lord and his holy operation, and this not only in prayer, but also in the whole life of charity, work and pluriform apostolate. The Spirit, in fact, gives life; the Spirit is Life.[14]

  1. On commissariat of the Bellintani in France cf. above, nn. 9127-9130.
  2. The ‘Marche’ aspect is explicitly mentioned by Godefroy de Paris, particularly in: Les Frères Mineurs Capucins en France III, Paris 1950, 439-461. For the Franciscan integralism of the Capuchins of the Marche, cf. Callisto Urbanelli, Storia dei cappuccini delle Marche I/2, Ancona 1978, 335-351, 411-465, where the authore also highlights the relations with France and Belgium, too often left in the shadows by historiography.
  3. Cf. J. Mauzaize, Padre Onorato da Parigi modello e maestro di vita spirituale, in Santi e santità nell’Ordine cappuccino. I: Il Cinque e il Seicento, edited by Mariano D’Alatri, Rome 1980, 175s.
  4. Cf. J. Mauzaize, La vie des premiers Capucins en France, in La Réforme capucine (1575-1625). Un siècle de Renaissance franciscaine. Sessions de Dinard (November 1982) et de Valpré (April 1983), [Paris 1983], 58s.
  5. Ibid., 54, 57-63.
  6. The intimate relationship of contemplation with chapter 10 of the Regula bullata, which concerns ‘spiritual’ observance and the Spirit of the Lord and his holy operation, returns not infrequently in the first Chronicles of the Capuchin Order, as in Bernardino da Colpetrazzo and Paolo da Foligno (cf. MHOC II, 400; III, 18, 174-176; VII, 173s). On the relationships between the early Capuchins and the ‘Nordic’ current, cf. Optatus van Asseldonk, La rèforme des frères mineurs capucins dans l’Ordre franciscain et dans l’Eglise, in CF 35 (1965) 55-70; id., Frères Mineurs: IV. Spiritualité franciscaine aux 16e et 17e siècles (Age d’or des capucins), in Dict. Spi. V, Paris 1962-1964, 1347-1391; id., La spiritualité franciscaine du 16° au 18° siècle, in Laurent. 21 (1980) 94-109.
  7. The relationships between Bartolomeo Cordoni, Margherita Porete and the early Capuchins is discovered by C. Cargnoni, Fonti, tendenze e sviluppi della letteratura spirituale cappuccina primitiva, in CF 48 (1978) 311-398; id., L’apostolato dei cappuccini come «redundantia di amore», in IF 53 (1979) 569-593. For an overall study of the ‘Franciscan-Capuchin’ Trinitarian Christo-centrism which starts from Francis and, through Saint Bonaventure and Ubertino da Casale, reaches the early Capuchins in Italy, France and Belgium cf. Optatus van Asseldonk, François d’Assise, imitateur du Christ crucifié, Dieu-Homme, dans la tradition franciscaine et capucine, in CF 52 (1982) 117-143; id., Le Christ crucifié, Dieu-Homme, dans la doctrine de Benoît de Canfield, in Laurent. 24 (1983) 328-430.
  8. This historical fact among the early Capuchins has not been highlighted much so far. For this reason we give here the main sources obtained from the Major Chronicles of the Order, i.e. from Bernardino Croli da Colpetrazzo, Mattia Bellintani da Salò and Paolo Vitelleschi da Foligno: cf. MHOC II, 24 n. 4, 211-221, 387389, 400; III, 18, 31, 76-80, 174-176, 185-189, 250s, 2585, 290, 3415, 404-406; IV, 14, 1835, 189-191; V, 151; VII, 172-174, 435-437. From these texts we can clearly see in some friars the tendency to escape the community life of prayer and work under the pretext of wanting to live as solitary hermits in the ‘desert,’ entrusting themselves more passively to contemplation. C. Cargnoni informs us about the special case of Ochino and followers, both in the studies already indicated in the previous note and in the Dict. Spirt. XI, Paris 1982, 576-590 (see Ochino).
  9. A brief summary of the European ‘mystical’ situation in the 16th-17th centuries, with the fundamental bibliography, can be found in the study by Optatus van Asseldonk, Le Christ crucifté cit., 331-333. On the danger of a pre-quietist ‘enlightenment’ cf. Dict. Spir. VII/2, Paris 1971, 1367-1391 (E. De la Virgen del Carmen). The main problem was the relationship between meditation (much appreciated) and ‘active’ and ‘passive’ or mystical contemplation, particularly in reference to man’s personal collaboration under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. See also R. Guarnieri, Frères du libre esprit, in Dict. Spir. V, Paris 1962-1964, 1241-1268. However, the very severe judgment on the movement is questionable. The role of Porete is also discussed.
  10. For Italian Capuchins see the studies by C. Cargnoni already indicated; for the Capuchin ‘mystical’ problem that arose at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the Italian-French-Belgian relations in this regard, consult specialized studies, for example those of Dagens, Cognet, Orcibal, Hildebrand da Hooglede, Porteman, Gullick, Mommaers, Martin, indicated in the studies of Optatus van Asseldonk, La spiritualé franciscaine cit., 98-103; Le Christ crucifié cit., 331-339. This problem, then of ‘European’ scope, was studied with great interest even outside the Capuchin Order. The main studies will be indicated later, dealing concretely with individual spiritual authors. Even today this ‘Christological’ problem is at the centre of mystical attention, without having so far received a satisfactory solution. That is, it is about the essential role of Christ, God-Man, for all spiritual life, including mystical life. It seems appropriate to mention at this point the famous study by H. Bremond, Histoire du sentiment religieux en France, which has the merit of having first discovered the presence and importance of the Capuchins in the French golden age. Today we are able to better appreciate and illustrate the ‘European’ importance of this original intuition of his.
  11. The important role played in this regard by Girolamo da Castelferretti does not appear in the Chronicles of the Capuchin Order, where his extraordinary prudence, justice and wisdom are generally revealed, together with his zeal for poverty and penance, accompanied by a fraternal-maternal concern. Cf. Antonio Olgiati da Como, Annali dell’Ordine de’ Frati Minori Cappuccini 1II/2, Milan 1711, 482-496.
  12. About these authors see further on in section II, docs. 9, 18 and 19.
  13. The fundamental bibliography will be indicated for each author, before the individual testimonies. For the general context of the time, it is very useful the Dict. Spir. V, 891-953 (France: 16th-18th centuries); XII/1, Paris 1984, 713-755 (Pays-Bas: 16-18 centuries), entries edited by P. Mommaers, where the ‘Capuchin’ role is well explained.
  14. A brief summary of the spirituality of the French Capuchins and of some main authors, such as Benet of Canfield, Lorenzo da Parigi, Giuseppe da Parigi and Marziale d’Étampes can be found in the essay by Optatus van Asseldonk, L’identité spirituelle des Capucins en France, in La Réforme capucine en France (1575-1625) cit., 65-82, where, however, some elements added here are missing. — For a more detailed study of this theme which characterized the research of Optatus (da Veghel) van Asseldonk, see his two massive volumes, published in Rome in 1985, entitled: La lettera e lo spirito. Tensione vitale nel francescanesimo ieri e oggi (n.d.E).