Traditions and Customs of the Provinces and Noviciate




(1536 – 1641)



a work of

from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, volume I, pages 1281-1292.

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

As it says in the Avertimenti o istruzzione per la raccolta della materia delle Croniche cappuccine those who examined the life of the Order and wrote its history had to first “question the old friars,” “who had been involved in teaching, administration and had experience.” They had to persist in questioning “one of the old competent friars,” from whom “they could “realistically expect to receive information about many things, if they asked three times and jogged his memory to tell them what it would take more than an hour to write down.” [1] From the very beginning they adopted the following verses from the canticle of Moses as their model:

Remember the days of old. Think upon every generation. Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will tell you.[2]

A wise man who was part of this tradition based what he said on two points: what he had learnt from elderly friars and what he had experienced in the noviciate.

From the time that the Capuchins who lived in the Marches adopted a particular style of Capuchin life they not only gave birth to the reform but also gave it stability and a chance to develop.[3] We would like to begin by quoting a few evocative pages that were written by Bernardino da Orciano (+ 1622) when he described “how the early Capuchins lived in the Marches.” (doc. 1).

“Our old friars said” is a phrase that he repeats with some variations. “When he got old Br Eusebio Pardini d’Anona, used to say;” “Br Batista da Statte who was a trustworthy lay brother said;” “a very old lay brother called Antonio d’Apignano told me;” “many friars told me and in particular Br Cipriano da Sestino, a lay brother who had lived a holy life said;” “I often listened to our elderly friars;” and so on.

These pages are filled with details of daily Capuchin life concerning “the clothes that they wore” when they first practiced this “obedience,” the “austerity of the early friars,” their practice of poverty, their life in common, their life of prayer, their work and corporal penances, the frugal way in which they used what they had, their attention to little things, the way that they formed their young members, especially those who were to be ordained.

The parts of the traditions that were passed on “by the old friars” included information about how the noviciate was conducted, the capability of the Novice Master and spiritual direction. This information was taken from what took place among the Capuchins in Lombardy and Venice. It was often expressed in “strong terms”, (doc. 2) and contained the crumbs of evidence that were stuck fast in the memories of the old friars who lived in Venice. Most of all they enable us to understand the practical, simple, concrete, and fruitful way the Novice Masters formed the young religious and the novices using traditional spirituality. They did not stop there. They went on as if they were speaking on behalf of traditional spirituality. A brother who knew what he was talking about said that he had gathered what they said “so that it would not be lost but would be preserved for posterity so that whoever was looking for the truth would find it.” This meant that what they said was the voice of truth.

Giorgio da Venezia, who was the friar who was assigned to collect these things undoubtedly had to observe what was stated in the Istruzzione that we have just cited which said that “what had to be investigated and collected were the facts that best illustrated the observance of the Holy Rule, the Constitutions and the good practices within the Order and how this contributed to the formation of a perfect Capuchin.” One of these features was “what pertained to teaching about moral and mystical matters. I am not just referring to what was taught but also to how it was passed on and shared by means of spiritual meditation and how this was demonstrated in the lives of Blessed Egidio and Giacopone.”[4] The chronicles stressed this as a means of getting to know “the sayings and deeds of the desert fathers” and the maxims of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

Although, at times, these “terse sayings” test our comprehension because they are full of deep spirituality, they express what constitutes the essence of the spiritual life in simple, everyday words in a language that is clear and, at times, quite plain, but always full of wisdom, and very rich and pure. Some passages are very realistic such as the one that speaks about a tepid friar who lived “in a box of padding”, or about the “crude friar who is a monster,” or the extremely finicky friar who “can bite like a snake,” or superiors who “instead of inspiring their subjects with cotton wool do so with solid iron disguised as charity,” and who can assume “the appearance of an angel but are ferocious beasts or lions who are ready to strike any who offend,” or young friars who do not walk in the way of perfection because “if it does not fit in with what the crowd are doing,” or the worldly friar “who is like an empty bottle that is giving off a bad odour,” or the friar who complains “who sounds like a dog who is barking whose mouth is always filled with blood”, and so on. These are all expression that need to be carefully considered.

With all of this we come to appreciate the skill of the ancient Novice Masters and the way that they taught. The same friar described this in another document. (doc. 3). The Master had to be an outstanding member of the Order, who was able to offer material that was genuinely “Franciscan,” that did not only contain theoretical expositions, but included practical examples to illustrate how the values and the virtues could be put into practice. For the most part he should draw on tradition more than providing a theoretical analysis of a virtue. His explanations ought to be brief whereas the practice of the virtue should be continuous. Note the descriptive phrases that are used: the ancient masters were “enlightened from within,” “self-effaced,” intelligent, had special knowledge, solitary, assiduous in prayer, prudent “and were very committed to teaching, capable of spiritual discernment, “kind, strict yet sweet, discrete, affable and caring”. To have such qualities a person had to be strong, level-headed, and mature which are attributes that are rather rare. If they had Masters like this the novices were not pampered like little babies. Indeed, they were put to the test through constant works of mortification and “penance” which has been noted by all those who have studied these times.

The old noviciates followed a strong and effective procedure to cultivate humility by providing opportunities to practice humility. The novice was taught how to meditate by engaging in meditation for hours during the day and during the night. This has been described in two interesting texts. One of these deals with the customs in the Province of Venice and the other, which is shorter, deals with what Mattia Bellintani da Salὸ did when he was teaching young students in Bohemia.

The first text, which was composed by Mattia da Padua, describes “how our old friars formed the novices.” (doc. 4). The “procedures adopted by our old and contemporary friars to combat human pride and to prepare people for heaven,” were carried out mainly in the refectory. The superior imposed the penances “with agreeable gentle severity” and the rest carried them out “with a smile on their face” at least sometimes. They were being asked to practice obedience in a radical manner in imitation of some of the events in the life of St Francis. They became used to “fervent, frequent prayer” based on Christ’s Passion, and learnt “how to be a still as a stone,” so that “they appeared to be wishing that it would never end.” They were very attentive to works of charity and competed with one another to be the first to beg pardon, even for whatever was not their fault, to the point that “some of our good old friars would go looking for the young friars to seek forgiveness after they had gone back to their cells so that seemed to be like Magdalene at the feet of Christ.” The silence was profound and so that they would not disturb anyone when they walked along the corridor “they walked in bare feet, carrying their sandals.” They prayed in their cells and to foster recollection they “closed the windows.”

The same thing took place in the method used by Bellintani (doc. 5). He made the young friars perform works of penance when people from court and civic leaders were present to abolish “mental pride.” He urged them to outdo each other to be the first one to come into the choir and to arrive at other penitential exercises.

What took place during these penitential exercises was based on “the chapter of faults.” We shall present two outlines of how this was done, each of which represents different Capuchin traditions (doc. 6), one based on what happened in central Italy and Lombardy and the other on what “a spiritual director did quite successfully”. (doc. 7).

However, to fully appreciate what went on and what was the spirit in an ancient Capuchin noviciate we should read a genuine record of what went on in the noviciate that is preserved at Bologna in the biblioteca dell’ Archiginnasio. There is a copy of this document in the local Capuchin Provincial archives. The author was Bertolomeo Vecchi da Bologna (+ 1628) who was Master of Novices at Cesena for many years.[5] (doc. 8). It was written in Italian. This is important because it meant that it was more available to many people. In fact, the author usually wrote in Latin. His only published work was in Latin and it dealt with various legal matters pertaining to receiving novices, absolution from censures or impediments, profession, and the possibility of transferring to another Order, etc.[6] Some of his other works, which are all in Latin, deal with the Franciscan Rule, a commentary on the sixth and seventh chapters which solved some legal questions.[7]

Since it was written by a different author who had only glanced at the other accounts, the Cerimoniale of the Noviciate paints a slightly different picture. It goes far beyond the usual contents of a manual and this makes it interesting to read. It is hard to find a text that delves more closely into the details of the daily of life in the ancient Capuchin Noviciate. It deals with more than the religious milieu of a friary and goes on to explore documents which contain information about many aspects of the lives of the poor people who lived in the towns at the beginning of the seventeenth century, describing their lack of resources, the little that they possessed and the heavy workload that left them exhausted.

The manuscript contains eighteen chapters which describe the life of a novice from the time that he rings “the doorbell” of the Noviciate, “wearing lay clothes,” to when he makes his profession at the end of the “year of probation” and is sent to live with other newly-professed friars in another friary. If you even just flip through the pages of the first Capuchin records of the lives of the Novices and the Noviciate, you will see great differences in different friaries. Usually, they focus on the spiritual, devotional, and mystical atmosphere in the Noviciate. The first booklets appeared in France composed by the Servant of God Onorato da Parigi and by “His Grey Eminence” at the beginning of the seventeenth century.[8] The first one published in Italy seems to have been the one written by Zaccaria da Milano in 1646.[9] A highly successful booklet by Pietro da Aliga was published in Spain, in the Province of Aragona. He wrote it for Capuchin novices and it first appeared in 1650.[10] There is also another edition that was published in the Seventeenth and again in the Nineteenth Centuries.[11]

When he wrote about the formation of young Capuchin friars, Onorato da Parigi insisted that Novice Masters should be experts in spiritual discernment so that they could deliver in-depth lectures in the Academie évangelique, which was the title he adopted for his book. He knew how to combine theory with practice, work with prayer and by identifying Calvary as the place where Christ established the heavenly classroom, he connected deep mysticism and the formation programme which was primarily the work of God in the soul and was being supported by the activity of the Master. Therefore, the fundamental point in all his lessons was that affective mental prayer ought to be an exercise of love. The Novice ought to be like a new convert who was entering into the interior life by experiencing a change of life, feeling sorry for his sins, passions, and inordinate affections, especially those that were deliberate and thus became mortal sins, and crucifying all his exterior and interior affections. He placed special emphasis on complete poverty which was assumed to achieve union with God. After completing the practices of the penitential life, the Novice entered the way of life of the virtues to “restore the image of God in his soul” and, endowered with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to purify and cleanse the lower and higher faculties of his soul. Through continual meditation on Christ’s sufferings and death, which was the most effective exercise in the spiritual life of a Novice, the period of probation should form his spirit to be transformed into the image of Christ both internally and externally.[12]

In his Introduction à la vie spirituelle Giuseppe Tremblay proposed a similar method to his Novices. He said that above all it consisted in acquiring both the theory and practice of the exercise of meditation and that this was the main activity of a Novice. He said that the Master should adopt a “stile affective” combined with enlightened discernment of spirit. The novice should practice prayer and meditation to experience union of spirit with God. Like young eagles, Novices should become used to gazing at the sun and when in full flight still be able to relax in the light of God. They ought to live a contemplative way of life wishing to unite their will with God’s will, casting off all that is contrary and ardently combatting all imperfection, practice abnegation and self-discipline that will lead to the enjoyment of experiencing the divine perfection “in the palace of the soul” through quiet prayer.

He also said that the Novices should absorb “the joys of the Capuchins who though dying of hunger are alive in the spirit.” He used to say that it was certain that not all Capuchins were called to such a contemplative way of life. However, the Novices should be determined to “become sons of the sublime Francis and like Moses go up the mountain with Jesus Christ to receive, as the Apostle said, not a piece of stone, but a piece of His heart, the glorious sacrifice of the love of His heart.” This is the foundation of the Capuchin apostolate. He wanted the Novice to become an apostle and missionary.[13]

Pietro di Allaga taught that this journey along the road of love which was the essence of the spiritual life to the Novices in Tarazona and Mallorca. What he taught and what is contained in Modo de bien obrar can be summed up when he wrote that everything ought to be done “out of love, for love, in a loving way and in a way that fosters union.”[14]

If we flick through Il giovane cappuccino brevemente instrutio, which was written by Fr Zaccaria da Milano we will find the same thing expressed in language that emphasise devotion and spirituality. The Novice is taught about love and the core values of his religious vocation so as “to kindle the fire of divine love and the flame of saintly fervour” as well as sorrow for sin. The aim is to lead the young friar “to always do what he does for spiritual motives,” to overcome temptations to return to the world and to make the Novice ready to respond to the Master to whom “he should manifest his thoughts with honesty and declare all his sins in a general Confession.” Next, using many practical suggestions, Fr Zaccaria explained how to sustain interior prayerful dispositions day and night drawing on examples that were contained in the Annales of Boverius. He also used other examples to illustrate the subtle differences in interior dispositions pertaining to prayer, doing penance and mortification, and performing devotional exercises, especial during meditation, when assisting at Mass, going to Confession, reciting the Divine Office, the Rosary, dwelling on the presence of God, observing silence, and the vows. What stands out is the importance of continual prayer, cultivating devout feelings, saying ejaculations, so the Novice will be always occupied in prayer and love.[15]

As we said above, these instructions for Novices highlight what the Master taught them about how they were to behave. They do not say anything about how the Master should be trained. This oversight was mentioned by Valeriano Magni da Milano.[16] This is one of thee characteristic of the work by Bartolomeo Vecchi da Bologna. Although he gives a detailed description of the life of the Novices, he glosses over the responsibilities of the Master and how he should treat the Novices.

The author describes how the young friars should be received and gradually introduced into life in the Noviciate during the eighteen days that they spent in the friary wearing secular clothes before receiving the habit. (Chap. 1). He gives a detailed description of how, after they had made a general Confession, they would be prepared to receive the habit and how they would shed their secular clothes. (Chap. 2). After they had received the habit and the mantle the Master showed them how to sleep in the habit, how to rise, what had to be done in their cell each day. The Master almost took on the role of a mother who was teaching little children “with prudent attentiveness.” (Chap. 3). He had to teach them what went on at meals, how to wait on tables, eat and drink, read, give thanks, and clear the tables. (Chap 4). He had to teach them what to say during “the chapter of faults” and how to accept the penance. (Chap 5).

There is a separate chapter to deal with manual work and other activities such as going questing and caring for the sick. (Chap. 6). The Novice Master “had to be vigilant in providing for the spiritual and corporal needs of the Novices” not being rigid or crude or abrupt but being kind, meek and considerate,” following “the infallible rule” that he would get more out of the Novices “by being gentle and loving than by threatening and being rough.” (Chap. 7).

Chapter eight contains “a collection of certain things that should be instilled into the Novices” including how to walk in the proper way, how to practice mortification, how to wear the hood, how to practice mental prayer, how to learn the Rule, how to kneel, how to speak, how to respond, how to bow, how to be silent, how to open and close doors, how to keep warm, how to wash their feet and many other practical things. On the other hand, the other chapters contain “ceremonial” bits and pieces about how to celebrate the liturgical office (Chap. 9), “how to serve Mass in line with the rubrics in the new Missal”, (Chap. 10), how “to incense during the Asperges and light the light”, (Chap. 11), “how to take care of our sacristies” (Chap. 12), “instructions for the Novices on how to take care of our sacristies” (Chap. 13), “how to sing the Divine Office and light the lights” (Chap. 14). We note here the importance given to regulations that were laid down by St Charles Borromeo which are quoted explicitly ten times.

These chapters take up almost half of the book of ceremonies and might at first appear to be heavy and nauseating, but they provide a good picture of the mood in an ancient Capuchin Noviciate.

The last chapters deal with how “the Novices go to their Master for Confession’ (chap. 15), and of how to receive Communion.” (Chap. 16). This is what happened day in and day out in the Noviciate “During the year of probation.” If the Novice “was suitable for religious life he was accepted to “profession” with the approval of Master and the Guardian who “expressed what they thought about the Novices” concerning how he behaved during the Noviciate and what were his prospects for the future. (Chap. 17). The last chapter deals with the competence of both the Master and Guardian when assessing the Novices. This was to avoid any confusion. The author added that it could be quite difficult “to achieve agreement between the Guardian and the Master.”

The points that are set out in the book of ceremonies by Bartolomeo Vecchi da Bolonga do not give a completely satisfactory description of the richness and realism of the text. They reflect a mentality that came after the Council of Trent and which was focused on some of the small things that needed to be corrected. For example, they speak about cleaning the objects that are being used because “although we are poor, we should also be clean and devout.” Being motivated by devotion pervades all that is said or done, even cleaning the house which Vecchi describes as “pulizia devote” (devout cleaning). Once again when speaking about the practice of virtue he says that the Master should discretely “essercitare” (coach) the Novices in the same way that “il feraro” (the blacksmith) beats iron only when “it is in the fire in the furnace.” Giuseppe da Parigi expresses the same concept but uses mystical expressions. In doing so he is in complete agreement with his contemporary brother from the other side of the Alps and Fr Zaccaria da Milano bearing in mind that he intended to set down regulations for the Noviciate “so that there would be holy uniformity in all ceremonies and rites.”

  1. Cf. AO 21 (1905) 313, 316, 314. The whole text is contained in volume 2 at the end of section IV.
  2. Deut. 32:7.
  3. Cf. Urbanelli, Storis I/2, 279.
  4. Cf. AO 21 (1903) 314s.
  5. Gli Annales which were compose by Silvestro da Milano, and later passed on by Giuseppe da Cannobio, say the he was a very well-educated man but not a preacher. He was Master of Novices “for many years.” (Annali Appendice al tomo terzo, part two, Milano 1744, 161). The same thing is repeated by Gabriele da Modigliana in vol. VI of Leggendario cappuccino (Faenza 1789, 487 a). He said that they were charismatic friars who possessed spiritual discernment that had been acquired while they were teaching and later.
  6. Cf. Praxis observandae in admittendis ad religionis statum novitiis, Forotivii 1627, one volume containing more than 500 pages.
  7. Cf, Bolognia, APC, Classe 6 Serie I-Busta 1-N 1-2: Libro primo de dubii sulla Regola deil seraphico Padre San Francesco nel quale si propongono I dubbi che s’appartengono al settimo capitolo della Regola (autogr., 181 pp.); [Dispitationes in caput VI Regulae sancti Patris Francisci) (autogr., 189 pp. non num.).
  8. Cf. Onorato da Parigi, Académie évangélique pour l’istruction spirituelle de la jeunsse religieuse et praimen chrestienne, Paris 1622 (2. Ediz. Paris 1894); Giuseppe Tremblay da Parigi, Inrorduction à la vie spirituelle par une facile methode d’oraison, pour toute ame devotieuse et religieuse et specialment pour les novitiauz et séminatres des l’tres Mineurs Capucins, Paris 1620 and 1626, idem, Le parfait novice instruit des voyes qu’li doit tenir pour arrive àla perfection, Paris, 1618.
  9. Cf Il giovane cappuccino brvemente instrutto con alcuni ammaestramenti utilissimi ed importantissimi avisi, per ben spogliarsi dell’huomo Vecchio, e perfettamente vestirsi del nuovo, affine in poco tempo d’arrivare alla perfettioni religiosa, ed in essa sempre piú avvaanzarsi. The was composed by Fr Zaccaria da Milano to help young religious, especially those who were Capucnins. It was published in Milan by Lodovico Monza, MDCXXXXVI [1646] and occupies 172 pages.
  10. Cf. Pietro da Aliaga, Modo de bien obrar praticado en el dia del novicio capuchino, Pamplona 1650 (first edition.) Cf. Estud. Franc.31 (1923) 119-123. Giovanni da Gurtnica produced a modern edition: Modo de bien obrar per el padre Fr. Pedro de Aliada capuchino. Corregido, arreglado y ampliado con notas por el P. Jaun de Gueruica, Pamplona 1932.
  11. Note the following works Francesco da Mazzara, Direttorio spirituale et instrutione delli novitti, Palermo 1679, Francesco da Sestti, Raggionamenti a novizi, 2 vol., Genova, 1682 and 1685, Francesco da Montereale, Specchio di direzione da istruire i novizi capuccini, Milano 1712; Andrea da Faecenza, Massime e riflessioni ascetico-morali proposte ad un maestro de’ novizi cappuccino, Cesena 1775; Bernardin de Paris, Le parfait novice instruit pour arriver àla perfection,Paris 1668; Joseph de Breux, Canduite intérieure proposec aux novices capucins, Paris 1714. For more editions and translations see Lexicon cap., 1226-1230 (= Novittatus).
  12. Cf. Academie évangelique ou école théorique et practique de la perfection évangélique, nouvelle ed. Par Flavieri de Blois, Paris 1894. We have used this edition.
  13. Cf. Méthode d’oraison du P. Joseph da Tremblay capucin, Revue et annotée par le P. Apollinaire de Valence, Le Mans 1897, 330, 440; L. Dedouvres, Le Pére Joseph de Paris, capucin. L ‘Eminence Grise I, Paris 1932, 227, 221-224 (= Le maître de novices [1604-1605]).
  14. Cf, Modo de bien obrar, 1952, 13.
  15. Cf. Il giovane cappuccino, Cit. 2, 17, 23, 37s for the quotes see In the “ammaestratramento XII” at the end of the volume.
  16. Cf. below n. 1868.