Spirituality of the Capuchin lay brother

Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap

The figure of the lay brother accompanies the history of the Order as a necessary and irreplaceable presence. The spirit of the Capuchin reform and its charism of renewal cannot be understood without the dynamic and, at the same time, discrete and humble contribution of the lay brother. It is a full integration of fraternity that immediately points out the “mixed life” as not only meaning the fusion in the life between the contemplative and pastoral activity, but also as the coexistence and interaction between clerical and lay brothers, with equal rights and duties as religious in the observance of the Rule and Constitutions, excepting what derives from sacred ordination. This is all evident, even if we just rapidly run through the more salient points of the tradition and legislative, institutional, apostolic, missionary and hagiographical history of the Order.

The bull of foundation Religionis zelus, 3 July 1528, by Clement VII is directed at a priest friar and a lay friar;[1] these two brothers are authorised, among other things, to receive, without distinction, clerics or laymen.[2]

The brief Ex parte vestra, 11 September 1529, is directed to, among others, a lay brother, Bernardo da Offida.[3] He also carried out the work of a scrutineer during the elections held on Friday 22 September 1536 at the General Chapter in Rome – S. Eufemia, at which was compiled the fundament Constitutions of the Capuchins. In official documents he is addressed as: “Fr. Bernardus de Offida, laicus senex et sanctus” [Br Bernard of Offida, old and holy lay brother].[4] This brother was also the first guardian of the friary of S. Valentino di Foligno, the third house of the Capuchin reform. The early chroniclers say that he “was many times elected guardian, an office he carried out with much prudence and peace … He was present at almost every General Chapter, and made a notable contribution to Definitory meetings”.[5]

The presence of the lay brothers amongst the first followers of the reform remains of great significance. The Ordinances of Albacina of 1529 demonstrate the perception of the fraternity in a non-clerical sense, where it reads: “First of all, we beg and exhort in the Lord all the friars of our congregation” (n. 1), and when the friars are away from the friary, going two by two, if they have need of a small refreshment, they can “ ask the blessing of the major or senior friar” (n. 51). This underlines that the religious authority derives, not from the clerical state, but from seniority in religious life, that is, in religious profession of vows.[6]

In the foundational Constitutions of 1536, redacted in Rome, in the friary of S. Eufemia,[7] the terminology becomes more precise, where the friars, when referred to globally, are nominated by the terms “friars”, “we friars”, whether priest or lay friars (n. 1 and following). By this they are doing nothing other than follow the terminology of the Rule. The observance of the Testament of Saint Francis is foundational in the Capuchin spirit, it does not distinguish between priest or lay brother; while the Testament speaks of the priests and lay friars together, it distinguishes between them only in regard to the reciting of the divine office, as for the confirmed Rule, and this is repeated in the Constitutions (n. 30). “The simple and uneducated” friars can better grasp the wisdom of God in pure faith, without studies (n. 4); meanwhile the submission to the Church hierarchy and to priest clearly demonstrates how the Order from its beginning had a lively sense of its minority, outside of every clerical pattern (n. 7-8).

Regarding vocations, the vocational criterion of the Order is not based upon an educational level for priestly studies. The major criterion is that the candidates “have the best intention and a most fervent will” (n. 12) and that they willingly divest themselves of their goods and give them to the poor (n. 15). What appears to be very clear is that during the formation of novices and the three years of simple profession there is to be no distinction between the clerics and lay (n. 17 & 19). The presence of the lay brothers is a fundamental element in all the fabric of the Capuchin life, in the prayer, in the liturgy. When the friars need to go into the world two by two, “with a companion”, they correct and obey each other out of charity, because they are “brothers in Christ” (n. 46) without distinction between cleric and lay. Also, when speaking of work there is no distinction made, but it is said that “when the friars are not occupied in spiritual exercises, they should work manually”, with “the mind in some spiritual meditation” (n.65). The same is true when engaged in questing and in the other ordinances where the Constitutions treat of the spirituality of work (n. 66-68).

Also with elections, no distinction is made between the clerics and lay (cf. chapter 8 & n. 133). We know of many lay brothers who were chosen as local superiors: “At that time in our Congregation simple priests were elected because they did not want Superiors to be learned, just spiritual and zealous about the observance of the Rule… For this reason, the majority were simple priests or lay friars”.[8] In fact, simple and uneducated men where generally chosen as guardians, often lay brothers, holding that the purity of the rule would be more secure in their hands and that they were more able to contribute to creating the atmosphere of being a family.[9]

Let us give some examples: Br Bernardo da Fossombrone († 1539) was a literate man, but wanted to be a lay brother;[10] Br Graziano da Norcia “was Master of novices, and instructed his charges with admirable charity. He never wanted to learn how to lecture, or to become learned. He said, “The work of lay-brothers is not that of lecturing or becoming men of letters, but of serving the Order”.[11] Br Giovanni Pugliese († 1551) “obtained from the General an obedience to go and preach the faith in the land of the infidels” and he went with Bartolomeo da Città di Castello. He participated in the chapter of 1536 and it was he who had them write into the Constitutions the part that says that the friars must give to the poor what is left over from the table (n. 54);[12] Br Giustino da Panicale († 1547) “was many times a guardian. He governed very prudently and for this reason was many times made the commissioner of the Province, although he was a lay brother” and died as guardian at Narni;[13] Br Stefano da Milano († c.1562) was guardian at Vigevano;[14] Br Raffaele d’Asti, although he was a lay brother, he was very skilled with the sacred canons of scripture, and went on to study them … for which even the learned superiors appreciated his counsel. For these reasons, often during the Chapters he was elected a Definitor, and a few times was made Custos to go as a vocal to the General Chapter. For many years he held the office of guardian, carrying it out with much zeal and prudence. He was the guardian at Ceva, Tortona and Casalmonferrato;[15] Br Giochino da Levante (Genova) “for his prudence, although a lay brother, was almost always guardian in the province of Saint Francis, as he was in his home city of Genoa”;[16] Br Masseo da Genova was guardian at Camerino;[17] Br Benedetto da Collamato († 1584) was guardian at Scapezzano,[18] etc.

The presence of lay brothers contributed to the effectiveness of the chapters and elections: “In the provincial chapters it was licit for anyone, priest or lay brother, to speak to or publicly debate any matters of remediation, action or proposal; and many lay brothers have told me – words of an eye witness account – that in Chapter they had participated in the debates, as did Br Antonio d’Apignano, an old lay brother”.[19] In the first decades of the Order the number of lay brothers were very high; then they started to progressively diminish through the rigour of selection, up until the Tridentine period, when they were deprived of active and passive voice in the elections; but St Pope Pius V reintroduced the practice in 1566, such that they continued to participate with full rights of election of the discretes [delegates] for the provincial chapter and could be elected. This is what can be read in the dubia proposed to Pope Pius V by the General Procurator, Br Eusebio d’Ancona: “An illi qui non sunt dubdiaconi, et fratres laici possint habere vocem in electionibus iuxta antiqua privilegia, non obstante Tridentino?… S. Sanctitas respondit affirmative, confirmando per suum rescriptum nostram praxim antiquam” [Can those men who are not subdeacons, and the lay brothers have a voice in the elections as accorded in ancient privilege, despite the fact of Trent? … His Holiness responded affirmatively, confirming our ancient practice].[20] The electing of the chapter discrete [delegate] from each community on the part of all the religious, clerical and lay, who had lived for a period in the Order, was the more democratic element in the Capuchin system of government. There were often attempts to abolish it, but it always made a return.[21]

Returning to the text of the Constitutions of 1536, in the work of preaching the criterion is “there to be a few, good preachers” (n. 110) and the preaching be simple and popular, more formed by example than by words, more by the spirit than by the letter (n. 110). For study, friars “may be promoted” who are of fervent charity, praiseworthy in manners (n. 122); the same with those who are to teachers, the students need follow a course more “spiritual” than “literal”. It is to be clearly noted that to study so as to arrive at holy orders was something exceptional, as reads the text at n. 124: “They will also have reason to humble themselves if they recognise that they have an increased obligation before God for having been promoted to study…”. To aspire to the clerical order was considered an act of pride and was punished, as told by a witness worthy of belief: “Indeed I have often heard it said by our old friars, and Br Giacomo d’ Ascoli and Fr Masseo would also confirm this, that clerics were obliged to practice great mortification which meant that if someone asked to be raised to holy orders, he had to be ready to perform all kinds of strict works of penance so as not to be ambitious for ordination, or if after a period of time a new Provincial took over, the Provincial would want to see that the friar was not craving for ordination. They say, this can also be confirmed by Fr Masseo and Br Giacomo, that some clerics have asked to go and study, and have been permanently denied it, because it arose out of ambition, consequently they were deemed unworthy… If some cleric had his own missal, he would be judged as ambitious and as a man who aspires to have the Mass, especially by the lay brothers”.[22]

The lay brothers being very numerous, and also the simplex priests (that is, those not approved to preach), they were very popular with the people and had a notable spiritual influence over them. In fact, they exercised a very effective function of Franciscan witness because they carried out the more delicate works of the friaries, from which the people derived their esteem towards the friars: the porter and questor. The ideal of the Capuchin friar amongst the people was that of the “tout court” [simple] friar and what is documented, above all, is the simplicity and humility of the brother porter and questor. The preaching of the friars was held in less esteem than the simple brother, because the preachers, according to the principle of the Constitutions, needed to be “few in number”. Furthermore, the lay brothers, alongside the “official” preaching of the preaching priest friars, carried out an important apostolate. As the chronicler Bernardino da Colpetrazzo, records, in his particular style, in the first decades “almost all, priests and lay brothers, preached … The lay friars preached the commandments of God, giving examples and delivering strong reprimands against the vices. Their preaching produced the greatest fruits among the simple people. Brother Egidio d’Orvieto was a lay friar of great worth. He arrived at a castle in the countryside of Rome, and as soon as the people gathered around him, he wanted to preach. However, he was nervous that there might be an educated person present, so, to find out, he used a holy trick. He asked for some paper and an inkhorn, saying he wanted to make a note of something. The peasants answered, “Father, we have neither paper nor inkhorn here. None of us is literate.” Brother Egidio said, “Go and ring the bell for the sermon! I want to preach to you!” His preaching pleased them so much that he was as good as compelled to preach to them for about fifteen days. He aroused great fervour in them and gave them a profound peace. It was something to marvel at. A feast day came round, and a friar of Saint Augustine, a master of theology, turned up. Brother Egidio was worried that this friar would find fault in something he said, so with great humility he begged the master of theology to preach, and had him give a sermon. The peasants didn’t like this at all, and wanted him to stop and Brother Egidio to take over. He did wonderful things not only in that castle, but also in many other places. Brother Ludovico da Fossombrone, seeing the great fruits that God gathered, gave them licence to preach.”[23] “It was with such great excess of spirit that the lay brothers spoke highly of the things of God that they were esteemed more than the great learned preachers; and when it was understood that they were lay brothers, people were astounded”.[24] However, “it would take too long – concludes the chronicler – to recount examples of particular friars that, whether they were lay brothers or simplex priests, produced wonderful fruit by their exhortations, not preaching in the ordinary way, but where they saw the people gathering, they would go there and preach to them. Not only the simple brothers but also great preachers put aside the subtleties that were preached at that time, and joined the ordinary friars in preaching the Gospel of Christ and the Sacred Scriptures with simplicity”.[25]

In the missionary evangelisation the presence of the lay brothers was important. As with the itinerant preaching, also in the missions, there were numerous lay brothers that accompanied the priests and with their ministry and prayers sustained the apostolic activity of the preachers and missionaries. What is more, it is significant that the Capuchin protomartyrs were a priest, Giovanni Zuazo da Medina Sidonia, and a lay brother, Br Giovanni Spagnolo da Troia, martyred in Cairo in 1551.[26]

In the last decades of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth century, when the Order could expand outside of the Italian peninsula and spread into the various European nations, we always find lay brothers together with priests among the founders of the various provinces.

An important document that forms the basis of the numerous ceremonials and regulations on the form of the Capuchin life in the friaries is the Belgian “Ceremonial” of 1594-95. It was the work of Br Ippolito da Bergamo, superior of the Belgian province and approved at the provincial chapter at Gande in 1594. It conveniently puts in relief the magnificent synthetic, egalitarian and fraternal interaction, as in a family, between the clerics and lay brothers. In it the seniority in profession regulates the precedence; reverence for priest is motivated by the Testament of Saint Francis, but “laici fratres recordentur quia inferiores omnibus esse debent in dignitate ecclesiastica, et sacerdotes et clericos debent rivereri; sed in moribus et virtutibus tales se exhibeant, ut omnibus praeferri mereantur” (f. 78r) [Let lay brothers remember that they are to be less than everyone in ecclesiastical status, and that they ought to show reverence to priests and clerics. However, in their conduct and virtue they should show that they deserve to be held in higher esteem than anyone]. In fact, the first Capuchin saints were lay brothers. If is true that the charism of the Order is above all incarnated in the saints, it is truly emblematic that the first canonised Capuchin saint was a lay brother, St Felice da Cantalice. What is more, of the thirteen Capuchin saints proclaimed up to now [at the time the article was written], seven are lay brothers and six are priests.

There are other important matters to be found in the Belgian Ceremonial. There it can be read that the lay brothers need to be the expression of simplicity, which was the more attractive spiritual force of the Capuchin Order, “quae quidem simplicitas, etsi per totam religionem et in omnibus fratribus apparere debeat, in laicis fratribus tamen potissimum debet elucere, tam in gestis quam in verbis” (f. 78v) [even while the entire Order and all the brothers should express simplicity, it should shine forth clearly above all in the lay brothers, in words as wells as in actions]. Certain essential offices are entrusted to the lay brothers, such as infirmarian, porter, cook, questor. We know how important this last office was for the itinerant and popular evangelisation, and also for the vocation work. Here we can only give a very quick reflection on this aspect, to which should be given much more attention.

The Belgian Ceremonial[27] speaks of how essential the lay brothers are in the life of the local and provincial Capuchin fraternities. It sums this up this conviction of the Order from the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth by referring to this as the “maternal” aspect, without which a family does not exist: “Recordentur laici fratres, quia non ut fratres tantum, sed etiam ut matres, cum tota hylaritate, diligentia et amore erga confratres suos se debent exhibere; et quibus non tamquam hominibus, sed angelis et sanctis, immo tamquam Christo, cuius locum inter ipsos praelatus obtinet, debent inservire… Perpendantur et hic quanti sit in manu unius fratris pauperculi aliquando corpora omnium fratrum et totum conventum committere” (f. 112v) [Let the lay brothers remember that they ought to show love for their brothers not just as brothers but as mothers doing this with great joy, care and love. They should serve them not just as fellowmen, but as if they were angels and saints, indeed as they would serve Christ who take pride of place among them. … Let them think about this carefully because the way one poor friar is treated sometimes can affect the whole body of friars and the whole community]. Further on it reads: “Memorentur etiam quia propter hoc quoque seraphicus Pater volens in summo ordine suam instituere religionem, non tantum de patribus et fratribus, sed etiam quasi de matribus voluit ei providere, et ideo dedit eis (cioè ai fratelli laici) officium breve, ut plus temporis habeant incumbendi illorum servitiis…, nisi tamen tantae contemplationis essent, quod merito ab omnibus exterioribus his eximerentur” (f. 112v) [Let them also remember that our Seraphic Father wanted the group to ultimately become a religious Order which was not only made up of priests and brothers, but also of mothers, so he ordered them (that is, the lay brothers) to pray a short Office so that they would have more time to become involved in serving the brothers … except of course for time spent in contemplation which should take precedence over exterior activities for everyone]: in effect, there are more than on case which demonstrate how different lay brothers were excused from external offices so as to dedicate themselves totally to the contemplative life, having a special vocation, as for example, Br Arsenio Della Croce da Milano († 1583), after discerning with the famous Mattia Bellintani da Salò.[28]

Just from these brief points on the presence and works of the lay brothers, it clearly demonstrates their fundamental contribution to Capuchin spirituality. A marvellous synthesis of these diverse aspects is found in the life and witness of Saint Serafino da Montegranaro, a contemporary of Saint Felice da Cantalice. I refer you here to the beautiful pages written by G. Santarelli in his Vita di san Serafino, where he analyses all the elements of this splendid Capuchin spirituality.[29] To conclude, I will be satisfied with synthesising a little the spirituality of the lay brother, as it shone forth in Saint Serafino:

Two external things were always observed and were part and parcel of the man: the little brass Crucifix and the rosary. This is the traditional representation of Serafino da Montegranaro. His devotion to the Crucified and to the Blessed Virgin was very wise and flowed with heavenly wisdom that sometimes left theologians and the learned amazed completely. He always carried the Crucifix in his hand and offered it to everyone to kiss: a clever ruse so that they would not kiss his hand or his habit.  He was totally a humble and humbled man –  and in the charming way of the Capuchins and the Marches – always joyful and spiritually radiant.

A perfect observer of the rule of poverty and utterly conformed with the penitential, contemplative and apostolic spirituality of the Order he knew how to transform the chapel into his cell. He usually spent more time in the chapel, especially at night, than in his cell. If someone saw him, and he was aware of it, he would pretend to be asleep – snoring loudly. “My little saint,” he answered jokingly to someone who pointed out to him his irreverence, “I sleep more in the chapel than in the refectory.”

He literally had a great thirst for Masses, for the Eucharist, for the Sacraments, for prayer, for sufferings. He was in love with the mystery of Christ and of Our Lady.  He was enthralled to meditate on them and would go into ecstasy.  He would have liked to be in the fraternity at Loreto or in Rome to be able to serve as many Masses as possible each day. This was the source of his zeal to work with Christ to save souls; for his brief and penetrating spiritual exhortations; for his extremely fruitful vocational apostolate; for his veneration for priests; for his compassion for the sick, the troubled and the poor; for his courageous commitment to make peace in society and in families; for his missionary enthusiasm and his desire for martyrdom. Although he was almost illiterate, he could speak about the things of God with extraordinary ability and unction. When he was obliged by obedience to give a sermon in the refectory, his words in commenting on the psalm Qui habitat in adiutorio Altissimi, or the sequence Stabat Mater dolorosa were so full of feeling that he used to reduce everyone to tears”.[30]

  1. “Clemens Episcopus Servus Servorum Dei, dilectis filiis Ludovico et Raphaeli de Forosempronii O.F.M. professoribus, salutem et apostolicam benedictionem”: cf. Coll. Franc. 48 (1978) 243-248.
  2. “… necnon omnes, tam clericos saeculares et presbyteros quam laicos, ad vestrum consortium recipere… plenam et liberam licentiam ac facultatem concedimus”: ibid. [“to receive anyone into your community whether secular cleric or priest, or layman”. Paul Hanbridge in note 6 of Religionis zelus found on CapDox: So as not to offend the Observants faculty is granted only to receive clerics and laymen, and not religious. However, Ludovico took advantage of the privileges of the Camaldolese that allowed them to receive religious.]
  3. Cf. C. Urbanelli, Storia dei Cappuccini delle Marche I/3, Documenti, 33.
  4. Cf. Anal. O.F.M.Cap. 43 (1927) 285.
  5. Bernardinus a Colpetrazzo, Historia Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (1525-1593). Liber secundus: Biographiae selectae. In lucem editus a Melchiore a Pobladura.
  6. The text of these ordinances can be found in I frati capuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo. A work of C. Cargnoni. Vol. I, Roma-Perugia 1988, 177-225.
  7. We will follow the text edition in the cited of I frati cappuccini I, 249-464 [Translator: We will follow the English text found on Capdox translated by Paul Hanbridge].
  8. Cf. Bernardinus a Colpetrazzo, Historia Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (1525-1593). Liber tertius : Ratio vivendi fratrum… Ed. Melchior de Pobladura. (Mon. Hist. Ord. Min. Cap., 4). Romae, Institutum Historicum OFMCap., 1941, 9.
  9. L. Iriarte, Storia del francescanesimo, Napoli 1982, 281.
  10. Bernardinus a Colpetrazzo, Historia Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (1525-1593). Liber secundus: Biographiae selectae, 29.
  11. Ibid., 307.
  12. Ibid., 417, 428.
  13. Ibid., 435.
  14. Matthias a Salò, Historia Capuccina. Pars altera. Ed. Melchior a Pobladura. (Mon. Hist. Ord. Min. Cap., 6). Romae 1950, 304.
  15. Ibid., 530.
  16. Ibid., 536.
  17. C. Urbanelli, Storia dei cappuccini delle Marche. Parte prima. Vol. III: Documenti (1517-1609). Tomo secondo, Ancona 1984, 690s, doc. 730.
  18. Ibid. 702, doc. 734.
  19. Ibid. 716s, doc. 741.
  20. Cf. Anal. O.F.M.Cap. 5 (1889) 79.
  21. L. Iriarte, Storia, 314; Alessandro da Ripabottoni, I fratelli laici nel primo ordine francescano, Roma 1956, 221-269.
  22. C. Urbanelli, Storia, Documenti, 717, doc. 741.
  23. Bernardinus a Colpetrazzo, Historia Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (1525-1593). Liber tertius : Ratio vivendi fratrum…, 44.
  24. Ibid., 192.
  25. Ibid., 193.
  26. Cf. Bernardinus a Colpetrazzo, Historia Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (1525-1593). Liber secundus: Biographiae selectae, 292-300.
  27. Regarding this ceremonial, the most ancient among the Capuchins and still unpublished, see the notes by Mariano D’Alatari, Aspetti della vita quotidiana dei cappuccini in un “Cerimoniale” belga del 1595, in L’Italia Francescana 56 (1981) 167-178.
  28. Cf. Salvatore da Rivolta, Vite di alcuni frati capuccini, f. 113r: in Italia Franc. 52 (1977) 204.
  29. Giuseppe Santarelli, Vita di San Serafino da Montegranaro. Ancona 2003, 99-159.
  30. Cf. Sulle orme dei santi. Il Santorale cappuccino: Santi, Beati, Venerabili, Servi di Dio. Roma 2000, 252s.