Note on the Capuchin charism, or rather, the essential elements of the Capuchin Life
by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap
Translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap
- 1. Primacy of “holy prayer and devotion”
- 2. Highest seraphic Poverty
- 3. Apostolate as an “excess of love”
It is presupposed that the “Capuchin charism” is a particular connotation and expression of the fecundity and richness of the “Franciscan charism”;
It is also presupposed that the “Capuchin charism” is a living and dynamic reality demonstrated by over 480 years of history and, therefore, as Pope Paul VI wrote in his letter to the General Minister on 20th August 1974, that the current search for a true spiritual renewal of this charism demands “that the particular tradition of the Capuchins be examined and more widely and deeply demonstrated, so that their Order distinguishes itself from the other Franciscan families. Therefore, the Franciscan charism and the character of the Capuchin life (=particular charism), that emanates from the healthy tradition of the Order, needs to be more clearly defined and explained”;
Lastly, it is also presupposed that a valid discourse on the Capuchin charism needs to commence from a renewed conviction that the Capuchin Order is a “Reform” of the Franciscan Order, without giving into a polemic of confrontation to the term “reform” and a counter-position to the other Franciscan families; it is a “reform” that both discovers and relives the life of Saint Francis and his first companions by way of a continual rethinking of his words and a recovery of the inspiration of his life, from his gestures and acts, as a fundamental criterion of an interpretation of the “spiritual” (in spirit and truth) observance of the Rule of Saint Francis, along with the Testament, which for the Capuchins is “the primary spiritual commentary on the Rule and the source of profound inspiration”; one can therefore underline these fundamental aspects that qualify and manifest a true “Capuchin Charism”.
It is the source of the “reform”, the privileged instrument of spiritual and vocational discernment, most sought after fruit and radical finality of the Capuchin life. By meditating on the Gospel and the life of Saint Francis, the Capuchins were convinced of it being the greatest longing and central focus of the will of the Seraphic Father (cf. Reg. boll. V, 2-3; X, 10-11; Reg. non boll. XXII, 25-27).
Prayer in the sense of the contemplative life, which is the “breathing of love”, incessant interior prayer, dialogue of the illuminated mind and of the inflamed and pure heart affectionately turned toward God, adoration of the heavenly Father in spirit and truth (cf. Const. 1982, n. 45,1; 52,6) which are indispensable to listening and enshrining the Word of God, so as to dwell in the “living Spirit of Christ” (Const. 1536), “to follow in joy the footsteps of the poor and humble Christ” (Const. 1982, n. 2,1) and to rediscover and retrace the footsteps of the Seraphic Father.
Devotion, not in the sense of “devotionalism”, but with a Bonaventurian significance, which is love of God, sense of God, the taste and relish for interior devotion, pure love. It is the inner aspect, the interior dimension of every practical exercitium virtutis, interwoven and correlated with external observance, with all those detailed and prescriptive disciplinary, devotional, penitential and so forth characteristics necessary for safeguarding and nurturing this “spirit of devotion”. It is an interior reality overflowing into external activity, in practical exercitia spiritualia, and for this reason overflowing into ardent apostolic activity. The historical expression of this aspect is varied:
- Capuchin spiritual literature tends to translate spiritual attitudes into concrete gestures, actions, exercises of piety.
- In particular, Capuchin literature on mental prayer is the first expression of “cultural” writings of the early Capuchins in each nation.
- The Constitutions of 1536, indispensable for understanding the genuine “Capuchin charism”, were conceived by way of safeguarding the contemplative life.
- Capuchin historiography up until the present century has had a prevalently practical, formative, pedagogical and devotional intentionality.
- The little books that were given to each professed friar were a small manual of Capuchin spiritual life. Added to these were a series of solid “Capuchin manuals” that, along with the “manuals for novices and Masters of novices”, historically expressed a substantial “Capuchin methodology” of Franciscan life.
- The ideal of contemplative solitude, even if it first emerged with prevalently individualistic tendencies, for which the “eremitical cell” is recommended in the 1529 Statutes of Albacina and in the 1536 Constitutions, takes on very early a more communitarian sense to the degree that it becomes formalised into a communitarian meditation period of at least two hours. A complete, daily and silent period of community meditation. The ideal further develops into the charged expression of the “Capuchin retreat” of the classic book of Gaetano Migliorini da Bergamo that nurtured the spirituality of the Order until the period of the Second Vatican Council. The abolition of this system of retreat is also the sign a change of direction or the loss of perspective.
It is the most distinguishing external characteristic of the Capuchin reform and needs to impregnate all that the Capuchin is, does and uses. It is the necessary path to arrive at contemplation, because it produces that radical stripping away and detachment that draws one to the mystical heights of interior annihilation and renouncement of the will, and renders the Capuchin to the “peaceful possession” of Jesus Christ and to being a joyful instrument of the Spirit. This poverty derives from the imitation of the life of the poor, crucified and eucharistic Christ and of Saint Francis. It calls for precise external signs, such as expressed in the form of clothing and other external signs reduced to the necessary limits in a physiognomy of external characteristics (beard, the habit with the capuche, cord, rosary beads, bare feet in the sandals: naturally with the obvious exceptions according to extreme necessity and of discretion) and also in the structure of the friaries (Capuchin architecture), in the maximum detachment from and minimum use of belongings, and the simplicity in matters of charitable obedience.
a) This highest poverty at the service of others becomes humility, simplicity and joy. The Capuchin loves to serve and withdraw like a “useless servant”, not appropriating to oneself the service but donating oneself fully to others, preferring to remain in the last place at the marriage feast of the Church (Cf. Const. 1536, I.7; VIII. 102). He is available for every type of work, especially that which is difficult and non-gratifying, because it does not hinder the spirit of prayer and devotion; he rejoices to be with the poor, simple and humble and, therefore, considers it his apostolic specialisation to preach to the least, the poor, the peasant, in poor places, diffusing the serenity, optimism, peace, concord and love of the Church, while submitting himself to the parish priest and other religious.
b) This “highest poverty”, the royal way to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and arrive at union with God, becomes penance and austerity as the necessary expression of a solid life of evangelical mortification, that the Capuchin considers as an indispensable state of conversion and way of purification to arrive at the illuminative and unitive path, which is “the burning charity of Christ” and communion with “the highest Father”, in the unity of the Spirit (cf. Const. 1536). As Pius XI said, this particular element gives to the Capuchin a very austere Franciscan spirit.
The mystical and contemplative yearning that is realised by way of radical poverty is poured out in an ardent apostolic life, characterised above all by preaching, announcing the good news and evangelising to the point that the Capuchin preacher (“evangelical preacher”), as he is described in the 1536 Constitutions, seems to assume the essential elements of the “Capuchin charism”: which is to live in certain way so as to preach in a certain manner, to live in a particular “communion” so as to realise a particular “mission”.
It is here that this “excess of love” entwines with the other two points outlined above so as to assume four essential aspects and concomitants:
a) The whole life of a Capuchin has an apostolic respiration: inbreathing the pure wind of the Spirit in the grace and gift of contemplation arrived at by way of radical poverty in the pure observance of the Rule and solitude and conventual silence; and outbreathing in a fervent apostolic activity, filial submission to the Church and her magisterium, sustained and supported by a fraternity of apostolic witness (the fraternity of every friary) that guarantees the fruitfulness of the ministry, so as not to run in vain (“I did not send them and yet they ran!”). That is, the more one lives fraternal charity and is contemplative, the more suitable he is to preaching and the apostolate, without any distinction between priests and lay brothers.
b) The Capuchin carries out this ecclesial service in radical minority, always ready to trot along like a donkey so as to be pushed aside and to remain content with the last place. This minority is a gift and the fruit of the contemplative life.
c) Passionate like a Serafin of divine love, it is only in a mission characteristically popular the Capuchin exercises his evangelical preaching: catechising the adults and children, popular missions, rural preaching and in the small regional parishes and in the poor parishes, service to hospitals and visits to the sick, supplies to the priests in the cities, assistance to the dying, corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, spiritual direction and confession, etc.. In the “Capuchin charism” there has not been, as ministries in themselves, teaching in external public schools and parish ministry with the direct care of souls (only with the necessary exceptions of obedience and submission to the Church). Study falls within the charism but only from the apostolic, spiritual and preaching prospective.
d) The final great aspect of the “excess of love” is the evangelisation ad gentes amongst the non-believing brothers and sisters. The Capuchin feels in essence to be an “evangelical missionary”, but for this missionary apostolate amongst the non-believers to be radically drawn from the vocation of the “reformed” Franciscan, it requires a particularly strong spiritual life (“perfect brother”). For this reason, the first Capuchin missionaries were fortified by the gift of contemplation.
These three essential element of the charismatic Capuchin life – the primacy of the life of prayer and devotion, highest seraphic poverty and an apostolate with “excess of love” – still remain the “tripod” of the Capuchin life, described by Bernardino d’Asti and here reinterpreted in light of the historical maturity of over 480 years of our “reform”. In fact, in the circular letter of 1548, Bernardino d’Asti wrote:
Therefore I exhort and beg of each one of you, as far as possible, to be very concerned about humble and devout prayer, begging the Lord from your hearts to bestow and increase and advance these holy virtues, especially most holy charity and poverty which, along with prayer, are most necessary and precious ornaments of the true lesser brother. Without them no Capuchin brother can be pleasing to God, or hope to enter the eternal marriage to the divine and heavenly Spouse.