The Capuchin Reform

An accident waiting to happen

Ecclesia semper reformanda est[1]

A course for post-novitate friars stage II by Gary Devery OFM Cap

Table of Contents


The origins of the Capuchin reform are readily accessible by way of the dated but classic work of Fr Cuthbert, The Capuchins: a contribution to the history of the Counter-Reformation. More recently, Michele Camaioni has furnished a fine study in Italian, primarily from the angle of the involvement of Bernardino Ochino in the reform.[2]

In this course for post-novitiate friars, I want to situate the origins of the Capuchin reform in the social and cultural context of the time. The hope is to allow for a more contextualised reading of the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536 and 1575.

The church is always reforming; the second Vatican Council called for a continuous “return to the sources” and the “original spirit” of the institute to establish the foundations for how we live the Christian life in our own particular time and place. [3]

This poses a particular novelty to the Capuchin Order, for who is our initiator? St Francis of Assisi is the founder and patriarch of the various expressions of the Franciscan modi vivendi. The Capuchin reform weaved into a free-standing Order in its own right by a process of discontinuity and continuity, with all the accompanying tensions, fraying and tears. It was an accident waiting to happen! Who was the primary weaver? It was not done by the intentions and works of any particular friar or team of friars working to a plan or prosecuting a strategy that was reforming, be it innovative, machiavellian, nicodemic or otherwise. It was a combination of singular and corporate responses to grace involving friars, lay women and men, and clerics, caught up in movements of reform. It is some of these responses to grace that we want to explore in this course, even if by way of only sampling a very few examples.

The Capuchin reform: what’s in a name?

It may be helpful at this point to tease out what is meant by ‘reform’. Historiography and nomenclature can often be presupposed when we begin to discuss reform. However, these very presuppositions, if not clearly defined, already carry unstated choices of philosophical and methodological approaches. We will sample just a few authors to heighten our awareness of the challenge. Let us now work our way through:The Capuchin reform: what’s in a name?

Considerations on the Capuchin charism

A brief attempt at identifying the main elements of the Capuchin charism will serve us well at this point in choosing which key aspects of the Capuchin reform will be most helpful to explore. This has already been prepared by Br Paul Hanbridge. Let us now work our way through his text: Considerations on the Capuchin charism.

Three important elements of the Capuchin reform

Every institution contains many important elements. In the above consideration of the Capuchin charism, Paul Hanbridge has identified fifteen characteristics. A homemade loaf of bread on the friary dining table contains many dimensions of human values. Was it a gift? If a gift, what relationships stand behind this gift? Being homemade involves artisanship, creativity and choice to personalise rather than buy commercially manufactured bread. A large loaf indicates a concern for a fraternity of friars. What is the context in which the bread will be eaten? The architecture of the dining room and arrangement of the table already contain important human values. Is it the Sunday meal? A celebratory feast of the province or one of the friars? At the beginning of the meal God will be blessed for his gifts. Will the benefactors of the meal be prayed for in gratitude by the fraternity? Will part of the loaf find its way to a poor person coming to the door? We could go on teasing out many more human values and important institutional elements related to a loaf of bread on the friary dining table.

Likewise, out of the many important elements of Capuchin life in the sixteenth century, as identified in Br Paul Hanbridge’s article, I will choose three: kerygmatic, works of social transformation and mental prayer. They are not randomly chosen, as has been already indicated above in reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. The interrelationships of these elements within the reform will hopefully become apparent as we proceed through the course. To highlight this point, I want to now look at a lengthy quote by Michele Camaioni.[4] He is looking more specifically at Bernardino Ochino, but what he says of Ochino can be inferred as the then current wider program of the modus operandi of the broader Capuchin reform:

It’s worth noting that before fleeing from Italy, Ochino contributed to the spread of the thought of the Spirituali not only with his preaching, but, as we will see, also through informal talks with individuals and small groups of laypeople, friars and nuns. Various and different were, therefore, the networks and the audiences to whom he was able to address his message, and the places on the Italian scene, public (churches, piazze, open spaces) and private (monastery cells, courts, households), where he was present. This ability allowed him to exert an influence on different levels of society and to obtain from civil and religious authorities the approval for various urban initiatives, pastoral projects and religious innovations, such as the building of Capuchin convents, extrajudicial reconciliation’s rituals, the introduction of new devotions among confraternities (for instance the prayer exercises of the Quarantore) and the financing of new charitable institutions, especially houses for orphans and young neglected women.[5]

This ad gentes projection was in agreement with the Capuchin constitutions of 1536, the ninth chapter of which theorized a model of vita mixta for the friars, exhorting them to seek a balance between eremitic contemplation and practical activities among people, such as poor relief and popular preaching. In these constitutions of 1536, written in part by Ochino himself, preaching is regarded as a natural and necessary aspect of an evangelical life, and as a vehicle of expression of the friars’ evangelical and Christ-centred spirituality.[6] Nevertheless, this ‘evangelical’ preaching was deemed by some contemporaries to be ‘Lutheran’ because of its emphasis upon evangelical freedom and the primacy of grace, an accusation levelled against the Italian Spirituali as well. Thus, it is unsurprising that in 1536 the poetess and powerful noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, who was at that time the most enthusiastic patron of the Capuchin order, shielded Ochino and his fellow Capuchins from this accusation with these defiant words, addressed to a commission of cardinals which had to judge Capuchin orthodoxy: ‘Si san Francesco fu haeretico, li soi imitatori son lutherani’.[7]

Due to a combination of local wars, famine and successive episodes of the plague, the number of beggars coming into the urban centres was increasing, putting pressure on the local welfare services. There was also an increase of hermit preachers, not unlike Matteo Baschio, moving unauthorised through the towns and provinces. The local authorities dealt with these difficulties by limiting entrance into the towns. Under these circumstances, when the almost unknown Capuchins of the new reform arrived at the gates of a new city, they were called upon to demonstrate their social value before gaining entry. The way the friars gained entry and eventual permanency in a new city and territory was by way of the evangelical preaching and the voluntary service the rendered at the various hospitals of the incurables. It was usually the preaching that was the ticket of entry. The heroic service to the sick would then have the local authorities seeking to make the presence of the friars permanent.[8]

Permanency of presence, by way of the establishment of a friary, allowed the practice of mental prayer to be disseminated into the local environment. Mental prayer was the life blood of the friars, and teaching its method to others was part of the essential charism of the new reform.

A note on methodology

The methodology of approaching each of the three elements will remain broadly the same. A very general description of the social and cultural context will be given. This will be followed by primary source examples connected with the Capuchin reform. Hopefully, this will help to contextualise the Capuchin reform into the broader reforms leading into the Council of Trent and for a decade or so beyond (Constitutions of 1575).

Kerygmatic element of the Capuchin reform

The transmission of faith can take place by the multiform ways of human communication. We will restrict ourselves to exploring the use of sonnet, drawing, prose and preaching as vehicles of this communication during this period of the Capuchin reform.

Let us now explore this kerygmatic element of the Capuchin reform.

Social transformation

The Capuchin friars in order to become the friars of the people had to engage with all the social classes, live in the midst of them and work alongside them for the common good. We will explore the participation of the friars in the social transformation of Italy at the beginning of the modern period.

Let us know explore this social transformation element of the Capuchin reform.

Mental prayer

The early Capuchin friars, in order to be able to teach the people the practice of mental prayer, were experts in prayer. It was an essential dimension of their daily life and the fuel for their kerygmatic preaching and works of social transformation. Let us now explore this third leg of the tripod of the early Capuchin reform: mental prayer.

  1. The Church is always reforming.
  2. Michele Camaioni, <<DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI>> Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccino nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento Doctorato di Ricerca in Storia, Roma Tre, Università degli Studi 2008-2011. Currently available to read online at: or download:;jsessionid=2C18156755F166B0F51CB7ECEF1E826D
  3. Perfectae Caritatis, n. 2.
  4. Michele Camaioni, Capuchin Reform, Religious Dissent and Political Issues in Bernardino Ochino’s Preaching in and towards Italy (1535-1545), in Religious Order and Religious Identity Formation, ca. 1420-1620. Discourses and Strategies of Observance and Pastoral Engagement editied by Bert Roest and Johanneke Uphoff, Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2016, pp. 219-220.
  5. See Michele Camaioni, ‘Riforma cappuccina e riforma urbana. Esiti politici della predicazione italiana di Bernardino Ochino’, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 67 (2013), 55–98. On the Quarantore, see Costanzo Cargnoni, ‘Le quarantore ieri e oggi. Viaggio nella storia della predicazione cattolica, della devozione popolare e della spiritualità cappuccina’, Italia Francescana 61 (1986), 325–460; Bert Roest, Franciscan Literature of Religious Instruction before the Council of Trent (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2004), 558–559.
  6. ‘Refined, embroidered and pretentious words do not go with the naked and humble Crucified, as do plain, simple, humble and lowly words instead, which are divine and ardent words full of love after the example of Paul, the vessel of election, who did not preach with sublime expressions and human eloquence, but in the power of the Spirit. Therefore we exhort the preachers to imprint blessed Christ upon their hearts and to give themselves into His serene possession so that through the superabundance of love He may be the one who speaks in them, not only with words but especially through their deeds.’ Quoted from Paul Hanbridge, The Capuchin Constitutions of 1536. A New Translation in English, A critical edition of the original text of Capuchin constitutions (Naples: Giovanni Sultzbach, 1537) is in the anthology I frati cappuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo, ed. Costanzo Cargnoni, 5 Vols. (Perugia: Edizioni Frate Indovino, 1988–1993) i , 249–464.
  7. Concetta Ranieri, ‘«Si san Francesco fu eretico, li suoi imitatori son luterani». Vittoria Colonna e la riforma dei cappuccini’, in: Ludovico da Fossombrone e l’ordine dei cappuccini, 337–351. Colonna’s letters and writings in defence of the Capuchins are now edited in I frati cappuccini ii , 179–281.
  8. Cf. Michele. Camaioni, «DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI» Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccini nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento pp. 200-201, as of 3/1/2019 available at