Capuchin Constitutions 1536: Overview






(Rome – St Eufemia 1536)


from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, I, pages 228-248.

English version prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap

Table of Contents

The first Constitutions of the Capuchin Friars Minor were drafted and approved in 1536 during the General Chapter, celebrated in Rome at St. Euphemia on the EsquiIino near Sancta Maria Maggiore. A commission of brothers was appointed to draft the text, including Bernardino d’Asti, vicar general, Giovanni da Fano, Francesco da Jesi and Bernardino da Siena, known as Ochino. The chapter assembly most likely indicated the lines to be followed and then discussed, corrected and completed the text drawn up by the commission.

Apart from the personal contributions of the various editors, it was certainly the chapter in its collegial operations that defined and then promulgated the Constitutions. This is expressly stated in the prologue: “our General Chapter … believed it should set down some statutes”, and it can be seen from the often-recurring formulae: “it was ordered … it was established … it was determined”, which presuppose a collegial authority, unlike the ordinances of Albacina which are presented with the authority of a legislator in the singular, Ludovico da Fossombrone.

Only from the framework of a fraternity that was unanimously committed to channelling and harmonising the charisms of different religious – there were 83 brothers in the chapter – could such a complete and wise text emerge.

It is obvious that the members of the commission were able, more than any other, to make their influence felt and to insert their personal contributions, as has been demonstrated in a very careful comparative study.[1]

In the first place we must certainly recognise Bernardino Palli d’Asti who, as vicar-general, was the coordinator and principal responsible for the drafting of the text. His Devout Prayers are based on the same guiding principle that runs through the Constitutions: the spirit and life of love.[2]

After him there are:

Giovanni Pili da Fano, author of studies on the Rule and on prayer,[3] deeply imbued with the theology of St Bonaventure, which he introduces into the legislative text, as can be seen from the various coincidences of content and expression between his spiritual works and the Constitutions.

Francesco Ripanti da Jesi, author of the Circle of Divine Love,[4] contributes significantly to the Christocentric and Trinitarian dimension that guides the legislative text.

Bernardino Ochino da Siena, then at the height of his fame as an orator, brought to it on a broad scale the interior religiosity promoted by the evangelism and Paulinism of the circles he frequented, such as that of the Spaniard Juan Valdés in Naples. In his writings Seven Dialogue and Nine Sermons one finds thoughts and phrases that reoccur in the Constitutions.[5]

To these substantial contributions from the members of the commission must be added the intentions of the other capitular friars, who did not fail to make themselves felt in the drafting of the final text. Coming for the most part from the Observants, they were able to discern and accept the most valid contents in the main aspects of the various reforms: alongside the ardent zeal of the Spirituals, the equanimity of the Narbonne Constitutions, alongside the austerity and hermitism of the Discalced of Spain, the apostolic dynamism of the Observants of Italy. Passionate love for St Francis and his first companions, combined with a broad capacity for receptivity to the spiritual currents of the time, led to a synthesis so vital that it offered inexhaustible inspiration to the centuries-old history of the Order.

The continuity and renewal of the Franciscan charism, the choice of a humble, poor life lived among the people, contemplation overflowing into the apostolate, the rejection of privileges and taking on the cause of the least, heroic dedication to the plague victims and universal missionary zeal, abandonment to the Spirit and unconditional obedience to the hierarchy: these were the values assumed in the first Constitutions that made the Capuchin reform an active evangelical fraternity at the service of the Church and humanity.

Fundamental text

No legislative text can be compared to this one of 1536 in terms of its historical, juridical and above all spiritual importance. It has remained the fundamental code of the Order to this day, and has been substantially reproduced in the successive texts of 1552, 1575, 1608, 1643, 1909 and 1925. With the exception of a few omissions in 1552, it was transmitted almost unchanged until 1968. It is in fact the authentic ‘identity card’ of the ‘beautiful and holy reform’.

Thanks to the Constitutions of 1536, the Capuchins have been able to live the same spirituality for more than four centuries, to show the same face to the people, to walk along the same paths, in “holy uniformity”, as the times demanded.

From the end of the 16th century until 1927, the original text was ignored, and it was even thought that it had never been printed; but the image of the Capuchin that it had outlined remained intact, because it was indelibly engraved in the life of the Order by the incisive power of the first Constitutions themselves. Their resonance in the history of the Order is absolutely unique, as F. Elizondo[6] explains: “No book written by a religious of the Order, no treatise on Capuchin spiritual life through the centuries can be compared to the Constitutions of 1536, if its aim is to present the authentic ideals of the fraternity, or to describe the intentions of the initiators of the reform, or to express the values found in the imitation of Christ and Francis”.

The Capuchin Order, to rediscover itself, must simply confront this model.

From the Statutes of Albacina to the first Constitutions

The first Constitutions were not formed out of nothing. It was the prior experience of the Statutes of Albacina that guided the reform in the first years of its existence and matured its spirit. In spite of their fragmentary nature, they laid the foundations for the future development of the Order and inscribed in the fabric of its life those values that characterised it in history. The “Seminar of the Capuchin Constitutions”, as Mario da Mercato Saraceno happily calls them, were absorbed almost en bloc into the Constitutions of 1536, which developed the norms and directives, distributing them neatly into twelve chapters, corresponding to the twelve chapters of the Rule.

Here we outline schematically the path followed from 1529 to 1536 in some key points of the two legislative texts.

The Constitutions of 1536 reaffirm the primacy of the contemplative life present in the Statutes of Albacina, but they overcome the obstacle of a predominantly eremitic choice and arrive at the mutual interpenetration of prayer and the apostolate.

They retain the suggestion of the eremitical cell but drop the provision of a single Mass in each fraternity under the pressure of pastoral needs.

They fill the gap of manual work, realistically presented as a healthy diversion and complement to prayer but open themselves to the need for study for a pro-active service of the Word of God.

They reaffirm Albacina’s stance on poverty, which is even described as the “queen and mother of all virtues”.[7] They guarantee certain guidelines with precise norms, such as that of handing back habitations and furnishings every year into the hands of the owners, and they give more space to interior poverty and its Christocentric and eschatological dimension.

They enrich the theme of fraternal life with references to the Gospel (Mt 18:20) and to the primitive community of Jerusalem (Acts 4:32); they soften the austerity in recommending assistance to the sick following the example of St Francis, who begged meat for the sick, and in calling for a more than maternal love of the spiritual brothers, according to the Rule.

They opened themselves to missions among the infidels and developed the theme of charity on a social level with the courageous directives to beg for the poor in times of famine, to assist the plague victims to the point of risking their own lives and to welcome all those who come to their habitations so as “to nourish charity, the mother of all virtues”.[8]

They imprint the evangelical and Franciscan way of obedience and authority by recalling the spirit of faith and the example of Jesus Christ, by bringing authority back to the category of service in times of political absolutism, and by inserting that pearl of pastoral pedagogy found in the Letter of St Francis to a Minister.[9]

Unfortunately, in the field of chastity they do not succeed in overcoming the ascetic mentality of the time, which is subject to a reaction to hedonism of the Renaissance, and they remain in the same line as Albacina, even aggravating it with a pessimistic view of women.[10]

On the other hand, they take up the importance of minority as written into Statutes of Albacina to radical options, telling us that we are subject to every human creature, following the example of the one who destroyed himself for us, renouncing the privilege of exemption and exhorting us to seek the last place.[11]

But the most striking and consistent progress, marked by the Constitutions of 1536 over the Statutes of 1529, is that of having organically enucleated a spirituality entirely centred on Christ and on the primacy of love.

Christocentric spirituality

The Second Vatican Council declares: “Since the fundamental norm of religious life is to follow Christ as he is taught by the Gospel, this norm must be considered by all Institutes as their supreme rule“.[12]

It is a real joy to see how our first Constitutions assume and develop this “fundamental norm and supreme rule” of religious life.

The figure of Jesus Christ, as it appears in the Gospel, is always in the foreground and constitutes the decisive motivation for every norm and directive. Every virtue that is proposed always bears the Pauline and theological qualification of conformity to Christ.

It is only in function of Christ, in as much as he relates to Christ, that Francis is presented as a model to be imitated. As Francis responds to and follows Christ, so the Rule responds to and leads to the Gospel. All the zeal to imitate Frances and to observe the Rule in its entirety springs from the passion for Christ and the Gospel.

Francis is the one who is perfectly conformed to Christ; and this is the thesis put forward to the point of exaggeration by Bartholomew of Pisa in his “Conformità“, an argument which the first Capuchins fully espouse.

The essence, therefore, of the Capuchin spirituality can be encapsulated in the following formula: “The lesser brothers must be conformed to Francis, as Francis is conformed to Christ”. The basic criteria that guide the ascetic and mystical journey even show Jesus Christ living in Francis and identifying them in a single ideal to be realised: “If we are sons of Saint Francis then let us do the works of Saint Francis. Therefore, we direct that each friar strive to imitate our Father given us as rule, norm and example, or rather, our Lord Jesus Christ in him, not only in the Rule and Testament but in all his ardent words and loving deeds”.[13]

For the adorable person of Christ, the Constitutions lavish contemplative outpourings and affectionate expressions, from which they then give rise to numerous concrete norms. Here follow some of the more significant ones.

The brothers must always have before their eyes the doctrine and life of the Saviour Jesus,[14] they must read and study Christ, in whom are gathered all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God.[15]

To be conformed to the Lord Jesus, who was made obedience unto death on the cross, the privilege of exemption from the diocesan Ordinaries is renounced.[16]

No one shall receive the religious habit unless he has first renounced his possessions, according to the invitation of the Lord in the Gospel and to be conformed to Him.[17]

The formation of the novices should aim at teaching the things of the spirit, “necessary for a perfect imitation of Christ, our light, way, truth and life“.[18]

It is ordered that the friars be clothed in base and coarse clothes so that they may listen to Christ who praised the austerity of the Baptist’s[19] dress.[20]

Let us sleep on bare boards or on the ground on straw and mats, that we may be like him who said he had nowhere to lay his head and died on the hard wood of the cross.[21]

In our places there should be no animals and no horseback riding, “in case of necessity, however, according to the example of Christ and Francis His imitator, one may go on a donkey, so that our life may always preach the humble Christ”.[22]

One does not go to feasts “unless to preach the word of God, after the example of Christ, our one and only Master”,[23] and one cultivates mortification in food and drink, thinking “that Christ was denied water on the Cross and He was given wine with myrrh or vinegar with gall”.[24]

They should take diligent care to welcome the guests and “according to the example of the humble Son of God, these friars will wash the feet of the guests while all the friars assemble for that act of charity”.[25]

Discipline should be done “in memory of the most cruel passion of our most fair Saviour, especially the agony of His scourging”.[26]

No money is to be kept and no agent or procurator is to be appointed to administer it for the brothers, “may Jesus Christ our God be our procurator and advocate”.[27]

The highest poverty is to be embraced because “she was the beloved spouse of Christ, the Son of God“, and the brothers should strive to be poor “as an example of the Saviour of the world and of his beloved Mother”.[28]

The brothers are exhorted to “accustom themselves to suffer the lack of worldly things after the example of Christ who, while being Lord of all, chose to be poor and to suffer for us”.[29]

One should not have any possessions of places or things, one should always be willing to leave everything, “pondered the most high poverty of Christ, the king of heaven and earth. When He was born He did not have even a small place in the inn for His dwelling, and He lived as a pilgrim, staying in the houses of others. And when He was dying He had no place to rest His head”.[30]

To lift up those who have fallen, “it is necessary to bend down in kindness, just as the most kind saviour Christ did when presented with the adulterous woman, and not to act with rigid justice and cruelty toward the one brought before them. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, descended from heaven to the Cross to save us and showed all possible gentleness to humbled sinners”.[31]

Superiors are to be ministers and servants of all the brothers, “according to the example of Christ who came to serve and minister to us and to lay down His own life for us”.[32]

In elections the friars are to proceed “purely, simply, in a holy manner and canonically. According to the teaching of Christ our kind Lord, and as persons invited to His wedding feast, the friars should strive to be in the last place with Him”.[33]

Preachers are to preach “assiduously at least on all the feastdays, after the example of Christ, the mirror of all perfection”.[34] They should alternate preaching with contemplative solitude until “filled with God the impulse moves them to spread divine grace in the world. Acting in this way in a mixed life, like both Martha and Mary, they will follow Christ who having prayed on the mountain went down to the temple to preach. Indeed, He came down from heaven to earth to save souls”.[35]

Christ is everything for an apostle and must therefore be the only object of his study: “Anyone who does not know how to read Christ, the book of life, has no doctrine he can preach. Therefore, so that the preachers study Him, they are forbidden to carry many books, since everything is found in Christ”.[36]

It is Christ at the centre who, according to the Gospel, constitutes the fraternity and makes the brothers grow in mutual love: “Assembled in the fair name of the gentle Jesus, let them be of one heart and one mind, striving always to tend towards greater perfection. To be true disciples of Christ himself let them love one another from the heart, bearing one another’s faults always”.[37]

The passages quoted show how a Christocentric foundation runs through and unites, as a guiding principle, the Constitutions from beginning to end. Like the stupendous final chapter of the Regola non bollata, the final article of the Constitutions is a kerygma, an exhortation, praise, contemplative ecstasy to be echoed within, read or listened to on one’s knees.[38]

Any comment would spoil the unrepeatable symphony. Against the background of the Constitutions, like the Pantocrator in the golden apses of the Byzantine churches, Christ the Lord stands out sovereignly at the centre of the Trinity, the Church and the universe. With the dynamics of the Paschal Mystery, the Cross joins the Risen One and radiates joyful hope on all those who have chosen it as their supreme ideal.

Seraphic Spirituality

The bond that unites Jesus Christ and animates the ascetic effort as a virtuous form is love. Love is the mainspring of evangelical dynamism that flows from every page of the Constitutions, where every norm or directive finds its reason for being in the love of God and Christ. Love, alongside Christ-centredness, is the constant that runs through the legislative text and opens up a marvellous panorama, which will be profitably reviewed in an anthology of the most significant passages.

Already in the prologue, determining the purpose of the Constitutions, the fundamental intention is announced to guarantee the defence “of the living spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ“, with the distancing of all the laxity “against the most fervent and seraphic zeal of our Father Saint Francis“.[39]

The observance of the Gospel is to be promoted by assiduous and loving meditation, for which the brothers are exhorted to “carry the sacred Gospel in their heart of hearts“.[40] They must always endeavour to speak of God, so that it “may truly help them to be kindled in His love”;[41] and they must devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture, “because the flames of divine love originate from the light of divine things”.[42]

The choice of minority, to be subject to every human creature, is of clear biblical and Franciscan resonance, it is not determined by a sociological option, but “for the sake of the love of Him who emptied himself for love of us”.[43] Similarly, reverence and obedience even to the vilest of people is glorious and more pleasing to God, because “they obey for the love of Lord Jesus Christ”.[44]

The newly professed friars must stay for at least three years under the discipline of the master, so that they may “continue to establish and ground themselves more in the love of Christ, our Lord and God”.[45]

In order to observe poverty, the brothers must first of all cultivate and grow in charity, so as “not to have any earthly affection, but let their love always be in heaven”.[46]

One must disregard any human motive in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice, “celebrating for the sake of charity alone and with all humble reverence, faith and devotion… follow the example of Christ the high priest who, without any reward of His own, offered himself on the cross for us”.[47]

The purpose of meditation is to avoid anxiety and to enkindle the fervour of charity, “so that the spirit of devotion not grow cold in the friars but burn continuously and ever more intensely on the altar of their heart, and indeed just as the Seraphic Father desired that the true spiritual friar to pray always”.[48]

The special prayer of the Capuchin friar is affective prayer: “remember that prayer is nothing other than to speak to God with the heart. […], adore the Father in spirit and in truth. Each friar should take diligent care to enlighten his mind and inflame his affection more than to form words”.[49]

Loving contemplation finds its fulcrum in the Eucharistic Jesus. The friars are invited to contemplate the Eucharist as a “noble gift of God given with such charity […], this most high and divine sacrament where our most fair Saviour deigns to dwell continuously […], who stay in front of it and let them pray as if they were in their heavenly homeland with all the holy angels”.[50]

As in the Letter to the whole Order, here in the Eucharist is identified the presence on earth of the Lord of heaven and draws us through contemplative prayer to the heavenly liturgy of the angels. The seraphic ardour takes wings and reaches the summit, where is revealed to it and where it communicates personally with God-Love.

Love is expressed in works. This is expressed in a precious statement at the beginning of the chapter on work in a dense pericope, which presents the whole of Franciscan activity as permeated by love and directed towards love: “Given that God is our final end to whom everyone should tend and long to see himself transformed in Him, we exhort all the friars to direct all their thoughts to this aim. With every possible impulse of love let us focus all our intentions and longing to unite ourselves to our supremely good Father with all our heart, mind and soul, with our strength and virtue, with actual, continuous, intense and pure love”.[51]

In this authentic jewel of spiritual literature, the itinerary to reach the perfection of charity is described. All must converge: thoughts, intentions, desires, heart, mind, soul, physical and spiritual energies, so that “with actual, continuous, intense and pure love we are united to our supremely good Father“.

With a clear reference to the heated debate in the chapter on the problem of work, it is recommended: “And let the friars be on guard against making work their end, nor to allocate their affection to that work nor be taken up in it so that they extinguish, diminish or retard the spirit, which all things must serve. However, while always with their eyes open to God, let them walk along the highest and shortest way”.[52]

No publicised work is an end in itself; all must be subordinated to the spirit of holy prayer and devotion according to the Rule; the charity that refers everything to God is “the highest and shortest way”.[53]

Love of God is expressed in the love of neighbour, whereby the brothers go together “with all humility and charity, after the example of blessed Christ, each one is to strive to spiritually obey and serve his companion, regarding each other as brothers in Christ”.[54]

Poverty and austerity give way to love of neighbour, to the point of recommending special foods for “the infirm, for travellers, or for the old or very weak, just as charity requires and demands”.[55] As if this recommendation were not enough, in order to ensure the primacy of love of neighbour, it is reiterated to procure precious food, when necessary “for the infirm. All possible charity should be shown them just as the Rule and every just law command, and according to the example of our Seraphic Father who was not be ashamed to quest meat publicly for the infirm”.[56]

The concern for the sick returned even further with a reminder of the moving advice of St Francis in the Regola bollata to have an even more tender love for the spiritual brother than for the brother with a love even more tender than that of a mother.[57]

There are no limits to charity in doing all one can for the poor[58] and in risking one’s life for the plague victims.[59] Charity has no frontiers; outside the fraternity there are men of every category to be welcomed and loved with deeds. In this regard we recall that the Seraphic Father in the Regola non bollata (ch. 7) decrees that whoever comes to our places “friend or foe, thief or brigand, be received with kindness, and therefore “in order to nurture charity, the mother of every virtue, we instruct the friars to welcome with all possible Christian humanity those persons who come to our places”.[60]

Love of God and love of neighbour intertwine and work together in the service of the Word. The example and love of Jesus Christ, who came from heaven to earth to proclaim the Gospel and save souls, resolves the problem, which had already been Francis’, of whether to devote himself only to the contemplative life or also to preaching. The Capuchins open themselves to the mission of evangelisation in the world, animated by a charity that simultaneously interpenetrates prayer and apostolic action, bringing them into a unified and fruitful synthesis.[61]

Looking to Jesus Christ, “let the preachers sometimes leave behind the crowds of people and go up the mountain of prayer and contemplation with the most gentle Saviour. They should strive to be inflamed with divine love like seraphim so that being rekindled themselves they may enkindle others”.[62]

The model to be copied is the apostle Paul who comes to the conclusion that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him (Gal 2:19ff) and declares that he goes out to evangelise with the power of the love of Christ who died for all men (2 Cor 5:45ff). Preachers must “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”.[63]

They needed to prepare themselves with “some devout and holy studies, rich in charity and humility”.[64] In order to be admitted, they should be “of fervent charity” and “not seek that knowledge which puffs up, but rather the enlightening and enkindling charity of Christ that edifies the soul”.[65]

In order to promote this priority of study, a prayer is placed on the students’ lips, in which they declare that they want to love the Lord to the extent that they know Him, or rather that they do not want to know Him except in order to love Him.[66]

The main study must be the “study done by prayer”, which is to be “introduced to the true and fine understanding of the sacred texts beneath whose meaning lay hidden the one whose spirit is sweeter than honey for anyone who tastes it”.[67]

The sapiential experience of divine love reverberates and overflows in the proclamation of the Gospel beyond the frontiers of Christianity. The Constitutions in dealing with the theme of the missionary apostolate commences from the love of God and the brothers. The brothers always “exerting themselves in divine love and fraternal charity“,[68] become those brothers, “perfectly enkindled in the love of blessed Christ and in zeal for His Catholic faith”,[69] which are required for such a noble and arduous mission.

The missionary brothers express a fraternity united in the name of the Lord and becoming one in heart and soul, like the first Christian community (Acts 4:32), capable of making the Gospel credible according to the priestly prayer of Jesus (Jn 17:21). To send them the ministers who are exhorted to act with enlightened openness of heart, without worrying about the departure of the best brothers, with unlimited trust “cast all their solicitude and concern upon the One who cares for us continually. Let them do all these things as the Holy Spirit teaches and carry out everything with that charity which does nothing badly”.[70]

Charity commands and animates every norm and exhortation. Thus, the brothers are invited in the “charity of Christ” to observe the Gospel, the Rule, the holy and praiseworthy customs, the examples of the saints “as they direct their every thought, word and deed to the honour and glory of God and the salvation of their neighbour, the Holy Spirit will teach them all things”.[71]

In order to receive the blessing of the Seraphic Father, given before his death to those who faithfully observe the Rule, it is necessary that we “understand carefully and observe effectively and lovingly the perfection shown and taught us in the Rule”.[72]

Without looking with a mercenary and servile eye at what is obligatory or not in the Constitutions, the brothers should strive above all to please the Lord in all things by seeking to “work for the love of God”, as is expected of true sons of God.[73]

Here, as elsewhere, the filial spirit, that is, seraphic love, covers the distance between law and freedom, between decree and charism, and transforms the legislative text into a lively treatise on spirituality.

Some special notes

The Christocentric foundations and charity leaven from inside the Constitutions until they rise up to the summit of an ideal that calls for heroism in living them out.

Between the many norms and directives, the experts have individuated some in particular that indicate the high spiritual plane the 1536 Constitutions arrived at and which indicate how the Capuchin reform was moulded from its infancy.

1. The renunciation of privilege and exemption from the authority of the local Ordinary. This was uncommon and surprising legislation. The enunciation of the reasons is exquisitely evangelical and Franciscan: The humble Christ crucified came to serve us and became obedient even to the bitter death of the cross. Although He was not subject to the law He wanted to submit to it and pay the tax and tribute while being free. Hence to better conform ourselves to Him and to avoid scandal, the General Chapter renounces the privileges of being free and exempt from Ordinaries. With the Seraphic Father we accept being subject to everyone as the highest privilege.[74]

2. Austerity in food, to the degree of distributing to the poor and food donated that was not absolutely necessary: If some superfluous food has been brought let the friars refuse it while humbly thanking the donors. Or with their consent, let the friars distribute it among the poor.[75]

Poverty must be, above all, be interior, but must also be external, in such a way that it is a credible witness to the detachment from goods and an openness towards the needy: On the other hand, let each friar keep in mind that Evangelical Poverty consists in not having affection for any earthly thing; in using these things of the world sparingly, as if compelled by necessity to do so and for the glory of God, whom must be acknowledged for everything; and in giving to the poor what we have left over for the glory of poverty. Let the friars also remember that we are in an inn and eat the sins of the people. However we will have to give an account of everything.[76]

3. For the effective observation of poverty and to avoid any semblance of possession, every year the owner of the property where the friars are dwelling, during the octave of the feast of Saint Francis, must be given back the property and then asked if he is willing to grant the use of it to the friars for another year. If he no longer wants to loan it to the friars: let them leave without any show of sadness but rather with a joyful heart. Accompanied by divine poverty, let them recognise themselves indebted and not offended for the time that the place was lent them. If the place is his, he is not bound to lend it again.[77]

4. In every friary, if possible, there should be one or two solitary cells so that: if any friar (judged suitable for this by his superior) may wish to lead the anchoritic life, he can give himself quietly to God with an angelic life in solitude, following the impulse of the holy spirit.[78] This is a directive carried over from the Statutes of Albacina, with an explicit reference to the small rule of Saint Francis for hermitages.

5. During periods of famine the friars can go questing for the poor. Contemplation does not close them within the friary but renders them willing to be available to meet the needs of the poor: We also order that in times of famine questing be done by friars assigned to this by their superiors in order to provide for the needs of the poor, according to the example of our most pious Father who had great compassion for the poor. If he was given something for the love of God, he did not want it without an agreement to be able to give it to the poor when he found someone poorer than himself. As we read in many places, so as not to be without the gospel wedding garment of charity, he stripped off his own clothes and gave them to the poor. Or rather, he was stripped by the violent impulse of divine love.[79]

6. During periods of epidemics, the friars are to assist the sick to the extent of even being willing to give their own lives. The supreme model is the love of Jesus Christ and the Capuchins want to follow: Since for those who have no love upon the earth it is a sweet, fair and fitting thing to die for the one who died for us on the Cross, we instruct the friars to serve the sick during the times of plague, according to what their Vicars decide, who will strive in such cases to keep prudent charity in mind.[80]

These six notable characteristics were omitted from the 1552 Constitutions and were not taken up again in any successive revisions. These could indicate the dividing line between the idealism of the origins of the Capuchin reform, within the spirit of the original pioneers, and the inevitable realism of the latter period, that had to adapt itself to being a very large and growing religious family.

However, the overall message of the primitive text of the Constitutions remained indelibly written and preserved in the fabric of the Order, because this lies not in the given norms but in the inspiration of the charism. Within the legislation the spirit had been infused and could not be cancelled out.

An example of this is in the service to the plague victims. While it had been cancelled from the successive legislation, the inspiration remained. History documents how, during the epidemics that afflicted various cities in Italy and abroad, hosts of Capuchin friars did their utmost in heroic service to the people.

The seed sprouted, grew, and never ceased over the centuries to give produce fruit.

From the Constitutions of 1536 to those of 1552 and 1575

It seemed opportune at the General Chapter of 1552 to review the 1536 Constitutions so as to adapt them to the new needs of the Order. There was a perceived need also to correct the somewhat rough and ready style of 1536. This work was entrusted to Fr Angelo da Savona. He occupied himself with embellishing the form but without taking care to conserve their original simplicity.[81]

Already in the title page the new direction is announced. It was padded out with adjectives and prepositions: In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ begin the Constitutions of the Friars Minor called Capuchins (1536) becomes The Constitutions of the poor friars minor called Capuchins, ordered by their General Chapter for a smoother observance of the Rule, newly corrected and reformed (1552).

In the flow of the text epithets accumulate with an affectation that foreshadows the style of the Baroque period. For example, the apostle Paul is named the most prudent architect of the Church.[82] To state that Christ came to save souls, he resorts to circumlocution: for whose salvation He willed to come down from heaven into this vale of tears (1552 n. 103) as compared to: He came down from heaven to earth to save souls (1536 n. 114).

The early Capuchins did not like such transformation that disregarded the original simplicity of the text, subsequently, in 1575, in a new redaction of the text, the more primitive style was taken up again, and discreetly reworked.

The changes made in the 1552 and 1575 texts were also an indication of the new orientation of the Order. The omissions, in particular, from the 1536 texts have a significance in the historical evolution of the Order. Only some indications to this are given in the following:

    1. In the section on contemplative prayer, the hermitage cells disappear, indicating a break with the past and the new orientation towards the pastoral life.
    2. In the 1552 text, in reaction to the departure of Ochino, who had commenced to deviate with the abandoning of prayer, prayer as the “mother and nurse of all true virtue” is underlined (n. 33); the exhortation to not leave the preachers idle is eliminated and replaced with, “we exhort preachers to strive to imprint upon their hearts Jesus Christ our blessed Saviour through humble, fervent and constant prayer, so that He can take peaceful possession of them, and that He may speak and act in them through overflowing love, like Paul, the Teacher of the Gentiles, who did not dare to preach virtue to others unless Christ had first accomplished it in him” (n. 106).
    3. In the area of poverty, the norm of annual restitution of property and significant objects to the owner disappears and is replaced with an implicit acknowledgement that the property does not belong to the friars.
    4. The appellative of poverty as the queen and mother of the virtues disappears in 1552 and reappears in 1575. It is the same with the directive to give superfluous food to the poor. When reappearing in 1575, this directive is moved to chapter six (Chapter III, n. 54 (1536); Chapter VI, n. 72 (1575).
    5. In the field of pastoral service, the exhortations to collect food for the poor in times of famine and to assist the sick during times of plagues, even at the risk of giving their life, are removed. However, there are many testimonies to the friars continuing to give their lives in such service beyond the 1575 Constitutions.
    6. The 1575 General Chapter recognised the need to recover the 1536 texts at the levels of form and content. They perceived a mutilation of the ideals having crept into the 1552 texts. They sought to recuperate the original values present in the 1536 texts:
      1. The Testament was at the root of the reform. In 1552 the text was altered from a command for the friars to observe the Testament, to only a suggestion to observe it. It returned to a command in 1575.
      2. The Christocentric call to mortification in what the friars drank (III, 52:  Christ was denied water on the Cross and He was given wine with myrrh or vinegar with gall) was removed in 1552 (III, n. 44) and returned in 1575 (III, 44).
      3. Obedience to every human creature (I, n. 9) was omitted in 1552 but taken up again in 1575 (I, n. 6) inspired by the Praise of Virtues and the Testament of Saint Francis.
      4. The call in the Letter to a minister to use mercy (VII, n. 95) towards the friars who sin is omitted in 1552 but reinserted in 1575 (VII, n. 80).
      5. The prayer before studies was removed in 1552 and reinserted in 1575.
      6. The Christological conclusion to the Constitutions was removed in 1552 and reinserted in 1575.
    7. The following passages disappeared completely from the 1536 Constitutions and were not reinserted in 1575:
      1. The reading of the Gospels three times a year in honour of the Holy Trinity.
      2. The beautiful spiritual consideration that Jesus was understood by the simple and uneducated.
      3. The freedom to confess oneself outside of the friaries to any approved priest.
      4. XI, n. 136: the strange expression attributed to Saint Francis: For our Father St. Francis said that God has taken wives from us and the devil has given us nuns.

There were some additions dealing with liturgy that occurred consequent to 1552 General Chapter, and others that resulted from the 1575 Constitutions consequent to the Council of Trent, such as the organising of studies in each province.

Generalising, the 1575 Constitutions took up again the important elements omitted in the 1552 Constitutions and remained substantially unchanged until 1968.

  1. Cf. C. Cargnoni, Fonti, tendenze e sviluppi…, in CF 48 (1978) 311-398.
  2. An edition of the text can be found AO 94 (1978) 380-383, and now here, in part III, section I, text I.
  3. See the respective texts this part I, section III, texts II and III (nn. 499-592, 593-615); also in part III, section I, text III.
  4. Cf. part III, section I, text IV.
  5. Ibid., text VI and section II, doc. 2.
  6. F. Elizondo, Las constituciones capuchinas de 1536, in Estud. Franc. 83 (1982) 148.
  7. Const. 1536, n. 27 (n. 187).
  8. Ibid. n. 93 (n. 295).
  9. Ibid. n. 95.10 (n. 298).
  10. Ibid. n. 137.5-11 (n. 406).
  11. Ibid. n. 7-8 (nn. 157-158).
  12. Decree on the renewal of Religious Life: Perfecta caritatis, 2 a).
  13. Const. 1536, n. 6 (n. 156).
  14. Ibid. n. 1 (n. 151).
  15. Ibid. n. 4 (11. 154).
  16. Ibid. n. 8 (n. 158).
  17. Ibid. n. 15 (n. 169).
  18. Ibid. n. 17 (n. 171).
  19. Ibid. n. 21 (n. 181).
  20. Ibid. n. 23 (n. 183).
  21. Ibid. n. 25 (n. 185).
  22. Ibid. n. 28 (n. 188).
  23. Ibid. n. 49 (n. 229).
  24. Ibid. n. 52 (n. 232).
  25. Ibid. n. 55 (n. 237).
  26. Ibid. n. 56 (n. 238).
  27. Ibid. n. 57 (n. 239).
  28. Ibid. n. 58-59 (nn. 240-241).
  29. Ibid. n. 61 (n. 243).
  30. Ibid. n. 69 (n. 256).
  31. Ibid. n. 95 (n. 297).
  32. Ibid. n. 101 (n. 314).
  33. Ibid. n. 102 (n. 315).
  34. Ibid. n. 113 (n. 364).
  35. Ibid. n. 114 (n. 365).
  36. Ibid. n. 116 (n. 370).
  37. Ibid. n. 139 (n. 408),
  38. Cf. ibid. n. 152 (n. 429).
  39. Ibid. prologue 4‐5 (n. 150).
  40. Ibid. n. 1,10 (n. 151).
  41. Ibid. n. 3,1 (n. 153).
  42. Ibid. n. 4 (n. 154).
  43. Ibid. n. 7,3 (n. 157).
  44. Ibid. n. 9,4 (n. 159).
  45. Ibid. n. 19,2 (n. 173).
  46. Ibid. n. 27,2 (n. 187).
  47. Ibid. nn. 32,2 and 33,1 (nn. 205-206).
  48. Ibid. n. 41 (n. 215).
  49. Ibid. n. 42,1-3 (n. 217).
  50. Ibid. n. 91,4-7 (n. 293).
  51. Ibid. n. 63 (n. 245).
  52. Ibid. n. 66,1-2 (n. 250).
  53. Ibid..
  54. Ibid. n. 46,5 (n. 221).
  55. Ibid. n. 53,1 (n. 233).
  56. Ibid. n. 54 (n. 236).
  57. Ibid. n. 88,5 (11. 277).
  58. Ibid. n. 85 (n. 272).
  59. Ibid. n. 89 (n. 280).
  60. Ibid. n. 93 (n. 295).
  61. Ibid. n. 117 (n. 371).
  62. Ibid. n. 120 (n. 374).
  63. Ibid. n. 112,3 (n. 363).
  64. Ibid. n. 122,4 (n. 380).
  65. Ibid. nn. 122,5 and 123 (nn. 380 and 387).
  66. Ibid. n. 125 (n. 389).
  67. Ibid. nn. 123,2 e 124,3-4 (nn. 387 and 388).
  68. Ibid. n. 139,4 (n. 408).
  69. Ibid. n. 143,2 (n. 413).
  70. Ibid. n. 143,7-8 (n. 413).
  71. Ibid. n. 141 (n 411).
  72. Ibid. n. 147,2 (n. 424).
  73. Ibid. n. 148,1-2 (n. 425).
  74. Ibid. n. 8,3-6 (n. 158).
  75. Ibid., n. 54,4 (n. 136).
  76. Ibid., n. 67 (n. 251).
  77. Ibid, n. 70,6-7 (n. 257).
  78. Ibid., n. 79,2 (n. 266).
  79. Ibid., n. 85 (n. 272).
  80. Ibid., n. 89 (n. 280).
  81. Cf. F. Elizondo, Las constituciones capuchinas de 1552, in Laurent. 21 (1980) 206-250.
  82. This is translated from Cargnoni, I Frati Cappuccini, I. p. 245. The translation in CapDox does not contain this exact phrase, but rather translates the text as: the great prudence cf. n. 102.