Early Capuchin Legislation: General Overview






from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, I, pages 155-164.

English version prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap

(Access digital version of original text in I Frati Cappuccini here)

Table of Contents

In the legislative section we include as Capuchin sources simply the Statutes of Albacina and the first Constitutions. They can be considered privileged sources because they authentically report the original intentions and the genuine spirit of the Capuchin reform in the early days of its history.

In recent years they have been studied from different and complementary angles by Fedele Elizondo, Ottaviano Schmucki and Costanzo Cargnoni. By collecting here some emerging results for possible comparisons and developments we refer readers to the studies of these experts, marked in the general bibliographical list at the end of the work.

To help in the reading and to initiate the deeper understanding of the texts, we point in this brief introduction to the common components of the two sources, while in the presentation of each one we focus on the spiritual content.

Finally, in a brief review, we limit ourselves to pointing out schematically the changes made to the fundamental text in the Constitutions of 1552 and 1575, which have a particular significance in the history of the primitive legislation.

However, for the purposes of a more precise clarification, we thought it appropriate to add to the individual numbers of the Constitutions of 1536, in the form of a critical apparatus, all the textual and lexical variations of the subsequent constitutional drafts from 1552 to 1643 and their omissions or additions, thus becoming an X-ray of the evolution of the Order in the first century of its history.

It concludes with a reference to the “Ordinances of the General Chapters”.

Sources of primitive legislation

The primary source of Capuchin legislation is the Regola bollata. Like all the reform movements within the Franciscan Order, the Capuchins aimed first of all to return to the integral observance of the Rule.

Already in the first document that the Holy See sent to the initiators of the reform,[1] it was noted that they intended to observe the Rule of St. Francis with all its requirements, as far as human frailty permitted. Subsequent pontifical documents fully confirmed this original intention and indeed indicated, in unequivocal terms, an observance of the Rule of Saint Francis.

Subsequent pontifical documents fully confirmed this primordial intention and even indicated, in unequivocal terms, an “ad unguem” [nailbiting] observance, in an extremely rigid and austere way of life.[2]

In her letter to Cardinal Contarini, the famous Marchioness of Pescara, Vittoria Colonna, wrote: “Regarding the letters of authority, we reply that those that have been published over many years in the Order of St Francis, meaning those that are binding and are founded on the observance of the Rule, are all intended for these Fathers, who seek to observe them purely as far as is possible… Likewise they accept all those writings that can bind them to the observance of their Rule, while those which relax it in any way at all they have rejected and still reject today… These men are not asking for greatness, they have no wish to be rich: solely for the love of Christ’s wounds and the stigmata of their Father do they ask to be left in the peaceful tranquillity of God and the true observance of their Rule”.[3]

The passionate zeal for the integral observance of the Rule has clearly only one motivation, because it “is nothing other than the marrow of the Gospel […], is like a little mirror reflecting evangelical perfection”.[4]

In this perspective the Constitutions of 1556 programmatically declare: “It was not only the will of our Father Saint Francis but also that of Christ our redeemer for the Rule to be observed simply, to the letter and without gloss just as our first seraphic Fathers observed it. Since our Rule is very clear, and so that it may be observed more purely, spiritually and in a holy manner, all glosses and fleshly, useless and compromising explanations are rejected. These uproot the Rule from the pious, just and holy mind of our Lord Christ who spoke in Saint Francis. We accept the declarations by the supreme pontiffs as well as the most holy life, teaching and example of our Father Saint Francis as the only valid commentary on our Rule”.[5]

For the first Capuchins, therefore, it was the express will of Christ that the Rule be observed “purely, spiritually and in a holy manner”. It was their firm conviction that the Rule was of divine origin, as they deduced from the well-known story of the apparition of Christ to Francis in the hermitage of Fonte Colombo.[6]

They rejected the permissive interpretations but accepted the declarations of the supreme pontiffs and above all “the most holy life, doctrine and examples of our Father Saint Francis” as a living commentary on the Rule.

In this line, the Testament takes a privileged place: “As true and legitimate sons of Christ, our Father and Lord, born again by Him in Saint Francis, we share in his inheritance. We instruct all (the friars) to observe the Testament our Father Saint Francis himself set down when close to death, marked with the sacred stigmata. Full of fervour and holy spirit he longed for our salvation. And we accept this (the Testament) as a spiritual gloss and exposition of our Rule since it was written so that the promised Rule be observed in a better and more catholic way”.[7]

Here our first brothers, going beyond the explicit declaration of the Seraphic Father, commanded that the Testament be observed to guarantee unconditional fidelity to the Rule. The prophecy of John of Parma spread among them, holding that the true reform of the Order would only be achieved by the observance of the Rule without privileges and dispensations, as required in the Testament. This is precisely what they intended, assuming the Testament “as a spiritual gloss and exposition of our Rule”.

Bernardino da Colpetrazzo, the principal chronicler of the Order in the sixteenth century, reported this position in the following terms: “Moreover, for the perfect observance of the Rule, they took as a firm foundation that the Testament of our Seraphic Father should be observed, not obliging us however by profession to promise the Testament again, nor even less by special vow, but that we should embrace and observe it as a paternal admonition of our Seraphic Father, and as that which most amply demonstrates to us the intention of our Father concerning the observance of the Rule. Therefore, these venerable fathers concluded that whoever wished to observe the Rule perfectly must observe the Testament. For this reason they have also laid it down in the first Constitutions“.[8]

The Testament constitutes the primary interpretation of the Rule and determines the fundamental direction of the reform in the rejection of every privilege or dispensation. In the Constitutions it is often quoted and is the reason for many provisions, such as, for example: to conform one’s life to the Gospel (n. 1), to have only one habit (n. 22), to recite the Divine Office according to the norms of the Roman Church (n. 30), to greet according to the Gospel: “May the Lord give you peace” (n. 47), to work manually (n. 65),

to take only poor churches and dwellings (n. 73).

Next to the Testament, the Constitutions place, as a lively commentary on the Rule, “the most holy life, doctrine and examples of our Father Saint Francis”.

Here too we have the chronicler Bernardino da Colpetrazzo as our main interpreter who reports: “Taking for granted the experience and the warnings of the holy father, which are written for universal use in the books of our religion, that is in the Conformities, in the Chronicles of the Order, in the Legend of St. Bonaventure and the one that was written by the three most distinguished companions of the holy father St. Francis: Brother Leo, Brother Angelo and Brother Ruffino. This was the reason, therefore, that the first Capuchins took great care of these books, and at the table, after the reading of the sacred Scriptures, little else was read except the things of the Father Saint Francis and of religion; from which they derived the form and manner of living as our Father Saint Francis wished by way of clothes, places and other things the brothers must use by way of necessity. Those venerable fathers laid down in the first Constitutions that all these things should be read and well considered by the brothers with due diligence and consideration”.[9]

Referring to the study of Fedele Elizondo[10] for a bibliography on these sources, we note that the editors of the first Constitutions found the following placed together in the book of the Conformities by Bartolomeo da Pisa: the writings of St Francis, biographical accounts, and chronicles of the Order. They also used some Franciscan collections published in those early years of the 16th century, such as the Speculum Minorum, printed in Venice in 1513. This collection and others of its kind contained letters of St Francis, papal documents, expositions of the Rule and some of the best-known Constitutions, such as those of Narbona (1260), Farinerian (1354), Martinian (1430) and those of St John of Capistrano (1443).

It would be anachronistic to expect a critical discernment in the use of such texts; the first Capuchins simply sought out and took from them all that had certain and immediate reformist resonance. For this same reason they did not hesitate to have recourse to the statutes of the Scalzi and Recolletti of Spain, sometimes borrowing their literary expressions.

The pioneers of our reform did not aspire to be original but wanted only to gather and take up the most valid elements of the previous and contemporary reforms. They sought with urgency the renewing of the Franciscan way of life in the current historical context in which they lived, and they responded with evangelical choices that the best traditions of the Order and the inspiration for reform suggested to them.

Openness to the signs of the time

The redactors of the early legislation were considerably open to the spiritual currents of their time, such as evangelical renewal, the modern devotion and the Divine Love movement. With the contributions of these currents, they updated the tradition and brought it into the environment in which they operated.

In the acute tension of the struggle against laxity, the importance given to the external forms of poverty and penance did not in any way detract from the centrality of Christ and the primacy of charity, values specific to the Franciscan school which were rediscovered and accentuated by all in that period of history.

The characteristic note of the Capuchin reform is to be found particularly in the synthesis of traditional values with a Christocentric focus operating through the primacy of love. With this synthesis the Capuchins achieved that harmonious balance between faith and works, grace and freedom, mysticism and asceticism, charism and institution, which was expressive of the best of the reform underway in sixteenth century Italy.

In their fidelity to the past and in their docility to the signs of their time, they achieved such complete harmony that an authoritative historian concluded that “the spirituality of the Capuchins shows us how, in the age of the Renaissance, they relived a past experience, that of the Franciscans, with a meditated, formidable interiority”.[11]

It is precisely a “meditated, formidable interiority” that renews the Franciscan tradition and animates the Capuchin reform, harmonising the contemplative life with apostolic activity, the mystical ideal with ascetic realism.

The Statutes of Albacina, which undoubtedly offer the first fundamental programme of the reform, see the brothers “stand before God and serve Him, who like a most clear mirror and like the flashing luminaries of the world are to lead others to God, the ultimate aim and end of all, by the holy words and the more holy example of their lives”.[12]

The ideal, the primary aim of religious life is expressed in lapidary terms in Albacina’s ordinances, where it deals with the time of mental prayer: “For the fervent and devout friars will not be satisfied with these two hours at all, but they will spend in prayer and meditation all the time that is left to them after their works of obedience, and like real men of prayer, they shall pray everywhere and adore the Father in spirit and in truth. To this earnestness for prayer, we urgently exhort all the friars, especially because this is the end and aim of all”.[13]

The primacy of the contemplative dimension is a constant that runs through all the primitive legislation and determines a series of norms and directives to put it into practice. The purpose to which contemplation must lead is declared where it speaks of the permanence of the eremitical cell: “so that they may peacefully give themselves to God and to prayer, by which they will be more perfectly united to God”.[14]

The Capuchins pursued a discourse on mystical union and freedom of the spirit, which subjected them to being suspect of Lutheranism. Apart from the intemperance and eventually apostasy of Ochino, which was to occur six years later, Vittoria Colonna wrote in 1536: “it is said that they seem like Lutherans, because they preach freedom of spirit […] we reply that if St Francis was a heretic, those who imitate him are Lutherans. And if preaching about freedom of spirit more than about vices is called error when one is subject to the ordinance of Holy Church, it would also be wrong to observe the gospel, which says in several places: It is the Spirit that gives life”.[15]

The reference to Saint Francis in the impassioned apologia of the “Mother of the Capuchins” indicates the spiritual itinerary of the new reform: through Francis to Christ. The seraphic father, with the Rule as an example of his life, called for the following of the poor, humble Christ and the austere demands of asceticism. The Capuchin friars decidedly followed in his footsteps, committing themselves to assimilate his mystical ardour through a precise imitation of his virtues.

Spirit and law

With a healthy realism, they did not allow themselves to be so carried away by a freedom of spirit that they underestimated the need for a precise norm. We have a typical example where they idealise the “devout and fervent brothers” in unceasing contemplation. They do not hesitate to take note of human frailty and therefore to give a concrete and detailed disposition: “We also decree that the established hours and times of mental prayer shall be observed every day. The times set aside for prayer are “a full hour before Tierce in the morning and another after Vespers, which may never be omitted for any reason whatsoever […] Let them remember, however, that these hours are set aside for right order and the common good of the Order, especially for those friars who are of a colder and more negligent spirit”.[16]

Union with God, as the end of religious life, is a grace granted to those who faithfully put the Gospel and the Rule into practice. There is no room for vain illusions and exalting mystifications. The summit of love coincides with the bare embrace of the poor and crucified Christ. In this perspective, the most demanding legislative norms come forward, imposing themselves. They are forceful norms to be understood in the wisdom of their content, which introduces the spirit of the reform and the secret of its vitality. It is the nodal point that unites spirit and law, charism and institution. The six first Capuchins had within them a “boiling spirit”, as Bellintani wrote, yet they were very faithful to the small observances and prescriptions.

The holy religious Brother Bernard of Offida echoed and reflected this in the transparent account of Paul of Foligno: “When I heard the lives of Father Saint Francis and his companions read, they seemed to me simple things and of little esteem, because I was blind. But now I know how important they are. Divine wisdom would not have placed frivolous things in the Rule. And therefore, to go on foot, barefoot, ragged, having nothing but the rosary and the Rule, if they seem to be things of little importance, underneath them, however, is hidden the Spirit of the Lord. For these things bring about contempt for the world and detachment from creatures, in which consists Christian wisdom; just as the more obedient, poor, humble and detached from the world the friar is, the more spirit he has; so the more he exercises himself in these things for God’s sake, the more light and divine spirit he acquires. And as in the sacraments, under the vile appearances of matter, there is and works divine grace, so under these outward observances and diligence is the true spirit of God. For this they are not to be despised”.[17]

We are at the opposite end of the spectrum from formalistic observance and mortifying literalism; here beats the heart of a friar full of the Spirit of God, who personified the fervour and wisdom of the first Capuchin generation.

It is worth noting and underlining the term “esercitarsi”[18] [exercise/practise], which appears very often on the lips of the first brothers and is frequently found in legislative texts, is a term derived from military jargon, transferred into ascetic language to express the effort to be made to combat the tendencies of nature, to overcome self-love and to work hard to acquire virtues in the service of God. The brother must train themselves, test out, strive to “practice secret and mental prayers”.[19]

It is an application of Franciscan voluntarism, an active methodology of spiritual apprenticeship, a concrete and practical norm of asceticism. It coincides with the categorical declaration of the divine Master: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

The legislator is aware that he is demanding and asking for self-denial and sacrifice in imposing the “practice” of the various virtues that he proposes, but he does not fail to point out the secret of success and joy: “And through Jesus Christ the grace of God will free us from all danger. In all our efforts too, our consolation will abound through Jesus Christ. We will be capable of everything in the Him who comforts us, namely, Christ the Almighty”.[20]

In Jesus Christ the ascetic effort is transformed into an experience of love and generates a serene, luminous spiritual life.

Petrocchi writes of St Laurence of Brindisi, the undisputed champion of the Capuchin reform, that his spirituality “falls within the method and taste of Christian optimism: sweet and gentle is the Christian life; infinite is the love of God for mankind, the cornerstone of Christianity and divine providence”.[21]

The spirituality of the Constitutions of 1536 that, after having overcome the predominantly “passion-centric” phase of Albacina, are pervaded by a sense of luminous inner life in the vision of the Father as provident and caring, who comes to meet us by loving us tenderly in Christ. Here is an emblematic excerpt: “Therefore let us act as men and not trust our strength. The good Father who created us and has given us evangelical perfection to observe and who knows the clay of which we were made, will give us the strength with His help. Moreover, He will give His heavenly gifts in such profusion and abundance so that once all the obstacles are overcome, we will not only be able to obey His most fair Son but also follow and imitate Him with great joyfulness and simplicity of heart, perfectly despising visible and temporal things and always yearning after those that are heavenly and eternal”.[22]

We are here at the root and heart of the Capuchin-Franciscan spirituality. The filial trust in the Father, the example and love of Christ to be followed and imitated “with great joyfulness and simplicity of heart”, made the evangelical dynamism of the Capuchin reform explode and then coalesce into the spiritual temperament in which flowered its primitive legislation.

  1. Religionis zelus of 3 July 1528.
  2. Pastoralis officii of 15 April 1534.
  3. Cf. part II, sect. I, doc. 21, nn. 1924 and 1930.
  4. Const. 1536, nn. 1.6 and 2.1.
  5. Ibid., n. 5 (cf. n. 155).
  6. Spec. perf. 1 (FF nn. 1677-1678).
  7. Const. 1536, n. 6.
  8. MHOC III, 5 (Cf. n. 2640).
  9. MHOC IV, 4 (cf. n. 2613).
  10. F. Elizondo, Las consituciones capuchinas de 1536, in Estud. Franc. 83 (1982) 171-174.
  11. Massimo Petrocchi, Storia della spiritualità, II: Il Cinquecento e il Seicento, Roma 1978, 18.
  12. Alb. n.1 (cf. n. 82).
  13. Alb. n. 8 (cf. n. 89).
  14. Alb. n. 47 (cf. n. 128 [n. 44 in the English translation on CapDox].
  15. Vittoria Colonna, Lett. al card. Contarini, in /eduardus Alinc., Tribulaiones, 32 (cf. 1922).
  16. Alb. n. 8 (n. 89).
  17. MHOC VII, 497 (n. 84).
  18. Alb. n. 3 (n. 84).
  19. Ibid., n. 24 (n. 105).
  20. Const. 1536, n. 149 (n. 426).
  21. M. Petrocchi, Storia cit., 21.
  22. Const. 1536, n. 151 (n. 428).