Francesco Saverio Toppi OFM Cap
from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, I, pages 165-176
Prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap
Table of Contents
- Characteristic notes
- Contemplative life
- Poor and austere life
- Other themes
- Manual work
- Fraternal life and works of charity
A few months after its pontifical approval, the Capuchin reform already had a good number of brothers scattered in different places in the Marches. Therefore, it was necessary to elect superiors and draft statutes.
Ludovico of Fossombrone, in agreement with the most qualified brothers, called a “general chapter”, which was celebrated at Albacina, in the hermitage of S. Maria dell’Acquarella, in April 1529.
Four deﬁnitors were elected: Ludovico da Fossombrone, Matteo da Bascio, Angelo da S. Angelo in Vado and Paolo da Chioggia. Among these, Matteo da Bascio was chosen by acclamation as Vicar General, despite his reluctance. But it was only for a short time, as he soon resigned and was replaced by Ludovico da Fossombrone.
After the elections, the statutes were drawn up and four deﬁnitors were appointed. According to Mario Fabiani of Mercato Saraceno, they were drafted in Latin by Paolo da Chioggia, an expert in the curial style. But reading the text in its simple and archaic dictation, clumsy and jumpy in style, everything suggests that the original draft was in the vernacular.
Mattia Bellintani is credited with having transmitted the only surviving copy of these statutes in his Historia Capuccina. Even allowing for a few alterations by the transcriber, scholars agree that the text is authentic.
There is no need to refer to the Latin version of Boverio, which is far removed from the immediacy and transparency of the original. However, it is collated with the text for a useful critical and philological comparison.
The ordinances of Albacina are presented in the name of Ludovico da Fossombrone who, as Vicar General, promulgated them, added some elements to them according to the needs of the government and adopted them in guiding the reform until 1535.
The earliest Capuchin chroniclers write about these ordinances with great enthusiasm. Mario da Mercato Saraceno reports that they gathered “in a hut with such poverty and simplicity, prayer and spirit […] it is no wonder that they made such judicious, well thought-out and saintly ordinances“.
Bernardino Croli da Colpetrazzo does not hesitate to affirm that they are “the first ordinances so simple and so beautiful and so well ordered that they were clearly known to be made by the Holy Spirit“. Elsewhere he describes them as “more heavenly than human“.
The naive exaltation of the chroniclers is justified by the atmosphere of seraphic fervour that pervades them and expresses the heroic desire to return to Saint Francis and the integral observance of the Rule.
The authors of the ordinations of Albacina came from the great family of the Observance, into which the previous reforms had been channelled, and of which they knew from close quarters the most consistent experiences and the most valid directions. In particular, they had in mind the statutes of the Spanish Scalzi and those that the general minister, Francisco Quiñones, had promulgated for the Spanish houses of retreat in 1523 and for the Italian houses in 1526 during his visit to the provinces.
The purpose of the reform was to take up and adapt with discernment the previous reform proposals, without claiming “to institute a new Rule, nor to change to a new way of life“.
At first glance the unfinished and provisional character of the text leaps out, along with the lack of an organic and ordered development of its arguments. For this reason, it is more accurate to describe them as “ordinances” rather than “constitutions”.
They are a series of position statements to declare the intent and initiate the direction of the reform. The immediate objective is to eliminate recurrent abuses in community life and to sanction the norms considered most urgent for a return to the integral observance of the Rule.
Contemplative prayer firmly is promoted, and the strictest poverty established at every level are the pillars on which are based the ordinances of Albacina.
The first concern of the legislator is to guarantee the primacy of the contemplative life and to ensure its exercise by means of precise norms that occupy the first twelve articles.
The denomination “lesser brothers of the eremitical life” is all part of the programme, even though this was a juridical clause that qualified religious living outside their community of origin.
The identity of the brothers is essentially given by their being those “who like the angels 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 reformist intention is aimed firstly at realising this identity, changing the community way of life from that of being crammed with vocal prayers and “ceremonies”, that suffocate the personal, contemplative relation with God.
The divine office is to be celebrated “devoutly, with pauses”, morning at midnight and the other canonical hours at the appropriate time, taking care above all to interiorize the liturgical rites. In the choir, no votive offerings are to be recited in common, except for those of Our Lady, and no other pious practices are to be admitted, “lest their voices should disturb those who are occupied in mental prayer. This is decreed first, in order that the friars gathering together, with greater devotion, shall duly recite the Canonical Hours, prescribed by the Rule and the Church; then also that they may find more leisure to give to private and mental prayers, which are often more useful and excellent than mere vocal prayers“.
Let us underline this last statement, which takes for granted the superiority of the mental prayer over the vocal one.
In order to promote the contemplative dimension and retreat, it is forbidden to take part in processions and funeral accompaniments, “so that we may remain in our peace and solitude“.
Article six takes up the norm given by St Francis in his Letter to the whole Order: to celebrate only one Mass a day in our places. It is significant that, instead of using the evangelical motivation of brotherly love, to which the Seraphic Father refers, the duty to safeguard poverty and solitude is added: “the prelates should beware of this desire to bring the people to the hermitages and places where they live by saying Masses or offerings, so that the people may bring alms and other things“.
The interest in these values is predominant and the legislator, in order to ensure their observance, hypothesises a case, sketching a scene with a candour almost typical of the Fioretti: “Moreover, the superiors shall by all means take care lest, led on by base cupidity, they induce the people to come to our hermitages or monasteries for the celebration of Mass, that they may receive alms from them. Finally we decree and ordain that they shall by no means bind themselves to celebrate Masses for seculars. However, if anyone asks us to celebrate Mass for him, they can prudently answer that we will pray for him in our Masses: then in the Mass a collect shall be added for him, in order to satisfy his devotion. But if it happens that a Mass is celebrated for anyone out of charity, we absolutely forbid the friars to receive a stipend or alms for it, or for any prayers said by them for anyone at all. But if anyone brings them bread or wine or something else necessary for food, they shall not be received unless it is done as though no prayer had been said for him. For the Mass and prayer ought to be offered to God purely and simply from charity”.
In order to protect the contemplative life, provisions are given on silence (n. 9), on the reception of the faithful at the door and of guests (n. 10), on reading at table (n. 11), and on the location of the hermitages at a distance of about one mile from the cities (n. 50).
The principal occupation of the brother is mental prayer, to which precise times must be assigned for common and private prayer. The ideal is to achieve unceasing contemplation, which is identified with the goal for which one consecrates oneself to God in the religious life.
The promotion of the contemplative life by means of eremitical solitude finds a practical and balanced solution in article 47 [44 in CapDox translation; cf. Translators note at beginning which explains the choice of using the Latin version rather than the Italian], where it is ordered to prepare one or two cells “in some solitary place, a little distance from the dwelling of the friars, so that if any of the friars, inflamed by the Spirit of God to more perfect things, wishes by divine inspiration to lead an eremitical life in silence, and if that seems good to the superior, he may withdraw to it with the blessing of God and his superior and live a solitary life”.
It is a question here of favouring a personal charism, inserting it into a structure of unity, a “cloistered solitude” which avoids the risks of absolute hermitism. In setting out on this path one encounters the Camaldolese practice and St. Francis’ little rule for hermitages. One breathes pure Christocentric and Franciscan spirituality in this delightful conclusion: “so that they may peacefully give themselves to God and to prayer, by which they will be more perfectly united to God”.
From this emphasis on the contemplative and eremitical life it would not be historically correct to deduce that the first Capuchins made this their exclusive choice. They distinguished themselves from the beginning from the ways of the Discalced of Spain and from the retreat houses of the Quiñones by their openness to apostolic activity, characteristic of the Observants of Italy.
This is indisputably demonstrated by article 24 [22 in CapDox], which emphasises and encourages preaching in the following terms: “The superiors shall not allow those preachers to be idle whom they know have been endowed by God with greater preaching ability, but they shall send them into the Lord’s vineyard that they may labour in it not only during Lent but also at other times of the year”.
In the Constitutions that will follow, such openness will only have to be taken up and developed with further applications. History shows that the first Capuchins dedicated themselves to preaching more than might seem compatible with the predominantly eremitic way of life. We know that Ludovico da Fossombrone admonished that the “preachers not be idle”, as he suggested to the superiors with instinctively autobiographical references.
Poor and austere life
After contemplation comes the strict observance of poverty. This specific component of the Franciscan spirit, second in the succession of norms, rises to first place for the number of articles that deal with it together with penance: about 40 out of 67 [59 in CapDox].
The basic motive recalls the evangelical choice of Francis: “I, little brother Francis, wish to follow the life and poverty of our most high Lord Jesus Christ and of his most holy Mother, and to persevere in it until the end“.
The Statutes of Albacina, in fact, summarise all the prescriptions given and present them in the concluding article with the following exhortation: “But if it seems difficult to any of the friars to observe all these things, let them remember that our Lord Jesus Christ appeared humble and poor in this world, and proposed his whole life to us as an example and a mirror, that in it we should contemplate and imitate humility and poverty. Let them recall that our most holy Father Francis, and all the servants of God taught the same thing; that from them we may learn that the beginning, the course, and the end of our whole life and conduct is this, that we may embrace the Cross of Christ the Lord and glory in it alone”.
The humble and poor Jesus Christ is to be followed after the example of Francis, this is the ideal of the Capuchin Friar Minor; to be with him on the holy cross is “the beginning, middle and end of our conversion“.
The austere realism of the cross of Christ leads to an effective poverty and penance, far from elegant, theoretical statements and fatuous triumphalism. In the ordinations of Albacina the comfortable ﬁctio iuris [legal fiction] is avoided at all costs and a genuine, austere poverty of fact is drastically proposed. The regulations are arresting, without giving the slightest opportunity to disappoint or misrepresent the commitment made. I will point out the most important ones.
The places of residence must always remain to all intents and purposes in the possession of the owners; the friars are to be ready to leave them if requested by the owners and go to do penance elsewhere with the Lord’s blessing, according to the Testament of the Seraphic Father.
The construction material of the places is ordered to be from “mud and twigs, or from rock and clay”, the miserable habitations being delineated as “the cells shall be so poor, humble and narrow that they seem to be graves of the living and a prison for penitents rather than places where one dwells comfortably”.
In a cell that recalls the tomb there can be no place for superfluous or curious things: “And the friars shall not have vain or precious pictures in their cells; but they shall be content with some small and poor images of Christ our Crucified Lord, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, or wooden crosses decorated with the symbols of the Passion of the Lord, like the lance, the sponge or the reed, and other things like that”.
Here the “passion-centric” emphasis on poverty comes to the fore in community life in a pounding sequence of detailed, punctilious provisions, shaping the figure of the Capuchin, his habit, his behaviour, his working tools.
In the bare dictate of the norms, however, there is no lack of references to spiritual and sometimes mystical content.
In establishing strict limits to the kinds of goods that can be quested, the Rule is referenced in marking out the eschatological dimension of poverty.
By ordering that clothing be provided only according to the needs of the moment, the mind is elevated to trusting in Providence, “placing all their hope and trust in the Lord”.
Noting that the norm of not having procurators or apostolic agents is to be inviolably observed, it specifies: “that we shall have no procurator or syndic except Christ our Lord; our procuratrix and protectress shall be the Most Blessed Virgin Mother of God; our substitute the Blessed Father Francis”.
The disposition of commanding simplicity and poverty in the chalices and other sacred ornaments is justified by “considering especially that God does not regard vessels or vestments but the heart, if it is pure and cleansed from every stain of sin, and desirous and zealous for holy poverty”.
With reference to the precept of the Rule not to ride horses, it is established that “no beast of burden, neither ass nor mule nor horse, shall be provided for in our monasteries, but our prelates shall travel on foot. But if on account of sickness or some other legitimate cause, it is necessary for someone to ride, let him use an ass, after the example of Christ who sat upon an ass and of the Blessed Father Francis, who when he suffered extreme need, was borne by an ass”.
This impromptu “image” showing the Lord Jesus and his servant Francis riding on a donkey, illuminates in perspective the trajectory on which the Capuchins will walk: behind Christ like Francis.
Bearing in mind the occasional and unsystematic nature of Albacina’s ordinances, it would be wrong to expect a complete picture of Franciscan life in all its aspects. We find ourselves before a document that by its nature had to accentuate some aspects and leave others in the shadows. The sole, almost exclusive purpose was to select and then to accept the reform proposals considered most appropriate.
In such a context, it is not surprising that the integral vision of Christ, not only poor and crucified, but also risen and praised, which Francis had outlined in his writings, is missing. The commitment to take the narrow path of poverty and penance inevitably led to the absolutization of the spirituality of the cross.
Thus, the dimension of Franciscan joy, the breadth of charitable obedience, and the evangelical openness to the mercy of the Letter to a Minister could not find a place here. It should be borne in mind that Albacina’s ordinances “are found under the name of brother Ludovico da Fossombrone“, as we read in the prologue, and therefore could not fail to be affected by his strong and hard character.
Articles that legislate on particular things, such as not touching food outside of meals or fruit in the garden (n. 57), that impose an excommunication on those who pass from one province to another (n. 59), that sanction harsh penalties for those who take things used by another religious (n. 25) or enter the cells of others (n. 38), found there place here for the purpose of eliminating recurrent abuses.
Despite the limitations and shortcomings, a purely Franciscan tone pervades the ordinances. An expressive indication of this is the frequent use of terms dear to St Francis, such as: “for charity and for the love of God… spirit and spiritual…. devotion and devout… purely and simply… remote places or hermitages…”. The austere lawgiver does not hesitate to repeat several times that he prostrates himself before the brothers “with the kissing of the feet”, to recommend with typical Franciscan expressions to the superiors that they “discreetly, timorously and divinely exhort, in as much as they will know what necessity and discretion seek“.
This terminology, which springs up spontaneously, manifests a good familiarity with the writings of the Seraphic Father and a profound harmony with his spirit. The return to Saint Francis, pursued with extreme passion at every level, naturally led to the use of his language.
The absence of any reference to manual work is indeed surprising, knowing that it was notably very dear to the heart of the protagonist of Albacina, Ludovico da Fossombrone. Paolo Vitelleschi da Foligno reports that he thought it appropriate not to deal with it in order to avoid the reactions of the well-educated and the less fervent. The point of the question, however, is made with accuracy and fairness by Bernardino da Colpetrazzo who, referring to the discussion that arose on this issue in the general chapters of 1535-36, also illuminates the antecedents and transmits the thought of those who gave direction to the reform on such a touchy topic as that of manual labour. It is a page that should be quoted verbatim because of its historical importance:
“There arose, nevertheless, a disagreement among the fathers about the desire to live by work. The Venerable Father friar Bernardino d’Asti and friar Francesco di Iesi, friar Giovanni da Farno, and many other enlightened and holy men, did not want the matter to continue”. “It is sufficient,” they said, “that the whole congregation lives on begging, and if there is someone who wants to live on his labours, we grant it to him, but as long as there is no thought of making a congregation of holy religious who attend Masses, the Divine Office, study the Scriptures and preach into a congregation of shopkeepers; for in the business of manual work it very necessary to be very involved with the laity; and in order to continue this type of work it is difficult to find a way in which one does fall into working so much as to extinguish the spirit, since all things have been ordained for us by God, so that they may serve us in spirit, as our Father says in the Rule. And for this reason, they placed in the Constitutions not to put their end into work, but only to work enough as to drive away idleness, which is the enemy of the soul”.
Certainly, Ludovico da Fossombrone was of a different opinion; he wanted a poverty lived, rather than as beggars, in the exercise of manual labour.
The choice made by the reform and codified in the primitive legislation was in consonance with the thought of St. Francis and with the tradition of the Order. It was because of such a choice the Capuchins were not reduced to a “congregation of shopkeepers” but became a force in the evangelising mission of the Church.
A partial yielding, however, to the position of Ludovico da Fossombrone can be seen in the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the study. We read: “no one shall presume to engage in literary studies, but the friars shall read only the Sacred Scriptures and some devout authors who will teach them how to love God and embrace the Cross of Christ”.
It is clear that only the study of profane disciplines is excluded here, while the study of the Bible and some other spiritual books is at least partially authorised. The intention is to affirm the absolute primacy of the love of Christ and the wisdom of the cross, but – it must be acknowledged – in narrow and one-sided terms.
The constitutions of 1536 overcame this obstacle by pointing out the necessity of study and at the same time specifying its ultimate end as to the love of God and the service of the brethren.
Fraternal life and works of charity
Another absence from the ordinances of Albacina are that of the fraternity and works of charitable assistance to the poor and suffering. This is further proof of the incompleteness inherent in a fragmentary document which gathered together only what was considered urgent to reiterate.
History, on the other hand, attests to the fact that the early Capuchins were of one heart and one soul in the little places where they lived and that they gave themselves heroically to the assistance of the plague victims. One might conclude, therefore, that there was no need to mention them.
There are, however, a few glimpses that shed light on a splendid reality that was lived but hidden in the silence of the hermitages.
Typical for works of assistance was this disposition: “We further decree that no bodies, except those of our deceased friars, shall be buried in our churches, unless by chance it would be that of some poor person who has been denied burial by the pastor on account of his poverty. If such bodies are brought to our hermitages or houses, they shall be received and given burial, for that is a work of piety. Nor shall they accept anything for the burial, but they shall pray God for his soul out of charity”.
Exemplary of fraternal life is the following exhortation: “we decree that when the necessity of talking arises during the times of silence or at any other time, either inside or outside the monastery, the friars shall accustom themselves always to speak in a subdued and humble voice; for that is very becoming to a religious. Anticipating one another in showing honour and reverence, like servants of God and humble disciples of the Crucified, they shall abstain from every act of pride or contentious animosity”.
One has the impression, reading this, of being not so much in front of an exhortation as in front of a description of a life lived.
Yes, it was precisely a life lived that the ordinances of Albacina recorded and modelled for posterity. We are obviously in the early days; it will take some time, not much time in fact, for the seeds of reform to mature.
The ordinances, as an authentic “seminary”, will be absorbed into the subsequent Constitutions and will fertilise them with the hidden vitality of the seed that carries within itself the future plant.
- MHOC V, 158, 172. The text was copied anastatically in Constitutiones antiquae, 18-31, containing margin notes not of Br Mattia Bellintani, but of Br Giacomo da Salò. ↑
- On the problems the translation of Boverio places on the histiographer cf. the detailed study of F. Elizondo, Las constituciones capuchinas de 1529. En el 4500 aniversario de su redacción en Albacina in Laurent. 20 (1979) 389-440. ↑
- MHOC I, 245. ↑
- MHOC IV, 120. ↑
- MHOC II, 249. ↑
- Alb. n. 1 (n. 82). ↑
- Ibid.. ↑
- Ibid. n. 2 (n. 83). ↑
- Ibid. n. 2 [n.3 in CapDox](n. 84). ↑
- Ibid. n. 5 (n. 86). ↑
- Ibid. n. 6 (n. 87). ↑
- Ibid.. ↑
- Ibid. n. 8 (n. 89). ↑
- Ibid. n. 47 (n. 128). ↑
- Ibid.. ↑
- Ibid. n. 24 (n. 105). ↑
- S. Francesco, Ultima volontà a S. Chiara (FF n. 140). ↑
- Alb. n. 67 [n. 59 CapDox] (n. 148). ↑
- Alb. n. 50 [42 CapDox] (n. 131). ↑
- Ibid. n. 51 [43 CapDox] (n. 132). ↑
- Ibid. n. 52 [46 CapDox] (n. 133). ↑
- Ibid. n. 17 (n. 98). ↑
- Ibid. n. 21 [19 CapDox] (n. 102). ↑
- Ibid. n. 41 [36 CapDox] (n. 122). ↑
- Ibid. n. 65 [56 CapDox] (n. 146). ↑
- Ibid. n. 42 [37 CapDox] (n. 132). ↑
- Cf. n. 81. ↑
- Ibid. n. 14 (n. 95). ↑
- MHOC VII, 198s. ↑
- MHOC IV, 196s (n. 2710). ↑
- Alb. n. 28 [25 CapDox] (n. 109). ↑
- Ibid. n. 56 [50 CapDox] (n. 137). ↑
- Ibid. n. 58 [52 CapDox] (n. 139). ↑