Missionary life and observance of the Rule

A letter that Santi Tesauro sent to Paolo M. D’Asti

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translation by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note: This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/2, pp.4314-4319

On 19th May 1604 the Minister Provincial of Geneva, Father Paolo M. Pergamo d’Asti, who also had jurisdiction over the Capuchins from Piemonte, sent a letter to Santi Tesauro da Roma, who was an authority on the observance of the Rule, in which he gave a detailed account of doubts concerning the possibility of the faithful observance of the Rule in the missions that had been set up in the region of Piemonte. The account, which is dated 16th July of the same year, is quite balanced and contains very interesting historical details of the “amendments” that had been put in place with the intention of still preserving fidelity to the spiritual tradition of the Capuchin Reform.

The somewhat hidden hostility that the Superiors expressed towards the missions was brought about by scruples concerning how monastic observance could be integrated with pastoral activity. How can one reconcile the free lifestyle of a missionary with its continuous contact with people without interfering with the practices of common life, and undermining the requirement of being mendicant as prescribed in the Rule (the Holy See was making a modest monthly contribution to the missionaries and this seemed to be something that was contrary to the vow of poverty). Nevertheless, thanks to the protection provided by Rome, the missions were thriving and the Superiors themselves were willing to sacrifice certain precepts that were contained in the Rule for the welfare of souls, as this was what St Francis had always intended.

[Rome. 16th July 1604]

7783 Reverend Father in the Lord.

Brother Giovanni Battista gave me your letter of 19th May which contained information about the mission and what was going on there. I shall now reply briefly making a few points.

1. The work being done in the mission is good and holy because it is being carried out to honour God, to advance the Catholic faith, to convert heretics and to save souls. Therefore, we ought to embrace it whole-heartedly and enthusiastically, not holding back from anything even the loss of life itself.

2. We should carry out this work in such a way that a friar can observe what is essential in the Rule, even if this implies that in certain things he might have to step back a little from the intensity of our spirituality, since nobody is obliged to endanger his own health because of what he does for others et non sunt facienda mala ut veniant bona (evil must not be done to bring about what is good).[1]

7784 3. Given that in this mission some important things that are in the Rule cannot be observed, the subject is still obliged, under pain of sin, to observe what is said in Chapter X of the Rule which commands that when a subject cannot observe something spiritually that is laid down in the Rule he should have recourse to his Superior to find a way in which he can observe it and how he can observe the Rule spiritually the next time something arises concerning dangers[2] to chastity, or when he cannot observe poverty in matters connected with ownership, or cannot beg because there is too much poverty where he is living and he has to find another way to observe what is said in the Rule. There are other situations which I have not mentioned but which can be found in The Four Masters, Bonaventure and in the writings of Pisano.

In view of the same precept, when a subject comes to him, the Superior is obliged to show him how to observe the Rule, otherwise he will be committing a mortal sin. According to Corduba,[3] chapter ten of the Rule places the same obligation on the subject and the superior. The superior is obliged to provide assistance and if the subject knows that in certain circumstances, he cannot observe the Rule spiritually then he cannot act without obeying the superior because he would be going against the Rule and his soul. Likewise, if the prelate does not advise him the prelate commits a mortal sin.[4]

7785 4. We cannot use privileges that dispense us from observing the Rule because, as it says in our Constitutions,[5] we have renounced all such privileges. Since we have vowed to live the Rule purely and simply, we should try to observe it purely and we should not go in search of privileges nor accept them.

5. If the Pope, as the one qui habet plenitudinem potestatis (who has absolute authority) in the Church and in the Order, wanted to give us a command or dispensation ex causa vera (for a valid reason) in matters that bind ex iure divino (by way of divine law), such as the vows that we have taken, he could not do so except for a genuine reason. All the Doctors say this because if he were to do it without a genuine reason, he would not be dispensing but destroying and we would not be obliged to obey. The Pope should be well-informed about the reason and be certain that it is genuine, because if he is not well-informed and the reason is not genuine and adequate what has been dispensed non est tutus in conscientia (is not acceptable in conscience).[6]

6. Having said this I shall now reply to the letter sent by Your Lordship:

7786 First: if what is contained in the information supplied here is true, then those who are there cannot live with a good conscience, and they are obliged by the Rule to have recourse to their superior to find out what they ought to do. If they do not obey after they have received a command, the prelates should remove them because they know that they are not observing the Rule spiritually. One has to acknowledge that a disruption such as this is not brought about by the circumstances in the place. The friars are there to see how they can live according to our Rule. The lax friars do not want to live how they ought to live but want to live in freedom and personal comfort.

Therefore, Your Lordship should try to remove such friars. If they try to gain the favour of the Nuncio or other civic officials, Your Lordship should immediately inform those dignitaries of the situation, the dangers involved and the laxity of these friars, so that those in authority may come to know what is happening. Certainly, some of them would be happy to see such friars removed for I am sure that they do not want to see God being offended or the Order being harmed. Your Lordship, appoint friars who will set a good example. Do not think you will shock these dignitaries by telling them about the faults of such friars because you should do this to put a stop to God being offended. Indeed, the dignitaries will be edified by seeing how zealous you are about paying honour to God and to the Order. So do not delay in doing this or in bringing it about if you cannot do it personally. You will be doing something that will please Cardinal Aldobrandino and His Holiness.

7787 2. However, if it is really true that we cannot live there by begging in obedience to the Rule, we need to see if we could withdraw the friars without giving scandal. Since they cannot inform him, we need to tell the Pope and let him know that they cannot observe the Rule. If then the Pope, using his authority, orders the friars to stay and grants them a dispensation, they can stay. However, the friars ought to be very careful to live by begging as far as possible in accord with our state of poverty not wearing expensive clothes, not drinking exquisite wine and not eating special food like people who are well-off.

3. Whoever appoints the friar, whether it is Your Lordship or the Prelate, is obliged to appoint good, educated, exemplary friars who are outstanding and if they fail, they should be withdrawn.

4. Because it is necessary for the friars to persevere in this work, it is necessary to be very careful when finding them a place to live so that they can live as religious and are supposed to live in accord with what we have professed, by fleeing from the many internal and external worldly disruptions and dangers that surround them.

I have expressed my opinion and left anything else to the judgement of those who know better. I will send what I have sent to Your Lordship to the General Chapter so that the fathers will know what is happening. For now, I commend myself to your prayers.

Rome, 10th July 1604
Your Reverend Lordship’s

Servant in the Lord
Brother Santi Romano, Capuchin.

  1. Rom 3: 8.
  2. He wrote perdere, and then corrected it to pericular.
  3. Antonio da Corduba, an Observant friar (+ 1578) who wrote an important Expositio of the Franciscan Rule.
  4. In Rome in 1614 Father Santi Tesauro published his Exposizione sopra la Regola in which he explained at length the obligation of the friar to have recourse to the superior when he could not observe the Rule spiritually. With regard to this commentary on the Rule see vol. I 1123-1159, nn. 1034-1094.
  5. Cf. Const 1536, n. 5 and especially n. 8 (nn. 155, 158).
  6. The same point was also made in different circumstances by Bernardino d’Asti when he defended the Capuchin Reform. Cf. vol. I, 1138-1179, nn. 1095-1103.