PAPAL AUDIENCE CAPITULARS OF THE SPECIAL GENERAL CHAPTER
To Our Dear Son Paschal Rywalski,
Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin
Greetings and Apostolic Blessing:
We are well aware that a Special General Chapter of the Order is about to begin. The success of this Chapter is of no small interest to Us. Fatherly charity, which We feel urging Us, has prompted Us to write this letter to you and to the members of the Chapter. We wish it to be of help in this important matter, to you and to all the Capuchin Friars, who are very dear to Us.
Chapters of this sort are wont to be of the greatest importance in the life of every religious Institute. This importance was greatly increased when the Second Vatican Council laid down that these Chapters were to offer leadership in the renewal of the Institutes. The Church, therefore, places great confidence in these meetings, and that is something that should always be remembered by those who take part in them.
The aforesaid Second Vatican Council in no way changed the primary elements of religious life; in fact, it placed them in a clearer light, putting great emphasis on interior and spiritual matters. Those, therefore, who divorce renewal and adaptation to the conditions and needs of the present-day from their important supernatural source, are in error. They would thus reduce them to something natural and secular, and would in consequence bring to nothing what the Council has undertaken in this matter.
First of all, your Capuchin life, which is wonderfully adapted for following the Gospel of Christ faithfully, ought to be authentic. That is what the Church, and even the world, expects of you. A form of life, which–God forbid–would be separated from the primitive inspiration of your Order and in which “the heritage of sound traditions” (Cf. Decree Perfectae Caritatis, 2) would be destroyed, would be unfruitful, and can be compared with the salt of which the Savior said: “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its savor be restored?” (Luke 14: 34) It must also be noted that it is from this renewal which the Council wished most of all to be spiritual, that the adaptation of our age must proceed and that the adaptation is led and directed by the renewal.
Just as the authentic interpretation of the charism of religious life belongs universally to the Authority of the Church, so also does the interpretation of a particular charism which is proper to some Order, belong to the same Authority of the Church. St. Francis himself felt the truth of this principle when he made every effort to petition the Holy See for approbation of the Rule. Hence, the authentic interpretation of the Franciscan Rule is reserved to the Holy See, leaving, however, to General Chapters the faculty to adapt it to new needs of the present times. But these adaptations must first be presented to the Holy See for approval in order to have force of law.
The contemplative spirit, which shines forth in the lives of St. Francis and his followers in the first period, is a precious gift which his sons must now again cherish and put into practice. True renewal, therefore, of your well-deserving Order must flow from the living and life-giving spring of prayer, which has various forms. This is absolutely necessary, in order that this contemplative way of your life might be rediscovered, at the same time giving greater strength and broader efficacy to your apostolate. We also wish to remind you of what We said in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica Testificatio, “Let us not forget the witness of history, namely, that fidelity to prayer or its abandonment is the test of the vitality or decadence of the religious life.” (AAS 63  p. 519)
Evangelical poverty is the most excellent spiritual heritage bequeathed by St. Francis to his followers, and it is entirely peculiar and proper to a Capuchin Friar. In this regard one must note that the Rescript of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes (given on March 4, 1970), does not derogate from poverty or weaken or ruin it in such a way that it would gradually weaken and sap the vigor of religious life; nor does it lessen the force of the Rule. All it does is to allow for the need to adapt the form of life in response to the needs of our age. Poverty is not a sociological element by which the friars are driven to engage in manual and lucrative work; it is an evangelical duty which they take upon themselves, and which carries with it not only a certain instability and economic insecurity–in order to show that one has placed the highest confidence in God’s providence–but it is also a real and sincere separation from worldly goods.
St. Francis taught that obedience must be tendered to the Pope, to the Holy See, to the sacred Hierarchy. The principles of this evangelical obedience, which We explained in the aforementioned Apostolic Exhortation, are admirably clear in the teaching handed down by your Father and Lawgiver, and faithfully preserved in practical living in the course of the centuries. Now, authority is understood as a service rendered to the friars; nevertheless, those who preside must always take on the office of governing and leading; they are not allowed merely to perform the function of reporting the opinions and words of the majority of the members. Only in this manner, namely by following evangelical obedience, described in the Decree Perfectae Caritatis and again inculcated by the Exhortation Evangelica Testificatio, can one journey on that quicker way which leads to religious progress of the human person and contributes very greatly to your honor and glory.
There is a danger, however, that the practices of a stricter way of life, in other words penitential exercises, which have an important place in Franciscan living, may become ineffective or abolished, with the onrush of excessive consumerism, so prevalent in our day. With this in mind one must also judge the austerity of the clothing proper to Capuchin friars, who may perhaps be lured by contrary impulse to look elsewhere for ways of giving witness. In reality, the role of the Capuchin Friar is “to give an example of joyful, well-balanced austerity, by accepting the difficulties inherent in work and in social relationships, and by bearing patiently the trials of life with its agonizing insecurity.” (Cf. Apost. Exhort. Evang. Test., 30; AAS 73  p. 514).
The Capuchin Friars, as of old, are convinced that they must be dedicated sons of the Church in whatever circumstances, and must always be ready to undertake and perform what the times call for; especially they must be quick to provide for the needs of the poor, the burdened, those who are sinners. A number of questions, however, arise concerning the way in which this readiness is to be put in to effect. Hence it is necessary to avoid the danger lurking in an exaggerated interest in activity, and, at the same time, there will be the obligation to enliven the external forms of the apostolate with a new ardor, by which you become an exemplary sign. For this reason, the true community spirit of religious families has a very high value, for in it each member finds that open friendliness, those friendly relationships, that fraternal cooperation in carrying out the apostolate. These are the things that bring about mutual help and strength and also a more salutary ministry, by which we are at the service of Church.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of discussion today about the pluriform style of religious life. It is clear that an Order with a large membership, such as yours, which is spread over and works on all continents, cannot have pluriformity in everything. Yet one must also remember that such pluriformity is not to be understood in such a way that it would be available for one part only, nor in such a way as to wreck unity of the Order. Certainly, the most fruitful pluriformity and the most acceptable–as the Capuchin history excellently and clearly shows–is that which demands fidelity to the Franciscan Rule and to the intentions of your Father and Lawgiver. For, true pluriformity–not that which looks for uncertain and dubious experiments¬–is based on fraternal fellowship and on lawful obedience to Superiors. Such pluriformity allows freedom of action to those who engage in renewal, and does not extinguish the spirit.
The way of Franciscan life flourished from its beginning; especially the first Capuchin communities were outstanding for their truly fraternal and family spirit, which really brings about perfect unity of hearts and communion of persons. Today’s youth are inspired by fraternal charity in a unique way, and they do not tolerate anything that weakens it, crushes it, or violates it. This Fraternal mentality of common life is not of such a nature that it depends on the size of the religious house. Neither is it reducible to any sort of sterile living together like soldiers sharing the same quarters, nor to a perverse and divisive striving for small groups. Rather, it is both necessary and urgent that Capuchin fraternities be constituted and live by discipline and charity, which are joined to the sacrifice made by each member.
Finally, since the education and formation of the young is of greatest importance–the success or failure of religious institutes depends very much on this capital point–a deeper study must be made of it, and there must be a clearer presentation of the tradition proper to the Capuchins, by which this Order is distinguished from the other Franciscan families. The Franciscan charism, therefore, and the characteristic of Capuchin life, as it flows from the sound tradition of the Order, must be more clearly determined and explained.
These are the things that are on Our mind, as We think of this General Chapter, the opening of which is imminent. We gladly use this occasion to acknowledge, repeatedly to all of you, Our special benevolence and esteem. For you, following Christ’s word, have chosen “the narrow way” and you have made it your special lot. We proclaim you blessed for this choice, since it leads to life (cf. Matt. 7: 14) more safely than any other. Do not lose heart! The poor and humble Jesus who called you to follow Him will always grant you help and strength, so that full of joy you may grow in love of God the Father, of men and of the brethren.
Now, to God who is the inexhaustible source of every good and from whom comes the gift of religious life, and to whom it must lead, We offer Our earnest prayers, so that He will kindly be present to your work, and see to it that your deliberations redound to true progress for your Order and for the Church. This prayer of Ours We confirm by Our Apostolic Blessing, which We lovingly give to you, dear Son, and to the members of this Chapter, as well as to the entire Family of the Friars Minor Capuchin.
Given at Rome, St. Peter’s, August 20, 1974, the twelfth year of Our Pontificate.
Paulus PP. VI