ADDRESS TO GENERAL CHAPTER OF CAPUCHINS
21 October 1968
On Monday, October 21, in the Hall of the Consistory, the Holy Father received in special audience the members of the General Chapter of the Friars Minor Capuchin.
The Holy Father spoke as follows:
Dearly beloved Sons of St. Francis, Dear Capuchin Friars Minor,
You did not wish to conclude your General Chapter without coming to see Us before returning to your friaries and to the various duties imposed on you by obedience and by your vocation. You have desired Our goodwill and Our blessing, both of which We now most gladly extend to you. We are happy in the thought that this meeting has a two-fold significance: for your own religious family and for the Holy See–We refer to your homage and to Our affectionate regard for you. Both are an indication of mutual confidence, on one side in the apostolic ministry entrusted to Us, and on the other in your Franciscan profession. We wish therefore to confirm you in the way of life you have chosen and We pray that all good may be yours .
A HARD WAY OF LIFE
Beloved sons, you have indeed chosen a hard life, “the narrow way” of which the Gospel speaks. But this is the Franciscan way. Saint Bonaventure noted this about Brother Francis: “It was indeed fitting that this holy man should be adorned with such a unique privilege (the sacred stigmata), since his whole thought, in public and in private, was centered on the Cross of the Lord.” (Legenda minor, 6, 9). His soul, filled with faith, was aflame with a love which was ever concentrated on the person of Christ as shown forth in the Gospel, that Christ who was meek, humble and poor, whose countenance ever seemed suffused with radiant light, whether in speech or action, in converse with men, in the difficulties inseparable from life, or in the bitter sufferings of His Passion. The soul of St. Francis was so completely centered in Him, so completely immersed in divine things, that he became in a completely unique way an imitator of the Lord. This required of him a special type of heroism; he had to divest himself of all earthly goods, to practice unparalleled simplicity and incomparable meekness. It was enough, as he said, to break the spirit of anyone who would seek to follow him in a lax or superficial manner, but it would inflame the heart of one who would respond to the attraction of the life of such a humble and holy man. Hence Blessed Angela of Foligno could declare: “The blessed Francis instructed us in poverty, in suffering, in respect for all and in true obedience.” (Liber de vera fidelium experientia). It is therefore a hard life.
That this is really true is shown by the story of your origin, of how your religious Family first came into existence. It is enough to recall that it reached the point where the reformed part of the “Observants,” which themselves had already been reformed, devoted all its strength to restore the mitigated Rule of St. Francis to its primitive, literal austerity. It is for you to confirm the truth of the words which Matthew of Bascio, the first of your flock, heard from the lips of St. Francis: “I want my Rule to be observed to the letter, to the letter.” The whole life and spirit of the Friars Minor Capuchin clearly demonstrate that it is their special and ardent desire to observe with genuine fidelity and with the utmost humility, the hardest directives of the primitive Franciscan life. (Cfr. Bernardino of Colpetrazzo, Cronica; Boverio, with notes; L Pastor, IV, II, 728). Truly indeed a hard way!
RETURN TO THE AUSTERITY OF THE PRIMITIVE RULE
Pope Clement VII, granting approval to the pioneer promoters of your “Capuchin” institute, Louis and Raphael of Foro Sempronio, in Apostolic Letters signed and sealed (July 3, 1528) beginning with the words Religionis zelus, did not make little of but rather gave his approval to this absolute return to the austerity of the primitive Rule. When this was again brought into daily practice, it immediately displayed its wonderful fruitfulness; it showed itself in the great number of candidates it attracted, in an extraordinary display of apostolic vigor, manifested in the preaching of missions to the people and in really outstanding works of charity, and finally in gaining the esteem of the Church and of the fervent faithful who showed such confidence in the Friars Minor Capuchin and who treated them with such affectionate regard that, with good reason, they projected an “image” which showed forth in a Franciscan context, the teaching and prophetic office of Jesus Christ.
Traditionally then, your way of life–as We have already said–is known to be hard; it shows forth the Gospel in practice and it does this even down to our own times. This is a source of wonderment to men who fail to understand an institute that runs so contrary to the times as yours, an Institute by which you bear witness before mankind which seeks and desires objectives very different from those for which you strive. They simply think–and how strongly some of them express it!–that your kind of life is inexplicable. This is proved by the devotion they showed to Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, lately deceased.
The question arises which you have often solved, both in theory and in practice. How can such an austere kind of life, so unusual in its style, so much unlike the manner of Life obtaining today, still attract at the present time such a great number of faithful followers? They admire and esteem it, and they do so throughout the greater part of a world which dislikes and seems to oppose the whole traditional concept of the religious life.
This is the answer which you give: it is the type of perfect life, hard indeed, but perfect. It is perfect with regard to its humility, its simplicity, its evangelical poverty; it is perfect with regard to its counsels and proposals, which, as planned by this Chapter, endeavors to direct religious observance, within the context of life, towards demonstrating in its best and finest form the ideal of Franciscan religious life. From this follows a wondrous praise and defense of the Gospel, of its perennial values, suited to all the ages, and of its hidden strength which allures even the men of this day and age. But those who are called by a specially happy vocation to follow this perfect way of life have therefore the duty, ever urgent, ever new, of bearing true and sincere witness to the fact.
There must therefore be no imprudence in securing the adaptation of this kind of life in view of worldly tendencies, present-day usages and the modern secular society. All dangers should be avoided so that the religious life may be resuscitated and revived, and this must always be done within the clear context of two truths which the Council so united that they can be seen at a glance. These are the historical spiritual truths of the origin of any Institute, and the practical apostolic truth arising from present urgent needs; the past and the present; tradition and experience; fidelity to the primitive Constitutions, displaying wisdom and dynamic impulse; an acceptance of the needs of our times together with the fulfillment of today’s requirements. The Council has declared: “The adaptation of modern conditions and the renewal of the religious life involves two things–on the one hand the constant return both to the sources of all Christian life, and to the original inspiration of the various Religious Institutes, and, on the other hand, the adaptation of these to the changed conditions of our times.” (Perfectae caritatis, n. 2).
Your life can thus be both ancient and modern. You have chosen the hard way, the perfect way, according to the strictest precepts of the Gospel of the Poor. Now, in this post-Conciliar age, when it is a question of continuing the journey and of planning wisely for the future, action and willing effort are needed; We repeat, action and effort which your Franciscan schooling teaches you to offer with eagerness and joyful alacrity, for since you rely upon the imitation of Christ, you should always place great confidence in the help of his grace and be ever ready for spiritual sacrifice.
We have no doubt that your Chapter has already given its attention to this matter, and We have no desire to protract its work. But We do urge you to conclude its labors with exhortatory directives and with precepts of suitable gravity. We shall not add anything about your own particular affairs; you are, of course, aware of the instructions issued by Our Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes; if you follow them with a willing mind, you will succeed in every respect.
PRAYER AND MEDITATION
Since you have asked Us for a special exhortation, We shall gladly conclude this discourse by placing before you a few things that are causing Us some anxiety, not, of course, with regard to your Order, but rather with regard to the common needs of the Church.
The first of these needs is this: the Church does not have enough religious, not enough of those who are truly engaged in leading an interior life. The more eager and compelling, the more enticing and seductive the attractions by which the modern world allures and captures the minds of men, the more need there is for those who, shunning these oppressive and overpowering externals, return to the inner world of conscience, of prayer and meditation, and who are ready to seek unity with God in the silence of the spirit wherein He moves and makes Himself known. This is by no means foreign to your usual way of life; in fact at the start you called yourselves Franciscan Hermits, mindful no doubt of how much Saint Francis loved solitude, meditation and contemplative prayer.
APOSTOLATE OF THE CONFESSIONAL
The Church at the present time is promoting liturgical renewal, which of course, is in complete harmony with contemplation. (Cfr. Maritain, Liturgie et contemplation, Desclée de B.). Furthermore, there are two things of primary importance which have a special relationship with renewal: the greater importance attached to hearing the Word of God, and the greater importance attached to the participation of the faithful in the sacred rites. In this respect, on account of the notable simplicity which marks your participation in divine worship, you will find in this activity of the Church a rich source of nourishment for your spiritual life and valuable assistance to strengthen your apostolate. If you help the Church to foster a really attractive social form of renewed liturgical prayer, you will at the same time help yourselves towards that spiritual perfection so befitting your state, and you will become more adept in your role as instructors in piety and prophets of the people.
The Church also has need of your prudent and gladsome austerity. Can he be called a true religious who is self-indulgent in those secular and superfluous commodities which in this age have found their way even into monasteries? One who allows himself a large measure of freedom in worldly pleasures which merit little approval, on the plea that he must know everything first-hand or that he should conform to the style of living of modern men–what is he really like? What kind of authority has a religious who has tasted to the full of the world of the senses but who lacks that genuine spiritual experience that comes only from the trial of sorrow and suffering?
In this regard your poverty brings you into the company of Christ, imparting to you freedom of spirit, facility in judging the true worth of material goods, showing you as dispossessed yet endowed with a depth of wisdom. It further secures for you the esteem, confidence and admiration of those who are unable to follow your example. Poverty is your strength and your dignity. The Church has need today of the evidence of your fidelity to the Gospel and to poor Brother Francis.
In many other pressing needs, the Church confidently expects your assistance. One of them–not to speak of others just now–is the apostolate to the masses which assists the pastoral apostolate and is a help to popular instruction. You are already engaged in this apostolate, you are identified with it, but you could do even more. Men trust you; many of them overcome their pervading feelings of guilt and fear to go to confession to the Capuchin Fathers. How great is the need of the Church today for large numbers of experienced priests to look after those who want to go to confession! If you are mainly engaged in this work, you must be well versed in morals and psychology, in spiritual and mystical theology which today are highly desirable for hearing confessions; you will thus render exceptional service to souls, to the Church and to the glory of the Redeemer. You can also render a similar service by your preaching; this must be plain and prudent, enriched by the Word of God and by human experience, confirmed by examples and applied with a persuasive charity.
We have often asked Ourself why the sons of St. Francis were not, as befits them, present amidst the working classes, preaching to them in homely language, sharing with them as they are required by their institute to do, the bread hardly earned by the sweat of their brow, and uplifting them to bear in a spirit of joy the heavy burdens of life. Of course, We know that you are detained by many pressing occupations, and that your number is unequal to the increasing demands made upon you. This passing mention of Ours will show you how highly We esteem the usefulness and efficacy of the works in which you are engaged all over the world.
For the stout-hearted constancy with which you are discharging these duties at this very moment We express our gratitude in Christ’s name. We know that, in the silence of your friaries with your minds absorbed in prayer you practice brotherly love and penance. We know how untiringly you persevere in the works of the priestly ministry and in the areas of your manifold apostolate: in hospitals, in prisons, in cemeteries, in city suburbs, in leper hospitals, in your missions in distant lands, in a word, everywhere. So it is–and We thank you for it; and We counsel you to remain ever faithful, strong and united in your religious Family. To you therefore, to each and all of you, to all your brethren, to all your benefactors who afford you help and assistance, asking for you the protection of Brother Francis, We impart the Apostolic Blessing.