The Franciscan Significance of the Capuchin Reform

The Franciscan Significance of the Capuchin Reform in the Light of Authentic Sources of the Spirit and Life of St. Francis

Optatus van Asseldonk, O.F.M. Cap.

Table of Contents

As I understand it, the topic assigned to me by the general definitory is to treat the “Franciscan” aspect of the Capuchin reform as derived from authentic sources; in other words, the life and spirit of St. Francis as taken by the early Capuchins as the inspiration for renewing and reforming their life. Special emphasis is placed upon “genuine” sources, namely those which show us the true and authentic spirit and life of our Founder. Therefore only the “authentic” sources of their reform are to be taken into account leaving aside legends and opinions which would be contrary to the early traditions of the order. We will rely above all on the Constitutions of 1536 as a solid basis for interpreting the Franciscan meaning of the Capuchin reform, reading them, as far as possible according to the mind of their principal authors or those who were closely associated with them. Outstanding among them were John of Fano and Bernardine of Colpetrazzo.

We are happy to make this contribution toward a renewal of the spirit so that a “fraternal and ecumenical spirit may be fostered among all the brothers and sisters of the Franciscan family.”[1] We are reminded of the words of the four minister generals in their letter Habere Spiritum Domini, n. 30: “Brotherhood ought to be fostered and unity of mind cultivated among all branches of the Franciscan family, with a constant development of their pluriform gifts and graces.”[2] I shall treat the topic in three parts, as follows:

1. The Franciscan significance of the Capuchins as a reform movement.

2. The Franciscan significance of the order’s attempt to restore the observance of the Rule according to the Testament and life of the founder.

3. The Franciscan significance of the order as a renewal of the following of Christ according to the spirit and life of St. Francis.

I. The Franciscan Significance of the Capuchins as a Reform Movement

1. A “reforming” order

The Franciscan Order is by its very nature one of continual renewal and reform both in a quantitative and a qualitative sense. In this regard it is unique among religious institutes of any age. From its very beginnings it has been distinguished by numerous attempts at renewal.[3] Among these groups the Capuchins occupy a special place. It is the first reform group, and the last, to obtain official and permanent approval from the church and the Roman pontiffs. All other reform institutes, before and after, like the Spirituals, the Observants, the Riformati, the Recollects, the Discalced, etc. have either lost their original life style and identity, that is, have become extinct, or have been absorbed by the Friars Minor or the Conventuals. In our own century Pope St. Pius X solemnly confirmed our reform when he approved the Constitutions on Sept. 8, 1909. On that occasion he called upon the friars to safeguard “the integral spirit of the Patriarch of Assisi,” always preserving their special characteristic which is a closer imitation of St. Francis, and persevering in their faith and complete obedience to the Holy See together with “the cultivation and study of evangelical poverty and perfection. ” (Vicarium Pastoris)

The Holy Father added: “We perceive this to be the function of the amended Constitutions, whose approbation we reserve to Ourselves.”[4] As Agathangelus of Langasco points out: “In order that the Capuchins preserve their ‘special character’ and ‘maintain it inviolable forever’ the Pope ordered them to revise their Constitutions and adapt the letter to better safeguard the spirit.”[5]

Here certainly is the touchstone of any document: the preservation of the spirit.

2. The meaning of reform

We might ask: why is attendency to reform so characteristic of the spirit and life of St. Francis?

a. First of all we must recall what Celano writes in the Vita Prima. Here he speaks of the last days of the saint, when he had already arrived at the fullness of grace before God: “he was always thinking of beginning more perfect works,” engaging in new conflicts, eager to accomplish mighty deeds. “He was afire with a very great desire to return to the first beginnings of humility, and by reason of the immensity of his love, rejoiced in hope. He thought to recall his body to its former subjection even though it had already come to such an extremity.” When forced by weakness to temper his former rigor, he said: “My brothers, let us now begin to serve the Lord God, far up to now we have made little or no progress.” He did not consider that he had laid hold of his goal as yet, and persevering untiringly in his purpose of attaining newness of life, he hoped always ta make a fresh start. He wanted to go back again to serving lepers and to be held in contempt as he once had been. He proposed to shun the companionship of men and to retire to the most secluded places.”[6]

In truth, while persevering in his purpose of attaining a holy newness of life he always hoped to make a fresh beginning. In his Vita Prima Celano appears to be greatly impressed by this “newness” and speaks of it time and time again. He also furnished us with the motivation of his insatiable fervour; ”That eager spirit, that devoted spirt, that fervent spirit that dwelt in him…so great was the harmony of body and soul in him.’[7] Commentators rightly explain these words in the light of St. Paul ‘s letter to the Romans (Rm 6:5 and Rm 7:6) where the apostle speaks about walking in newness of spirit, newness of life and not in the antiquated letter.

Express mention is also made of those “first” works so freely undertaken in a complete newness of spirit to counter the example of those friars who sought a false liberty in self- serving activities.[8] To the very end of his days the saint was continually renewing himself in evangelical holiness before the Lord God. By his example he merited to bring about a new creation, that is, a perfect brotherhood begotten “by the operation of the Holy Spirit alone.”[9]

b. The source of his indefatigable pursuit of newness of life is to be found in evangelical penance as understood by Francis. The spirit and life of this penance, or conversion, consists in a complete openness to the working of the Holy Spirit of the Lord. He dwells within us and seeks to extinguish the spirit of the flesh and self-love and infuse that pure, and true love which leads to perfection[10] to be desired above all things, as we read in the later rule chapter 10 and in the earlier rule chapter 17. It is at the root of all his striving for holy renewal.

He who is moved by the spirit will never be content with half way measures, merely observing the letter and external forms. Guided by the spirit he is borne on to what is new, that is to what is better and more perfect. Here precisely lies the profound difference between St. Francis and the other reformers of his time. The Waldenses, the Humiliati, the Cathari, the Joachimites and others bound themselves to a purely literal observance of the Gospel, or rather of selected passages, while ignoring or contradicting the spirit of God’s word. As a result they fell into error and even heresy and eventually disappeared from the pages of history, leaving no trace behind them. Francis, animated by the holy operation of the spirit of God, was continually finding new interpretations and meanings by means of which, under the guidance of the church and mindful of the signs of the times, he was renewed and transformed. With good reason we constantly hear the message: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh and the letter kills… My words are spirit and life,” …the spirit of life and the life of the spirit.

The same fate befell the so-called Spirituals, whose fanatical cult of the Rule and Testament, taken literally and without any interpretation, and neglecting the spirit of the Lord, stifled any genuine spiritual life.[11]

It was not by chance that in the course of its history the Franciscan Order continually strove to reform itself in the spirit and life of penance, poverty and prayer. We can understand, too, why the key texts of the Rule and Testament are continually cited as its foundation: “The brothers shall not extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all temporal things are to be subservient.” “And wherever the brothers may be, and know that they cannot observe the rule spiritually, they can and should have recourse to their ministers.” “Above all things they are to desire to have the spirit of the Lord and his holy operation, to pray to Him at all times with a pure heart.” “As the Lord has given to me to speak and to write the rule and these words simply and plainly, so let them be understood, simply, plainly and without gloss and with the divine operation observed to the end. ”

Contemporary reformers who are working for spiritual renewal according to the spirit of Vatican Council II and Paul VI are following the same path. They are aware that they must search out better and more appropriate forms for giving shape to or incorporating the renewed and vivified spirit of the founder and putting it into practice in everyday living. This was the tenor of the general definitory’s message to the order in the general chapter of 1974 which postulates the spirit of Francis and his life of penance as the indispensable basis for all spiritual renewal in the order, particularly in the area of penance, fraternal life, prayer and poverty. The letter of the four ministers general, Habere Spiritum Domini sounds the same theme.[12]

3. Our Capuchin Reform

Our Capuchin reform must preserve this dimension of renewal according to St. Francis’ spirit and life. It is not enough to pay lip service to it. Franciscan reform will be effective only if carried out in example and deed, in spirit and life continually renewed, and reformed, or at least by a serious effort toward renewal and reformation.

A comprehensive history of such reformation from the beginnings of the order to the present would be beyond the scope of this paper.[13] We can summarize it as follows:

a. The fundamental principle of our reform, an explicit attempt to carry out the will of our Seraphic Father in its entirety, which is the observance of the Rule according to his Testament, has remained intact up to the present.

b. In its first hundred years – the so-called golden age – this effort meant for many friars the literal observance of the Rule according to the mind of the saint as found in the Testament. During this period the order was never in need of reform.

c. During the three centuries that elapsed between 1650 and 1950 the ministers general have had frequent occasions to complain bitterly of a weakening of the Franciscan spirit and life and the inroads of serious abuses contrary to the pure observance of the Rule. Even during these years the spirit of renewal and reformation was never totally absent, and it was promoted, gently but firmly, by the major superiors in word and writing. They tirelessly inculcated regular observance according to the Constitutions as a remedy for laxity. But the observance of the Rule drew more and more away from the ideals expressed in the opening lines of the Constitutions. In the practical details of everyday life, literal observance yielded to a diluted interpretation that catered to the exigencies of the times and the demands of many friars.

d. The years 1947-1949, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII, Father Lombardi S.J. and Father Agathangelus of Langasco, procurator general of the Capuchins, witnessed a new and vigorous effort toward achieving a so-called accommodated renewal of religious life. If I am not mistaken, our order played the major role in this accommodated renewal, which affected all religious institutes. The renewal was tried in our order, especially in the area of the modern apostolate, by way of experiment. The criterion was: Starting with a genuine revitalizing of the spirit of our Founder, to adapt our life style in such a way that his authentic spirit might inspire our entire practical life. Under the influence of Vatican Council II and Pope Paul VI (Ecclesiae Sanctae, Evangelica Testificatio etc.) this principle was logically and systematically applied, attention being paid to the signs of the times.

A number of documents treating of spiritual renewal have appeared which clearly expound, theoretically and practically, the principles of Capuchin reform as never before in the history of the order. Not to mention important allocutions and letters of the popes and our own ministers general, we may cite the following documents: The Constitutions of the Friars Minor Capuchin issued by the general chapters in 1968, 1970 and 1974; the Quito Paper (1971) published by the Plenary Council of the Order on our life of fraternity and poverty; another drawn up at Taize in 1973 treating the spirit and life of prayer. The general definitory presented a paper, De Vita chapter of 1974. Finally we have the document De Vita Penitentiae et Continuae Conversionis in Hodiernis Condicionibus Ordinis presented to the same general chapter.[14]

In these official statements as well as in a number of papers prepared by various provinces we find a systematic presentation of the reforming nature of our order with regard to both teaching and practice. All this literature has made us aware of our Capuchin heritage as never before in the long history of the order. Our superiors have spared no efforts to let us know what we are and what we ought to be. The crucial problem lies in putting into practice what we read in all these beautiful writings. Our genuine reforming spirit is kept intact in all these documents. But how many friars are really familiar with their content? We are aware of what is needed to reform our lives. An honest look into the mirror of penance and renewal held up to us by the general definitory should awaken in us a deep spirit of compunction. By the grace of God the seeds of spiritual renewal have begun to sprout all over the world.

In the immediate future there is urgent need of a program of continuing formation, an area which is the object of growing concern on the part of the order. The friars in charge of formation fully realize that the goal of their efforts – the grace of sincere conversion and “revolutionary” prayer which is a gift of the Holy Spirit is something that lies above and beyond all purely human resources.[15]

II. The Franciscan Significance of the Order’s Attempt to Restore the Observance of the Rule According to the Testament and Life of the Founder

Certain historical facts must be kept in mind concerning our efforts to copy the life and spirit of St. Francis by means of an observance of the Rule in the light of the Testament and his living example. In support of these facts we shall quote some texts of the first Constitutions and the witness of contemporary authors. Finally we shall examine the latest edition of the Constitutions.

A. Historical facts

The authors of the Constitutions of 1536 went on record as promoters of the total goal set by St. Francis for his order by setting forth the pure observance of the Rule according to the mind of the saint as found in the Testament and other writings and in the example of his life.

The observance of the Rule is said to be simple, pure and spiritual. In one place the expressions “to the letter” and “without gloss” (taken from uncritical sources) are used to describe the observance of the Rule as dictated by Francis – indeed by God Himself. They are not applied directly to the observance of our Rule according to the Constitutions. Observance to the letter and without gloss is in the Constitutions for us: pure, simple and spiritual observance according to the Testament which is accepted as gloss and principal “spiritual” interpretation of the Rule.

The observance of the rule does not exclude acceptance of the declarations of the sovereign pontiffs to the extent that they safeguard its pure and simple observance. Such were the Quo Elongati of Gregory IX, the Exivi of Clement V and the Exiit of Nicholas III, all of which received positive ratings from the first Capuchins.

The Constitutions do not impose a “pure and total observance” according to the Testament by virtue of any special vow or under the pain of mortal sin. They present it as a means of evangelical perfection and of a closer following of St. Francis, that is to say, a simple way to respond to his wishes. Its observance is not to be considered as a juridical precept but as an ideal of perfection to be continually pursued. The Constitutions expressly declare that they do not intend to bind under pain of sin. (nn. 145, 148)

B. The text of the first constitutions

The basic text, which has remained substantially the same from the beginning reads as follows: “And because it was the desire not only of our Seraphic Father, but of Christ, Our Redeemer, that the Rule should be observed to the letter, with simplicity and without gloss, as it was observed by our first fathers, we renounce all privileges and explanations which relax it, detract from its pure observance and wrest it from the pious, just and holy intentions of Christ, our Lord, who spoke in St. Francis, we accept only as a living and authentic commentary thereon the declarations of the supreme pontiffs, and the most holy life, doctrine and example of our Seraphic Father himself.” (no. 5)[16]

The following points must be noted:

1. The stress laid on observing the Rule according to the mind of St. Francis, indeed, according to the mind of Christ, “simply, to the letter and without gloss.” Positively the Constitutions, prescribe a pure, holy and spiritual observance. Negatively they reject all glosses and “carnal” explanations and relaxations foreign to the mind of Christ and Francis.

2. Whence it is clear that a simple, literal and gloss-free observance is really a pure, holy and spiritual one, which excludes all and only those carnal glosses and explanations which relax it.

3. They expressly accept as authentic interpretations the declarations of the Holy See and the life, teachings and example of St. Francis. The declarations of the Holy See accepted are those which explain the sense of the Rule correctly, holily and purely (like the Exiit of Nicholas III and the Exivi of Clement V) not, however, those which weaken it.

In the sixth number we read: “In order that we, as true and legitimate sons of Jesus Christ our Father and Lord, begotten again by Him in St. Francis, may have an abundant share in His inheritance, it is ordained that all observe the Testament made by our father St. Francis when, near death, adorned with the sacred stigmata, full of fervour and the Holy Spirit, he most ardently desired our salvation; and this we accept as spiritual commentary and gloss of our Rule, because it was written by him to the end that we may in a more Catholic manner observe the rule we have promised. We are sons of the Seraphic Father so far as we imitate his life and example, for our Saviour said to the Jews: ‘If you be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham.’ Hence, if we are sons of St. Francis let us do the works of St. Francis. Wherefore it is ordained that everyone strive to imitate our Father who was given us as rule, standard and example, nay, even our Lord Jesus Christ in him, and not only in his Rule and Testament but also in his fervent words and holy deeds. For this reason they shall frequently read his life and the lives of his blessed companions.”[17]

Here we should observe:

1. The testament is accepted as the gloss and spiritual interpretation of the Rule as it was St. Francis’ intention that the Rule itself be observed in a more Catholic manner. And our Holy Father Francis himself in all his words and actions, is held up as our ruler, guide and example.

2. Stress is laid on the imitation of his life and actions as a condition for becoming his true sons, and those of Christ.

3. Finally we must not overlook the expression “si forzi imitar” (“strive to imitate”) which implies a continual striving for perfection, which is the real import of the text.

C. The witness of contemporary authors

To grasp the meaning of the first Constitutions we must consult contemporary writers, for to misread the Constitutions is to misunderstand the whole history of our reform. Among such reliable witnesses are John of Fano and Bernardine of Colpetrazzo.[18]

John of Fano was an eye witness to the events and had a special hand in drawing up the text of the Constitutions. As such he must be considered its most important interpreter. He was very conversant with opinions on the observance of the Rule and Testament then in vogue. In his amended Dialogo della Salute, which is an explanation of the Rule, he speaks about the way the first Capuchins adhered to the Testament. John is searching out the mind and spirit of the Founder and often speaks of the literal, pure and simple observance of the Rule, meaning a spiritual observance according to the spirit of Christ and Francis, and one that is animated by love.

1. John of Fano

His principal text is as follows: “Although the Pope, with very good intentions, said that we are not obliged to observe the Testament, we must nevertheless hold it in the greatest respect and observe it as far we can, because as Alvaro says, in it our Holy Father makes known his wishes. ‘And it is believed that he composed the Testament and Rule inspired by the same Spirit of God at the close of his life when he had already been made perfect in virtue.’ So far Alvaro. Anyone who neither esteems the Testament nor tries to observe it to the best of his ability shows but little love for such a great Father and scant regard for his paternal inheritance and blessing. And so the Capuchins in their general chapter ordained that the testament be observed … We must believe, however that St. Francis ruled out glosses inserted by imperfect and sensual men contrary to the real intent and purpose of the Rule and its precepts. Instead of clarifying the Rule, these things change and obscure it and lead to relaxation in its observances. After the declarations of the Holy Father come those of the learned men of the order, distinguished both for their intelligence and their perfect observance of the Rule. Among all declarations in terms of their juridical weight and their fidelity to the Rule are the Exiit of Pope Nicholas III and the Exivi of Clement V.”[19]

It is impossible to find a better description of the Constitutions. John states very clearly that we are not bound to observe the Testament under pain of sin, but that we are to hold it in the highest honour, because St. Francis revealed his holy intentions in it. Zealous friars will strive to observe it as far as they can. This is precisely what the general chapter ordained.

John explains the pontifical declarations and the Constitutions with equal clarity. He is well aware that Pope Honorius III took out the words “ad litteram” from the approved Rule where there was question of spiritual observance of the Rule in chapter 10 according to the mind of the Spirituals. He asserted, however, ‘that all the friars have the right to observe it purely and simply, that is spiritually. This spiritual observance consists in a pure and strict observance according to the spirit of Christ, that is, in a spirit of charity and love, and not in a slavish adherence to the letter. As John writes:

“Since our Rule is one of love, it has entrance into our hearts not merely through the mind but through love. Those who cling to the letter are motivated mainly by fear, since in this world they are afraid of penalties and embarrassment and in the next of eternal damnation. Sometimes they are moved by ambition. They imitate those Jews who clung to the letter of the law out of fear and ambition but never arrived at a real understanding of it. These men take the same approach to the Rule. The grace and spirit of Christ, the founder of the Rule, should be enough for its understanding and observance. To arrive at this we must take the way of love offered us by our Lord Jesus Christ, that very love which made Him conceal the glory of His divinity and humble Himself to the extent of despising all things and enduring the shameful and cruel death of the cross. If we would only follow the way of love traced out for us by Jesus Christ, we would understand and observe the Rule without any difficulty. Wherefore, as long as the soul is bound in love to Jesus Christ, it will always keep the rule strictly and never rest until it arrives at the highest degree of perfect obedience, poverty and chastity, and will have no other thought than to attain them perfectly as far as possible, as our most gentle Saviour did. One who loves Him truly will endeavour to observe them purely as He did. My response, therefore to this first question is, that St. Francis banned glosses from the Rule because he wished that Christ’s life, and his own, be its gloss, as he said: “Look upon Christ, and me, and act accordingly.”[20]

The problem of literal vs. spiritual observance, so hotly debated at the time, could not be better diagnosed.

The first Constitutions, in fact, saw literal observance as an aid to spiritual observance, pure and simple. All external forms must lead to an ever more intense following of the spirit of Jesus Christ crucified. It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.

2. Bernardine of Colpetrazzo

Our second witness, lived as a Capuchin friar from 1534 to 1594 and knew all the friars he mentions in his history of the order save three.[21] All historians agree on the great debt owed him for an objective presentation of the events occurring in the order’s first century. In his writings he delves deep in theory and in practice into such problems as the observance of the Rule and Testament and the declarations of the popes. Bernardine himself was more inclined to a literal observance of the Rule according to the Testament, but he bowed to the declarations of the Holy See.

Understanding the changed conditions of the times and the evolving needs of the friars he saw the necessity of mitigating a literal observance in favour of a “pure” observance of the Rule in line with the pontifical declarations. But he never ceased tirelessly to urge the friars toward a renewal of the genuine spirit of St. Francis, lest too many adaptations and accommodations betray the authentic spirit of the Founder. The perennial value of Bernardine’s chronicle lies in its renovating and reforming spirit. We quote from his work:

“Moreover they (the Capuchins) took as a solid foundation for the perfect observance of the Rule the keeping of the Testament of our Seraphic Father, not binding themselves to it by reason of their religious profession or any special vow, but embracing and observing it as a paternal counsel of our Seraphic Father, which more perfectly reveals his intentions concerning the observance of the rule. The venerable fathers believed that anyone who wished to keep the Rule perfectly would have to observe the Testament. For that reason they put it in the first Constitutions ….”[22]

“This was the reason why the first fathers resolved to observe the Rule perfectly, omitting neither precepts nor counsels, but keeping it in its entirety, the precepts as precepts, the counsels as counsels … They wished to observe all of it out of love; they looked upon love as the rudder which must guide all government and all observance of the Rule. And because they were so marvellously inflamed with the love of God, it was enough for them that St. Francis had put something in the Rule, or that it was according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gave them so much freedom of spirit that they rose above all scruples in their observance of the Rule. They had no need of explanations, or wordy discussions or any concession of privileges. They kept it simply according to the simple meaning of the words …

“With this attitude, the founding fathers, when asked why they had left the main body of the order answered: ‘To observe the Rule literally and without privileges.’ For this reason they stated in the Constitutions that they renounced all privileges and glosses which relax or weaken the Rule. They did not give up the spiritual privileges granted the order in such generous measure by many popes for the sake of its spiritual growth. They only renounced dispensations from poverty, those which allowed them to keep money, and other relaxations. This decision removed any danger of acting contrary to the Rule. They were so far removed from ownership of money and other things contrary to poverty that they observed even more than the Rule required. For their clothing they used not merely poor material, but the very meanest. They would not involve themselves in the slightest way with money, even though the Rule allowed recourse to spiritual friends in certain cases. They tried to provide for all their needs by begging, even flesh meat for the sick and all other necessities without having recourse to spiritual friends. As the order grew in numbers, the friars had to take into consideration the declarations of the Holy See.”

In the general chapter held in Rome, which elected Father Eusebius of Ancona, some friars complained that the Constitutions were over strict in some areas and urged a change in certain passages. Father Bernardine of Asti commented: “We have gone as far as we can. Any more would be contrary to the Rule. Up to now we have had the protection of a strong hedge. We will not have it any more if we start tampering with the Rule. At present we have more than the Rule allows. Formerly we did more than the Rule required.”[23]

History clearly teaches us – and one of the principal witnesses is our own Bernardino – that the first Capuchins held to different theories about the pure and simple observance of the Rule according to the Testament of St. Francis and the declarations of the Holy See. But all of them, without exception, defended the principle stated above. The more numerous and reasonable faction seems to have won control of the order and were responsible for drawing up the Constitutions. These friars pushed for a so-called relative or approximate observance of the letter, one inspired by the spirit of St. Francis as found in the Testament, his other writings and his living example, an observance tailored to meet the needs of the Church and the times – not to mention those of a large number of friars, especially in the area of the ministry and studies. In this way the letter, or external form, could be observed, modified or adapted as the spirit of the Founder and concrete needs required. The writers left their imprint on the Constitutions down through the centuries.

Arguments for this position are also taken from the writings of the Spirituals, but only the principle as such. They had no association with the partisan tenets of that sect. One exception is found in no. 5 of the Constitutions, as already indicated, where there is question of observance to the letter and without gloss according to St. Francis and as commanded by Christ Himself. Even here this extreme teaching is not applied to the observance of the Rule according to the Constitutions.

It is true that we often find in the chroniclers of the Order and in other Capuchin writings statements of a polemical and apologetic nature which seem to reflect the radical views of the Spirituals. Even John of Fano and Bernardino used them. And in this manner of acting our friars had their share in the famous controversy that raged for many centuries up to our own time. But too much has already been written about a subject other Franciscan families often find offensive.[24]

D. The new Constitutions

The Constitutions drawn up between 1968 and 1974 reaffirm the fundamental principle, the observance of the Rule according to the Testament and living example of St. Francis, purged of any elements contrary to his spirit. One important change is the omission of the ambiguous and misleading expression “to the letter” and “without gloss.” But let the text speak for itself.

1. The observance of the Rule according to the Testament and life of St. Francis.

No. 3: “In order to learn the pattern of the true disciple of Jesus Christ, which was so evident in Francis, we should intently study how to imitate such a father, how to cultivate his spiritual heritage in our life and work, and how to share it with people in every age. For this purpose we will frequently read the life and writings of Francis himself, those of his sons distinguished for holiness and learning, as well as other books which portray his spirit.”

The intention of imitating the life and spirit of Francis is clearly expressed.

No.4: “The Rule of St. Francis drew its origin from the Gospel and now draws us into that gospel life. We are to strive seriously to grasp the spiritual meaning of the Rule. Following Francis’ admonition as expressed in the Testament, as well as the ideal of the early Capuchins, we must endeavour to observe the Rule and with God’s help, live it simply and plainly. Superiors should heartily promote knowledge, love and observance of the Rule. To make it possible for the Rule and the mind of our father and lawgiver to be observed faithfully everywhere, major superiors should see that ways of living, even pluriform ways, be carefully sought which are more appropriate for the life and apostolate of the friars whose needs differ from time to time and from place to place.”

No.5: “The Rule of St. Francis, confirmed by Pope Honorious, is the foundation and source of all law in our Order. By virtue of our profession we are bound to observe it simply and in a Catholic manner. ”

No 6: “Our Seraphic Father drew up his Testament when near death, marked with the sacred stigmata and full of the Holy Spirit, he eagerly longed for our salvation. In the Testament he reveals his last will and passes on to us a precious heritage of his spirit. He gave us the Testament so that in keeping with the mind of the Church we might observe day by day more perfectly the Rule we have professed. We, therefore, accept the Testament as the primary spiritual explanation of the Rule and a principal inspiration of our life.”

Noteworthy are the following:

a. The omission of the words “to the letter” and “without gloss” of the traditional text because of the danger of error and confusion. The other significant words are retained – “spiritual,” “simple,” and ”pure observance.” Certain words typical of St. Francis are emphasized: “spiritual,” “intention,” “daily more perfect,” “Catholic.”

b. The word “spiritual” which was used in the original text but subsequently dropped from the Constitutions has been restored, since it is basic for a sound interpretation of the mind of the founder. Instead of the original text about the Testament: “This we accept as spiritual gloss and explanation of our Rule,” we now have: “We therefore accept the Testament as the primary spiritual explanation of the Rule and a principal inspiration of our life.” This paragraph conveys the precise meaning of the phrases “to the letter,” and “without gloss.” An interpretation that is “to the letter” and “without gloss” is an interpretation that is spiritual and according to the mind of St. Francis: “plain,” “simple,” “more perfect,” “according to the divine operation.”

c. Neither must we overlook the phrases that speak of “more appropriate and even pluriform ways”, so that the Rule might be faithfully observed everywhere, “always preserving the unity of the authentic spirit.” These words indicate a serious and practical concern for safeguarding pure and perfect observance.

It gives us pleasure to recall what our dear friend, the late Cajetan Esser O.F.M. wrote in the closing pages of his highly acclaimed critical edition of the writings of St. Francis concerning the spiritual importance of the Testament for the entire Franciscan family: “In our days the Testament enjoys, in all three branches of the Franciscan family, the esteem it deserves as ‘the last will and testament’ of the founder for the spiritual life of his order. The Capuchins, who agonized over it for such a long time and even made the Testament legally binding and gave it the force of law have come up in the new edition of their Constitutions with a balanced and universally acceptable position.”[25]

These words of a scholar distinguished for his mastery of the writings of St. Francis as well as for his spirit perhaps will bring a happy ending to that bitter controversy in Franciscan history which inflicted such damage on unity and brotherliness. When all the passions and mistakes brought on by the “holy war” have subsided, history has a chance to shed light on the facts: an observance “to the letter” and “without gloss” is a plain and simple observance of the Rule, one that is “spiritual, ” inspired by the holy operation of the Spirit of the Lord, to be desired above all things, as revealed to us by Francis in the Rule and exemplified in his Testament and his life.

Nowadays there is hardly any argument about this problem among the four Franciscan families. A critical study of the writings of St. Francis has been most fruitful. The history of the order can now be cultivated calmly and ecumenically, in a spirit of mutual esteem and fraternal collaboration. Evidence of such a positive experience can be found in the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality at the Antonianum in Rome where brothers and sisters of the entire Franciscan family are educated in the one spirit of St. Francis and the common history of his order.

The generally held opinion concerning the oneness of Franciscan life underlying a plurality of ways impelled the four ministers general to send a circular letter to the entire Franciscan family: “The Franciscan family, even though comprising a number of branches, professes one and the same fundamental spirituality.” (no. 9) This basic unity is so firm that they could speak of the vital aspects of our life not only in theory but in practice as well. It is evident from the whole tenor of Habere Spiritum Domini. The ultimate reason for this unity lies in the fact that, guided by the holy operation of the Spirit of God, they are all searching for a spiritual understanding of the Rule and Testament. Not without reason, did they write: “Anyone who attentively reads the Opuscula and the Lives of St. Francis will easily perceive that the most important elements are these: to follow in the footsteps of the poor and humble crucified Christ of the gospel under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our sainted Founder himself says it succinctly in the prayer he appended to his ‘Letter to the Whole Order’ (no. 51): ‘so that cleansed and enlightened interiorly and fired with the ardour of the Holy Spirit, we may be able to follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.”’[26]

This basic spiritual oneness, according to the superiors general, does not prevent its expression in a variety of forms. (no. 30) On the contrary, the very richness of one and the same spirit can give rise to a plurality of life styles and activities in which the same spirit is expressed, fructified and lived. One and the same spirit, with a diversity of charisms…

2. The relationship between the Rule and the Constitutions.

To understand the intent of our Constitutions (1968-1974) we quote No. 181 which treats of our obligation of striving, by reason of our profession, for evangelical perfection: According to the Rule and Constitutions “These Constitutions have the purpose of helping us observe the Rule better and more perfectly according to the mind of St. Francis and the interpretation of the Holy See in the changing circumstances of our lives. We can find here a safe support for our spiritual renewal in Christ and a powerful help for living up to the consecration of our life through which each friar totally dedicates himself to God. We are bound to observe these Constitutions by reason of our profession and by our special obligation to strive for gospel perfection. We, therefore, should observe them not as servants but as sons who desire to love God above all things, who listen to the Holy Spirit instructing us, and who are eager for the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbour.”

We can also understand why, after so many centuries, the Holy See declared that “previous interpretations of the Rule at least in what concerns their binding force are abrogated except for those matters which are contained in common law and in these Constitutions.” (No. 5) It also recognized the competency of the general chapters “to adapt the Rule to new circumstances with the understanding that such accommodations obtain the force of law only with the approval of the Holy See, to whom is reserved the authentic interpretation of the Rule.[27]

As the Prologue states, the Constitutions are to be considered “as the proper adaptation of the Rule of St. Francis to the circumstances of the times.” The Order, drawing upon the authentic sources of the spirit and life of St. Francis, has left nothing undone to express this spirit and life in the Constitutions and apply it to the real life situations faced by the friars. A systematic examination of this attempt at spiritual renewal, supported by a critical study of the sources of the spirit and life of the Founder, described by the Constitutions would result in enormous benefits for the Order. In their last general chapters the friars have tried to accomplish what the first Capuchins did, to seek out the “spiritual observance” of the Rule animated by the spirit of St. Francis, searching for external forms which best serve that spirit, due regard being had for the signs of the times, the needs of the friars and the general good of the Church. Here we can only indicate a few of the areas in which the new Constitutions attempt this accommodation: The total observance of the holy gospel (no. 2, 3; 181, 3); the manifestation of the spirit of minority outwardly in our life and activities; the principle of necessity for safeguarding the practice of poverty; a “poor” use of things and money; a genuine effort to rid ourselves of superfluities (no. 48, 5); life of the friars among the poor of the world; looking for rented dwellings; restoring the dignity of manual labour.

The 1974 Constitutions are outstanding especially for their candour and sense of reality. They are not expecting ready-made answers or privileges. They dislike easy dispensations and boldly seek out better alternatives for obsolete wording and forms. To accomplish this they have employed critical methods unavailable to the framers of the older constitutions.

Memorable, too, are the efforts made by the Plenary Councils of the Order at Quito, and Taize to renew the life of fraternity, poverty and prayer in actual practice, getting down to the details of daily living as never before. Now all that remains is to implement in practice what is written in all these fine documents. And there, unfortunately, lies the crux of the problem.

III. Franciscan Significance Insofar as the Order Strives for a Renewal of the Following of Christ According to the Spirit and Life of Saint Francis

The 1536 Constitutions were based on the living experience of a reformed way of life and composed by men who were experts in the spiritual life. This way of life they proposed as “the life of the Spirit” under the aegis of the spirit of Christ and of Francis. Compared with earlier documents it does not stress an observance of the Rule “to the letter” and “without gloss,” and taking into account especially the Testament of St. Francis, this tendency is rather common to all the earlier Franciscan reforms. We find rather a tendency to subordinate a literal observance to a “spiritual” one, animated by the spirit of Christ as revealed in the gospel and by the example of St. Francis in deed and word. “In this direction lies the special genius of the first Capuchins and their perennial vitality.”[28]

History teaches us that a rigid, literal cult of the letter kills, while an accommodation of the dead or obsolete letter to new forms which better incarnate or incorporate the vitality of the spirit, real and constant, leads to a continued renewal of life. “It is the spirit that gives life.”

A. In the first constitutions

The spiritual observance of the evangelical Rule as described in the prologue of the Constitutions of 1926, implies a following of Christ in the gospel inspired by His Spirit under the leadership of St. Francis. Let us look at the complete text which is in effect a plan of action: “To the end that our order, as the vineyard of the Most High Son of God, may the better stand fast in the spiritual observance of the evangelical and seraphic Rule, the general chapter held at Rome in our monastery of St. Euphemia, 1536, deemed it advisable to draw up certain statutes which might serve as a fence to ward off from the Order whatever could injure the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ and keep out all relaxations opposed to the fervent zeal bequeathed to us by our Father St. Francis…

They are as follows:

“It follows that the spiritual observance of the Rule, according to the mind of Christ who spoke in St. Francis (cf. no. 5) is a following of the living spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ guided by the spirit of the Founder according to all his aims or desires. Here lies the spiritual depth of the Rule as discovered by the first Capuchins and now rediscovered by ourselves. While the expression “according to the letter and without gloss” appears once in the text, the spirit of Christ and our life according to this spirit are expressly mentioned thirty times,[29] to inspire just as many concrete points of fraternal life.
In one passage the primacy of the spirit over the letter even of sacred scripture is beautifully stated: In the text speaking of biblical studies we read: “Let the students not seek to attain that knowledge which only puffs up, but let them endeavour to acquire the illuminating and enkindling charity of Christ, which quickens the soul. They should not be so absorbed in literary pursuits as to neglect the study of holy prayer; otherwise they would act against the express wish of our Seraphic Father, who desired that prayer should never be omitted for any study whatever. The better to acquire the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, let both lectors and students strive to deepen the spiritual life even more than to cultivate letters. Thus they shall derive more profit from their studies; for without the spirit, the true sense is not attained, but the mere letter, which blinds and kills.” (no. 123)

In this way they will be “counted worthy to be introduced to the true and pleasing knowledge of sacred letters, under which lies hidden that supreme good whose spirit is sweet above honey to them that taste it.” (no. 124)[30]

The writers of the constitutions truly savoured the life of the spirit which St. Francis enjoined to be cultivated above all things. Generally also they followed to the letter in their description of the life of the spirit in the text of the Constitutions this spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of St. Francis. Unless I am mistaken we will not find a similar text so “spiritual” either in the Franciscan Constitutions or in the commentaries on the Rule that have appeared over the years. And we might add that at the close of his life Francis urged the life of the Spirit as the better way. “Be not concerned about the external life, for the life of the spirit is better.”

Let us take a closer look at the spiritual depth so characteristic of our Constitutions. It is too bad that in the course of time this original primacy of the spirit was sometimes lost in an exaggerated cult of the letter. At long last we have rediscovered the living spirit. However, it will not be able to vitalize and inspire our life unless incorporated in a new and more appropriate “letter.” Here indeed is the true “creative” spirit that must be the source of our renewal.

An explicit effort to conform to the person of Christ and His Spirit as manifested in His life and deeds has always and everywhere been held up to the friars as their inspiring example in a life of poverty, prayer, penance, fraternal charity, labour, study, preaching, obedience, administration and even for apostolic ministry. The Christocentric orientation has been acknowledged in our Constitutions. Less evident is the continual presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Concretely they always speak of the life of the spirit, of following the Spirit of Christ, so dear to St. Francis, of the imitation of Christ, poor, humble, ministering, crucified, present in the Eucharist, and imitation of Him through a pure and generous love, for His honour and glory and for the salvation of our neighbour.

Let us recall here a few points touching on the life of the spirit. In another place we have treated all this broadly and in particular the spirit and life of prayer.[31] Here we recall only certain points touching directly on the life of the spirit, guided by the Holy Spirit (the spirit of Christ).

No.3: Harmful books “dangerous to the spirit of Christ” are to be shunned.

No. 11: In accord with the Testament, it is forbidden to seek privileges from the Roman Curia “on account of bodily persecution. The general chapter renounces all privileges which relax the Rule and, enervating the way of the spirit, lay the foundation of a sensual life.”

No. 17: Novice masters “shall take diligent care to teach the novices not only the ceremonies, but those spiritual matters necessary for the perfect imitation of Christ, our Light, our Way, our Truth and our Life.”

No. 18: “In order that the novices may in quiet, peace and silence be better strengthened in the spirit, we ordain … ”

No. 19: After profession the friars are to remain three years under the direction of a master “so that they may not easily lose the newly acquired spirit, but growing in strength may become more fixed and rooted in the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.”

No. 41: “Since holy prayer is the spiritual mistress of the friars, in order that the spirit of devotion may not decrease but continually burning on the sacred altar of our heart, may be enkindled more and more, as our Seraphic Father wished, we ordain that, although the true spiritual friar minor should always pray, two special hours shall be appointed for the tepid friars …”

We note here not only the recurrent use of the words “spirit” and “spiritual” but the stress laid on a continually growing spirit of devotion and the prayer to be constantly practiced by the spiritually minded friar minor, with a statute prescribing a minimum of two hours of mental prayer daily. The passage is in effect a commentary on the fifth chapter of the early Rule.[32]

No. 42: “Let the friars remember that prayer is nothing else than speaking to God with the heart. Consequently, he does not pray who speaks to God only with the lips. Each one, therefore, should endeavour to pray mentally, and according to the teaching of Christ, the best Teacher, adoring the eternal Father in spirit and in truth and taking diligent care to enlighten the mind and enkindle the affections far more than to frame words.” This is a further commentary on prayer made in spirit and truth, absorbing the heart and the affections, that is, the entire person; a prayer dear to St. Francis.

No. 44: ” …silence is the safeguard of the religious spirit.”

No. 46: Concerning loving obedience toward one another: “They shall not part company on the way or quarrel but as brothers in Christ, they shall endeavour with all humility and charity to obey and serve one another spiritually.” Here we have a remarkable commentary on chapter V, 13-15 of the early Rule, which models “mutual spiritual obedience” on the example of Christ our brother.

No. 57: The precept of the Rule not to use money is the mind of St. Francis “inspired by the Holy Spirit”. Therefore, the Capuchins refuse to have a syndic or procurator in this world. “But our procurator and advocate shall be Jesus Christ, and all the angels and saints shall be our spiritual friends.”

No. 61: “And since we have been called to this life to mortify the outward man and to quicken the spirit, we exhort the friars to accustom themselves to endure privations in earthly things after the example of Christ, who though Lord of all, chose for our sakes to be poor and to suffer.”

No. 66: “Let the friars take heed not to make work their sole object, nor to set their affections upon it, nor to become so engrossed in it as to extinguish, diminish or weaken the spirit to which all things should be subservient. With their eyes fixed always on God, let them take the highest and shortest road, so that labour imposed on man by God, accepted and commended by the saints as a means of preserving interior recollection, may not become an occasion of distraction and laxity. ” This is a further reflection on chapter five of the early Rule where the gift of working is considered to be a means of growing in the spirit, to which all else is to be subservient. The life of the spirit is the final goal of everything and is acquired by the higher and more direct way, with an eye that is pure and a heart continually intent on God.[33]

No. 69: This number treats of most high poverty which possesses nothing of its own and for that reason can run swiftly in the way of God “with a fervent spirit.”

No. 79: Wherever the friars live, there are to be isolated cells where they can lead an angelic life. There the friar can “surrender himself entirely to God, as the Spirit of God may inspire him. In order that the friars who are thus in retirement may enjoy God in quiet, it is ordained that the other friars shall not speak with them except their spiritual father who shall provide for them as a mother …” This number echoes St. Francis’ Rule for hermits. Our friars certainly relished the spiritual flavour of his words!

Nos. 101 and 119: Superiors and preachers are reminded of their duty to minister spirit and life.

No. 112: Preaching in the power of the spirit, with words full of divine love, depends on the vivifying operation of Christ in our hearts.

No. 114: This number extols the life of the spirit, full of God, in contemplation and action after the example of Christ: “And while preaching to others, should they feel the spirit weakening, let them return to solitude, and there let them remain, till once again, full of God, the impulse of the Holy Spirit may move them to go forth to spread divine grace over the world. Thus engaged, now like Martha, now like Mary, they shall follow Christ in His mixed life, who, after praying on the mountain, went down to the temple to preach …”[34]

No. 120: “And in order that, while preaching to others, the preachers themselves may not become castaways, they shall sometimes leave the multitude, and with our most sweet Saviour, ascend the mountain of prayer and contemplation. There let them endeavour to become inflamed as the Seraphim with divine love, so that, all on flame themselves, they may enkindle others.”

Nos. 123-124:[35]

No. 141: All the friars are exhorted in the charity of Christ to keep before their eyes the holy gospel, the Rule, our holy and praiseworthy customs, and the example of the saints, directing all their thoughts, words and actions to the honour and glory of God and of their neighbour… “and the Spirit of God will be their teacher in all things.” Notice true “spirit” and “true life”, true “spiritual” observance of the Gospel and of the Rule, desiring above all things to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation.

No. 143: Speaks of the “perfect” friars who “inflamed with love for Christ and zeal for the Catholic Faith, wish through divine inspiration to preach to the infidels…”

No. 148: “Our” spirit is not the spirit of a slave, but the spirit of the children of God, acting out of love for God and neighbour, in conformity with the Son of God, in whom we find abundant consolation. (n. 149)

No. 150-151: If we follow Christ in sincerity of heart and walk manfully in the way of perfection, the best of all fathers “will give us not only strength by His aid, but also heavenly gifts in such abundance that, surmounting all obstacles, we shall be able not merely to obey His Most beloved Son, but even to follow and imitate Him with the greatest cheerfulness and simplicity of heart …”

The Constitutions conclude with a magnificent hymn in honour of Christ: “to whom the Holy Spirit has given testimony and from Whom are all our merit, example, help, grace, and reward; in Whom be all our meditation and imitation; in Whom all things are sweet, easy, smooth, pleasant, learned, holy and perfect…”

There can be no doubt about it. Our Constitutions breathe the consolation of the Spirit of our most sweet Lord Jesus Christ, whom we rejoice to follow and imitate with great joy and simplicity of heart. They are indeed the fruit of the experience of the mystical life which gladdened their authors Bernardine of Asti, John of Fano and Francis of Jesi.

B. In our new Constitutions (1968-1974)

All that we have said above about the 1974 Constitutions, that is, compared with the old ones they endeavour to effect a reform of our Franciscan-Capuchin life in a more critical and structured way, based on the spirit and life of the founder, holds true also for their statements concerning our following of Christ and His Spirit. Their authors were in an unprecedented position to avail themselves of studies of the writings of St. Francis and other sources of Franciscan spirituality. They could also draw more abundantly upon the teachings of the second Vatican Council and contemporary works in liturgy and theology, particularly spiritual theology, under the influence of the signs of the times.

They were faithful to the teachings of the first Constitutions on the following of Christ under the lead of His Spirit but implemented it with some fresh insights. The general picture is much like the following: A spiritual observance of the evangelical life as a following of the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the operation of His Spirit, and this precisely as friars minor, in fraternity and minority (poverty, humility and loving obedience), in a life of prayer, continual penance of conversion and the apostolic ministry. In another place we treated this topic more broadly, indicating the individual numbers of the Constitutions, either the earlier or later ones.[36] We shall discuss some of these points against the background of authentic historical sources and the experience of the post-conciliar church. Then we shall cite the principal texts which illustrate the theme of the following of Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

1. Points “updated” by the 1974 Constitutions:

a. The Trinitarian theme of the Spirit of St. Francis, in whom the Son of the Father under the guidance of the Holy Spirit was always at work is emphasized. Special attention is given to the holy operation of the Spirit of God and the life of the spirit seen as a following of Christ and St. Francis.

b. Jesus Christ is presented as poor and humble, crucified, living in the Eucharist, risen from the dead, our brother, our servant, washing feet, the least of all, whose glory is in the cross (kenosis). This picture of Christ encompasses the entire paschal mystery – his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection – as celebrated in His Church until His return in glory, as well as His “mystical” Sacrament, that is, His life in the church, in people, especially in the poor and sick, in the entire universe.

c. The central theme of the Spirit of the Lord, derived from primary sources, especially the writings of St. Francis is more clearly recognized and applied.[37] The importance of the Holy Spirit and His operation within the Church is better understood in our time. In the new Constitutions, these elements, already present in the older versions, are further developed.

d. With regard to the “Franciscan” virtues which glow out from the Spirit of the Lord and His operation into the soul, the virtues of fraternal charity and minority, are renewed. The virtues of poverty, humility and loving obedience and living them in reality are discussed at random and at greater length.

e. The spirit and life of prayer, mentioned in every chapter of the Constitutions, again, in a unique historical way, are treated in the Taize document in doctrine and in practice.[38]

f. The greatest amount of space, however, is devoted to the mystery of evangelical penance or continuing conversion and spiritual renewal which pervades the Constitutions throughout. Such emphasis derives from the very spirit and life of the Founder but is also influenced by the overall climate of the conciliar Church and the teaching of Pope Paul VI, even after Vatican II.[39]

It only remains to cite specific examples of the way in which traditional values were renewed and adapted in the text of the 1974 Constitutions. We have taken the aspect of the holy operation of the Spirit of the Lord insofar as it seems to be one of the common concepts of the period but still not well known.

2. The following of Christ under the leadership of the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation.

The text of the 1974 Constitutions attempts to restore the central position of the Holy Spirit, according to the mind of St. Francis and the first Capuchin Constitutions. The holy and renewing operation of the Spirit of the Lord permeates the truly “spiritual” Constitutions from start to finish. A glance at the index under the headings “spirit,” “spiritual,” “spiritually” and “Holy Spirit” is revealing. The Holy Spirit is mentioned about twenty times and “spirit” or “spiritual” nearly one hundred times. The phrase “spirit and life” so dear to St. Francis, occurs time and time again. The words of the Rule about the spirit of the Lord and His operation “to be desired above all things” are quoted four times. The holy operation of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ is the vital inspiration of the entire religious-Christian-Franciscan life in general, and particularly for the virtues of fraternal charity, poverty, penance, humility, chastity and apostolic zeal.[40]

The following texts will serve as examples:

No. 2: “As a true disciple of Christ and as a unique example of Christian life, St. Francis taught his brothers to walk in the footsteps of the poor, humble and crucified Jesus Christ and to do so joyfully. Through Jesus, as their way they are led in the Holy Spirit to the Father. Burning with love ‘for Christ, let us contemplate Him in the self-emptying of the Incarnation and Passion in order to become more like Him. Then, joyfully celebrating the Eucharist together, let us take our place in the Paschal Mystery, enjoying a foretaste of the glory of His Resurrection until He comes. With all our heart, let us live the gospel counsels, especially those we have promised: a chastity that is consecrated to God, a poverty which is for us a special way of salvation and a loving obedience.”

Here we find a compendium of the entire spirituality of St. Francis as it appears today in authentic sources, under the light of critical studies and the signs of the times.

See also numbers 11 and 12.

No. 33: “Prayer to God begins from a movement of the Holy Spirit whereby the inner self listens to the voice of God speaking to the heart. Prayer reaches completeness whenever a person who has been reborn makes a response of faith and carries on a filial conversation with the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. In this, we express an unceasing love of God, the highest good, and seek Him always as the joy of our heart … led by the Spirit of the Lord and desiring above all His Holy operation and praying always with a pure heart, let us give to people today a witness of genuine prayer in such a way that all may see and feel in us and in the life of our fraternities the goodness and kindness of God present in the world.”

This text, unique in the history of the order, deserves careful reading, since it goes to the basis of the spirit and life of prayer.

No. 140: “The Son of God was sent into the world by the Father so that, assuming the human condition, He might preach the Gospel to the poor … Christ intended to continue this mission in the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit has raised up St. Francis and his apostolic fraternity to help the church in her mission. The friars are to do this with all their strength in keeping with the pressing needs of our times, especially on behalf of those who most need to hear the Gospel. Consequently, our apostolic fraternity, obedient to the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation, fulfils its role of service in the Church by preaching to all the Gospel in word and action.”

No. 154: “Whatever their apostolates, the friars should find in expressing their love for God and people – which is the heart of every apostolate – the bond of perfection which unifies their lives and activity. All the brothers should constantly remember that they cannot carry out their mission unless they are continually renewed in the authenticity of their vocation. Because of this they should perform the work of the apostolate in poverty and humility, not appropriating the ministry to themselves, so that everyone can clearly see that they seek Jesus Christ alone. They should maintain that unity of brotherhood which Christ desired so that the world may know that He is the Son sent by the Father. Living together in fraternity, they should practice a life of prayer and study so as to be intimately united with the Saviour. Guided by the Spirit, they should generously give to the world a witness of the joyful Good News.”

Here is a brief synthesis of the so-called “mixed” life, based on charity, whose living source is the life of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Capuchins have always cherished this synthesis of the apostolic life – contemplative and active. Modern writers base it on the unity of the Holy Trinity in accord with chapter 17 of St. John’s gospel. St. Francis did the same in his early Rule (chapter 22) and in his letter to all the faithful. This text revises no. 209 of the old Constitutions. See also no. 13.

No. 155: “Since we have vowed obedience we ought to seek, without distinction of office, the lowest place in the community of the Lord’s disciples. We should serve each other in the spirit of love and be obedient to every creature for God’s sake. This is the true obedience we can see in the life of Jesus Christ, who took the form of a servant. Responsive to the Holy Spirit, as a community, we should discern and accomplish the will of God in every event and action.”

This is a touching description of loving obedience, practiced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, according to chapter 5 of the early Rule. By it we are made conformable to the obedience of Jesus Christ, who took the form of a slave. See also no. 167 where loving obedience is treated more in detail. The number concludes as follows: “As men of poverty and peace, who are inspired and supported by the spirit of the Lord and His holy activity, we should courageously set out to do great things. If we are faithful to the end, God will reward us.” The text is a commentary of the Chapter 10 of the later Rule.

No. 173: “We should often reflect on the words of our holy
Father Francis through which he encouraged us to put away
all anxiety and to love and adore the Lord God in all His
creatures with a pure heart, chaste body and holy action. There should be nothing in us which hinders the Spirit of the
Lord or separates us from Him. His activity should be manifest
in each one of us and in our Order.”[41]

We may be permitted to repeat here what we have written elsewhere: “Christ continually appears as the heart and soul of the spirit of St. Francis, Christ the poor man, humble, crucified, present in the Eucharist, whose paschal mystery is joyfully celebrated in the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. This poor and humble Christ, our servant and our brother, animates with His Spirit the entire life of the friars, as is evident in every chapter of the Constitutions … ”

“In this way, one and the same Christ, by the holy operation of his Spirit, is always and everywhere present as their very life to each and every friar, whether working or praying. The Constitutions thus emerge as a book of meditation and spiritual reflection rather than a body of laws, with the possible exception of chapter 8. We find prayer life treated not only in chapter 3 but throughout the document. The spirit and reflective style of the new text is without a doubt very special and agrees exactly with the earliest Constitutions. Many of the numbers are an invitation to meditate on the mysteries of our life in the light of the spirit of Christ in the gospel.”[42]

However, some who recognize the extraordinary riches of the Christian and Franciscan-Capuchin spirit to be found in the Constitutions, are disappointed at the fewness of concrete legal directives for carrying over this spirit into daily living. They make a serious point and deserve a serious answer. The writers of the 1974 Constitutions had great faith in the primacy of the spirit and its power to inspire and enliven; and they do everything to encourage it. If the spirit is lacking, even many serious laws will be to no avail. On this point, it is valid to say that the history of the order is the teacher of life. On the other hand, a true and vital spirit will find ever new ways in which to embody its charism. Those responsible for our renewal have repeatedly stressed the same thought. Where these forms are lacking, there is also an absence of a genuine, living spirit. Here is the crucial problem of renewal, and every possible means must be taken to solve it. The Church and our superiors continually speak about pursuing a spiritual renewal of mind and heart. Lacking this, nothing else matters. It is a question of a genuine and continual internal conversion, in the depths of the mind and heart both of fraternities and of individual friars.

What was said in the Plenary Council of the Order at Taize about prayer is applicable to our life in general: “A really vital spirit of prayer cannot help but animate the entire life of the friars. It is therefore necessary to renew healthy traditional methods and to discover new and appropriate ways.” (no. 10). “Anyone who has the spirit of prayer, will find the time for it. If he cannot find the time, he lacks the spirit of prayer.” (no. 11)[43]

A declaration of the general definitory and of the general chapter of 1974 unequivocally labelled the lack of the spirit of prayer as the root cause of all other deficiencies in the Order, including the area of penance.[44] There can be no doubt that any genuine reform must start with an authentic spiritual renewal, in effect, a renewal of the spirit of prayer. Our Constitutions offer us efficacious means for bringing about this conversion of mind and heart.

Another problem area is found in an inevitable pluriformity resulting from differences of areas. It supposes greater creativity in the various provinces as well as in local communities, while safeguarding the essential unity of our authentic spirit. (no. 4)

Again we come back to the fundamental problem: have we attained sufficient maturity as Franciscan-Capuchins? Are we conscious of our personal and communal responsibility to develop appropriate structures to meet the needs of various regions and of the friars themselves? The new Constitutions furnish us with all the incentives we need to tackle this urgent task from the genuine spirit and life of St. Francis and according to the mind of the first Capuchins.

The 1974 Constitutions, no. 182, treat of particular statutes, “so that the regulations of these Constitutions may be properly applied to the situations of provinces and regions.” No. 181,4 mentions the impossibility of enacting laws to cover every particular case and 5-6 speak of our duty of getting to know and observe the Constitutions, with the superiors setting the example. “All the brothers are urged to make a personal study of the Constitutions and to become deeply imbued with their spirit.” Friars who take this admonition to heart will be less likely to complain about the lack of a specific legal prescription. They will find structures and wording appropriate for a spiritual observance of the gospel and the Rule. In His unbounded mercy may God grant it be so!

We will conclude our study with some thoughts from the letter of the definitory general:

1. Let the friars desire above all things to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation as He brings forth in them every good thing, every gift, every virtue.

2. This Spirit of the Lord since it is one and the same Holy Spirit, is in reality the same Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Christ who is poor, humble, crucified, present in the Eucharist, whose self-emptying we are called to share in the paschal mystery.

3. The Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ imparts to us all virtues, penance, charity, prayer, poverty, by means of which we are able to follow His way in purity of heart and spirit and thereby become pleasing to him.

4. The value of any text or structure treating of activities or virtues depends completely on the holy operation of the Spirit of the Lord. It is the Spirit who enlivens, the Spirit is life, gives life.

Every word, even the word of sacred scripture, every life style, even that of evangelical poverty, every exercise of prayer, penance, every ministry, is valid only to the extent that it is vivified by the Spirit of God and is the result of His holy operation. A structure, practice or observance that is inspired by naturalistic motives, by self love and a spirit of egoism is dead itself and produces death. St. Francis never had any doubt about the ultimate secret of perfection, holiness and virtue. External structures, as Pope Paul VI said, must be continually animated by an interior intention and love, lest they degenerate into meaningless and oppressive rituals.

The conclusions are obvious. Meaningful renewal does not rest on restructuring our life but on a reform of the mind and heart, an internal conversion by which the very depths of our being are more and more animated, inspired and renovated by the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation. This renewal of our spirit of charity, prayer and penance depends on our personal and corporate response.

If our experience, perhaps bitter experience, compels us to admit that we have up to now made little or insufficient progress in the process of renewal, then, as true penitents of Assisi, we should examine our conscience and look deep into the recesses of our hearts where a carnal and egoistic spirit, frustrating the workings of the Spirit of God, may be lurking. As St. Francis so ardently desired, the Holy Spirit Himself must be “the minister general of the entire Order.”[45]

  1. Letter of Fr. Benedict Frei, Vic. Gen. authorized by the minister general June 7, 1978.
  2. This letter was the result of the historic meeting of the four ministers general and their definitories at Monte Alverno commemorating the 750th anniversary of the death of St. Francis, where they made a retreat.
  3. For an overview of this reform movement cf. Octavian Schmuki, Spicilegium franciscanum ex Lexico lnstitutionum Perfectionis collectum, in Collectanea Franciscana, 48 (1978) 119-130.
  4. he text is found in the 1909 and 1926 editions of the Constitutions.
  5. Agathangelus of Langasco, Reformationis capuccinae intima “mens” prout est “condicio” et “arcanum subsidium” adaequatae aptationis Or- dinis nostri ad apostolatus necessitates horum temporum, in Analecta O.F.M. Cap. 67 (1951) Suppl. 34 (a conference given in the congress on the needs of the modem apostolate.) Here occur the phrases: “The ‘letter’ or ‘structure’ must be adapted, but not the ‘intent’ or ‘spirit’, lest both be lost. Obviously the ‘letter’ is to serve the ‘spirit’, not the other way around, to the extent that the ‘letter’ expresses, defends and preserves the ‘spirit’ and the ‘spirit’ nourishes, perfects and tempers the ‘letter’. The ‘spirit’ cannot survive in human society except through the ‘letter’ or some kind of ‘structure’. But the ‘spirit’ is the gift of God who is immutable, whereas structures originate in the ever-changing conditions of human existence. If the ‘letter’ is not adapted or accommodated, the ‘spirit’ will disappear for want of a structure to incorporate it or will be stifled in lifeless forms.” (pg. 32)
  6. Thomas of Celano, Vita I and II in Analecta Franciscana, X, Quarrachi 1926-41 (I Cel., 2 Cel., with number and page. I Cel. 103:80).
  7. Cel., 97: 74; cf. 89; 26; 36-37; 68,22; 29-30.

  8. Cf. I Cel., 104: 80-81.
  9. Cf. 2 Cel., 157; and numbers 156-158: 220-222. Celano says that the friars took their identity only through the operation of the Holy Spirit, the source of every good, as St. Francis wrote.
  10. Cf. the document presented by the general definitory to the general chapter in 1974 entitled: De vita nostra paenitentiae et continuae conversionis imprimis in momento actuali, cum applicationibus concretis. The complete Italian text was published in Milan 1976 (La nostra vita di penitenza e di continua conversione, 15-33). From the authentic writings of St. Francis it is clear that the holy operation of the Spirit of the Lord is the source of true penance and continual evangelical conversion.
  11. The sociological history of religious institutes seems to confirm this theory. Reform movements that were rooted in a material, literal observance were doomed to extinction whereas those which updated obsolete or lifeless structures survived. Cf. R. Hostie, Vie et Mort des Ordres Religieux, Paris 1972.
  12. The principles underlying “accommodated renewal” as proposed by Vatican Council Il and Pope Paul VI were developed by Clementinus of VIissingen, De labore Commissionis Capitularibus legibus nostris recognoscendis, in Analecta O.F.M. Cap., 81 (1965) 85-107. Also by the general definitory: La nostra vita di penitenza e di continua conversione, op. cit., 3-11 where the conciliar teaching on spiritual renewal is presented at length. The main thrust of the letter Habere Spiritum Domini is the spiritual renewal of the order based on the four basic elements of our life: prayer, fraternity, penance and the apostolate.
  13. Cf. Optatus of Veghel, La rejorme des Freres Mineurs Capucins dans l’Ordre franciscain et dans l’Anglise, in Collectanea Franciscana, 45 (1965) 37-55. For more recent history, from 1950 on, cfr. n 12.
  14. For a list of these documents see Bibliographia, Documenta officialia.
  15. Cf. La formazione permanente (a cura Segretario Formazione Cappuccini), Rome 1978, 81-82.
  16. Text published by Edouard d’Alencon in Analecta O.F.M. Cap.: Liber Memoralis, 1928, 358.
  17. Liber memorialis, op. cit., ,359.
  18. More of the same in Optatus of Veghel, La Riforme des Freres Mineurs Capucins, op. cit., 8-14; idem., Jean de Fano, in Dict. Spir., 8 (1972) 506-509; See also Callistus Urbanelli, L’osservanza e la riforma cappuccina nei due ‘Dialoghi’ di Giovanni da Fano, in Picenum Seraphicum, 12 (1975) 160-177.
  19. John of Fano, in Dialogo della Salute (amended) in Italia Francescana, 18 (1935) 492-493.
  20. John of Fano; Dialogo della Salute (amended), in Italia Francescana, 10 (1935) 493. The text is also cited by Callisto Urbanelli, op. cit., 176-177.
  21. Cf. Optatus of Veghel, La Reforme, op. cit., 37-45.
  22. Bemardine of Colpetrazzo. Hisloria Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum, in Monumenta Ordinis Minorum Capuccinorum, IV, Rome 1941, 5.
  23. Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, Historia., op. cit., 7-9.
  24. For a fair appraisal of Bernardine of Colpetrazzo cf. Costanzo Cargnoni, Vita della B. Angela da Desenzano in Historia Capuccina of Matthias of Salo, in Collectanea Franciscana, 147 (1977) 177-218.
  25. K. Esser, Die Opuscula des hl. Franziskus von Assisi. Neue text. kritisehe Edition, Grottaferrata (Rome) 1976, 447. The author however, mistakenly supposes that the Capuchins made the testament legally binding.
  26. The Four Ministers General, Habere Spiritum Domini, Rome. 1977, n. 9, p. 9.
  27. The reader is referred to the 1967 text which treats the topic of the basic fidelity of our order to Capuchin beginnings, indeed to Franciscan origins, retaining, authentic expressions and avoiding for the future those which are erroneous or offensive. Cf. Optatus of Veghél, Autenticità capuccina e genuinità francescana, in Italia Francescana, 42 (1967) 489-503.
  28. 0ptatus van Asseldonk, De traditione vitae orationis in Ordine nostro, in Analecta O.F.M. Cap., 89 (1973) 67.
  29. Prologue to the Constitutions of 1536, in Liber Memorialis, op. cit., 356
  30. cf., Admonitio VII where we find “the letter kills, the spirit gives life.” K. Esser, Opuscula Sancti Patris Francisci Assisiensis, Grottaferrata (Roma) 1978, 68. Optatus van Asseldonk, De traditione., op. cit., 56, 63 where the saint’s text is given.
  31. Cf. Optatus van Asseldonk, De Traditione., 56-85.
  32. The Constitutions explain chapter V of the rule in a positive manner, adding to it the prescription of two hours of prayer daily.
  33. This is the life of the spirit to which all other things, not only the temporal, are to be subjected.
  34. History clearly proves how from the very beginning the Capuchins tried to achieve a synthesis of prayer and action. It forms a major topic of their ascetico-mystical writings. Cf. Costanzo Cargnoni, op. cit., no. 24.
  35. Cf. Supra, 349-350.
  36. Cf. Optatus van Asseldonk, De Traditione., op. cit., 76-77. Also in Analecta O.F.M. Cap., 87 (1971) 107-110; 74-180; 242-249; 356-366.
  37. Cf. Optatus van Asseldonk, De Traditione., op. cit., 56-63; idem., San Giovanni Evangelista negli scritti di S. Francesco, in Laurentianum, 18 (1977) 225-255; Hilary Pyfferoen-Optatus van Asseldonk, Maria Santissima e lo Spirito Santo in San Francesco in Laurentianum, 16 (1975) 446-474.
  38. 0ptatus van Asseldonk, De Traditione., op. cit., 77-85. Also Documentum de Oratione, in Consilio Plenario Ordinis conjectum, in contextu spirituali positum in Analecta O.F.M. Cap., 89 (1973) 313-348.
  39. Cf. document of the general definitory of 1974: La nostra vita id penitenza e di continua conversione, op. cit., 3-11 (the teaching of Vatican Council II and Paul VI); 15-35.
  40. 0ptatus van Asseldonk, De Traditione., op. cit., 75-77.
  41. Idem. 179, 3; 181, 3; 97; 148.
  42. Idem. 76-77.
  43. Suggestiones et vota II Sessionis Consilii Plenarii Ordinis, De Oratione, in Analecta O.F.M. Cap., 89 (1973) 123; cf. no. 22, 124-125.
  44. Document of the general definitory, La nostra vita di penitenza e di continua conversione, op. cit., 30-33; 92; 95-96. Document of the general chapter De vita paenitentiae et continua conversione, op. cit., 59-61.
  45. In the Italian text: La nostra vita di penitenza., op. cit., 30-33. Cf. also Habere Spiritum Domini, op. cit., no. 12: “There can be no doubt that it was the Holy Spirit that made St. Francis conformed to Jesus crucified and raised him to an intimate union with the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity. For the Spirit is the source of all gifts and virtues. And so the Seraphic Father admonished his sons: The brothers should take care to desire above all things to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation. (Rule ch. X, 8). The one and the same spirit operates in the entire Franciscan family and bestows the gift of prayer, charity, poverty, penance and ministry; he vivifies and unifies the whole life of the disciples. ”