Evangelical Freedom and Disobedience: Capuchin reform and the limits of liberty

John Petrikovic, OFM Cap.

January 22, 1998

Copyright 2018 John Petrikovic, OFM Cap.

Table of Contents

Soul: I may be slow in coming to you, yet I am full of good will.
Christ: If you were full of good will, you would prove it.
Soul: One must give such things a great deal of thought. Such steps may be taken only once, so one must give them serious consideration.
Christ: It is certainly advisable to consider doubtful matters carefully. Also, when one intends to do something bad, one should give it serious thinking. But everyone should be ready and resolute to serve God.[1]

What is the role of human freedom vis a vis the compelling immensity of God’s Will? What is the field in which human action takes place? What is of divine origin and what is attributable to human decision within the authentically human act? What is the role of divine grace and human decision in the moral person? How does the human actor judge with certainty? These anthropological issues, so much a part of the varied and confused theological landscape of the Renaissance and the Reformation, were to take their rightful place in the lives of the first Capuchins who entered the arena of history in the first half of the sixteenth century in Italy.

One would be hard pressed to find a Capuchin source who did not believe that this Order was, in fact, created “not by men but by God.”[2] It was perhaps only within this “divine imposition” that the initial Capuchins were enabled to make the dramatic move away from the Observants and to live out their Franciscan “Obedience,” doing so within an Order which never actually enjoyed the luxury of approbation from any Franciscan Superiors. The protagonists were defined clearly as “God” and “man.” As in most religious struggles of the century, it was all so clearly black and white.

Those early Capuchins, hanging only by the string of papal jurisdiction to sanction their move, were certain that living the Gospel Life, long since equated with living the Franciscan Rule ad litteram and sine glossa,[3] was no longer possible within the mitigated interpretations of the Rule lived out by their Observant counterparts. To a man, each of the early Capuchins had to make a conscious decision to leave the confines of the Observants, each had to decide for himself where God was working, and each had to find the wherewithal to disobey the “will of the superiors” while maintaining obedience to God and to the Institutional Church: no mean feat in the cacophony of sixteenth century authority.

Our desire here is to look at those early Capuchin decisions. How did they themselves see those human decisions? What factors entered into their decision making? Were they able to be consistent in their understanding of divine grace and human action? Finally, were there any points of rational convergence between the decision of the early Capuchins to consciously reject their Franciscan guardians and provincials and the decisions of the Capuchins who were to subsequently reject their ecclesial pastors for the greener Gospel pastures of Switzerland?


There is no reason to doubt it: the Capuchins consciously saw themselves as a group of reformers. Polemically attuned to the perception that they were living the Franciscan life more faithfully than they were previously permitted to do within the Observant family, they were never immune from juxtaposing their own faithfulness to the abuses, and hence the lack of fidelity, of their Franciscan brothers.[4]

While the Capuchin mythos has always included among its hallmarks the positive thrust of being faithful to the Rule of Francis while refraining from a polemic tone, it would be less than honest to indicate that these early Capuchins did not know very well who and what they were “re-forming.”[5] Conscious of abuses within the order, they spoke intensely of their desire that the person be free to follow the Rule.

The first Capuchin chronicler Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, eyewitness to many of the events of the Order’s founding, is an important reflection of the self-image of the early friars. Because his Chronicles are intended to justify as much as they are meant to report, his unique vantage point offers us a rare look into those first “reformers.” His own “raison d’être” for the Franciscan life was plain and simple:

And if you were to ask me what the intention of Saint Francis was in giving his Rule, I would respond that he had no other intention than to guide his friars, free from every hindrance, to holy prayer, removing from us, with the precepts of the Rule, those things that impede us from holy prayer, and giving us the means that make us attain to true love of God, in which consists the observance of every good law. And if you ask me what practice our Father St. Francis wants us to do in the Order, I answer you that he says it in his Rule: “Pray always to God with a pure heart” (RB X,9). This was the reason he gave us the Rule, with which, by its observance, we would be freed from all earthly cares so that we might be able to attend to holy prayer.[6]

Certainly, one mouthpiece for this Gospel Freedom was to come in the humanist voice of Vittoria Colonna who understood that the freedom to obey the divine commands were essentially Pauline and Christian and not Protestant and Heterodox. At a time in which few writings of the friars themselves survive, Colonna’s combat against Franciscan attempts (some successful) to thwart the emerging Order remain the only open polemic written in those early days.

In her letter to Gasparo Contarini, seeking intercession with the then Pope Paul III, Victoria Colonna defends the friars:

[In response to the charge that the friars preach the “freedom of the spirit”], I would respond that, if St. Francis be a heretic, then his imitators would be Lutherans. And if preaching freedom of the spirit over vices, but subject to every ordinance of the Holy Church, is to be called an error, then it would also be an error to observe the Gospel which says in many places: Spiritus est qui vivificat, etc.

Colonna continued later in the letter to answer the charge that they were disobedient to the Minister General:

[In as much as it is said that the Capuchins do not obey the Minister General], I would respond that it is seen, it is proven and it is known that the Order of the Observants is in need of reform; and in their three General Chapters, they have proposed to reform themselves, and they have neither done so up to now nor could they do so . . . As [You] know, those who hate reform in itself hate to see it in others, because it seems that white reveals more blackness in them. And that is the most powerful reason for all of this persecution against them.[7]

Liberty is, without a doubt, at the heart of the Capuchin ethos. The freedom to live the Rule, long before equated with living the Gospel, intimately linked with the “freedom not to sin” as well as the “freedom to live God’s Will” were the essence of Gospel freedom. Yet, with the Capuchins, there appears to be a link between their sense of gospel freedom and their mysticism, based as it is in a quasi-quietist “annihilation” of the person’s will into God’s. Costanzo Cargnoni, commenting on the spirituality of the early Capuchins, writes that “true liberty” happens when the soul is “completely united to God and only God exists. The soul is completely annulled. This nothing becomes everything and everything nothing; it is the state of perfect freedom.”[8]

While we will address the obvious links to quietism below, it would be redundant to state that so many of the Late Medieval currents “flow” through the Capuchins. One current which could be brought to bear on the thought of those first Capuchins is the sense that full unity of the soul with God is actually an encounter and a personal identification with God. Thus a 14th century source can reflect an almost “apathetic” sense. Full freedom carries no awareness of “self” whatsoever:

. . . this soul does not care for anything else: it has no honor and it has no shame; it has no poverty and it has no riches; it has no joy, and it has no sadness; it has no love, and it has no hate; it has no hell, and it has no heaven.[9]

The Capuchins too had a conscious sense of being in touch with a freedom which allowed them to be more faithful to the divine commands. Reaching “freedom” was a part of John Pili of Fano’s purgative way in his classic text The Art of Union.[10] This freedom seems to be irrevocably tied to a sense of austerity whereby nothing hinders us from doing what God wants of us:

Others, esteeming their own works, they place more hope in their own merits than in the freedom of the Children of God and as soon as they feel some spiritual sweetness, using it badly, they fall into pride, vainglory or the like . . .They seek to satisfy themselves.[11]

Reaching this type of freedom was also uppermost in the mind of Bernardine Ochino is his Dialogue dealing with the need for the soul to come to God:

One should give up the world for the insults, shame, persecution, poverty, abstinence, and cross of Christ. How many there are who think that they are looking for Jesus Christ when they are only looking for themselves, seeking their own likes, enjoyments and pleasures! True love of God makes one ignore pleasure or displeasure, praise or blame, personal good or evil, and makes one care only for God’s glory. Whoever really loves God is not troubled when he feels no enjoyment.[12]

The early chronicles too were to champion this apatheia. The freedom they experienced allowed them to be bound to the Rule and its “true observance.”

And this raised up such freedom of spirit in them [libertà di spirito] that they transcended every scruple through a true observance of the Rule. They didn’t need declarations of the Rule nor any requests for privileges, because as simply as the letter sounded, so simply did they observe it.[13]

This “freedom of spirit” which was said to emanate from their lives occurred precisely because they were freed from the complexities of dispensation and interpretations of passages. This “freedom” was a freedom to follow without the need for long delays and second thoughts.

Freedom appears to be inextricably attached to an examination of conscience whereby the early Capuchins wanted to be sure that their motives and intentions were pure ones. Since persecution and lack of recognition by the Community brought with them a desire to repress the Capuchin existence, it is no wonder that persecution and lack of recognition (except by the Pope) come to be seen as sure signs that this reform is from God and not from man.


For Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, a requisite in reform is a “violence” which gives impetus and power to reforming tendencies. He differentiates between the “violent motion” of the arm which is its strongest at the beginning, and the “natural motion” of a falling rock which is the opposite. Religious reform needs the energy of the former. We reproduce much of his analogy here:

Look at how many reforms were begun in the Holy Order of S. Francis, and all because in little time, missing a violent motion of the spirit, they return to the natural motion of going to the bottom. It’s as if a big stone were tossed over a tower or from a very high peak. Initially, you could easily hold it back, since it’s a weak natural motion [motto naturale]; but reaching the bottom, if a great log is in its way, it would acquire such momentum that it would totally smash it . . . When the multitude of the friars “larghi” stand up against reform [si lievano] at its beginning, it’s not possible to reform naturally. Rather, giving place to anger and separating oneself, all those that have zeal to observe the Rule unite together to Reform themselves . . . [As St. Paul says] the spirit cannot take reign together with the flesh, but always the flesh persecutes the spirit and the spirit persecutes the flesh, a long-lasting civil [intestina] war. Not without reason did the Lord say: Narrow is the way that leads to life. Meaning that it is tiring, and with violence and fatigue one acquires the blessed life. And this is the “moto violento” [like the strike of an arm] . . . The violent motion is strong at the beginning, as is seen in the Church and in all Orders, so that since the momentum of the spirit is strong from the beginning it has been enabled to arrive to this point.[14]

Yet, the attitude toward authority in the early Capuchins is ambiguous upon serious reflection. Certainly, the Chronicler sees obedience as a sine qua non for the Franciscan life, and yet is also aware of the fact that superiors have been known to be wrong. He decides to settle the question by distinguishing two different types of friars:

[The founders] saw expressly through experience that whoever wants to give himself perfectly to holy prayer, penance and contempt of this world doesn’t need many ceremonies [rituals] and exterior business [occupationi], but only a little freedom which orders them totally to the spirit, attending to holy contemplation; but for certain ones who are not [accustomed to] acts of contemplation, it’s better that they concern themselves in exterior exercises under holy obedience.[15]

Obedience is thus an exercise for the less “free.” Those who cannot live by the spirit are, in the Pauline sense as well, those who need laws and “prayer times” and superiors who tell them what is the right thing to do in particulate cases. But what if the superior were to command something which is not right or good?

God will not permit that something be commanded of you that is against His will and your soul, and if this should occur, that something be commanded that is not pleasing to God and you do not realize this, but you obey simply thinking to do the good, [the punishment] will be imputed to [the Superior] and not to you; but, such is the force of holy obedience that what is sinful in itself, which you do not know by your simplicity will be meritorious to you for eternal life.[16]

Colpetrazzo is able to connect this type of obedience to the kind of “apathy” mentioned above. How one obeys and one’s motives for obedience are as important as the obedience itself:

Distinguish how you obey: When you more willingly obey because the superior is noble, old or educated [letterato], it’s a sure sign that you are obeying men and not God. Rather, God shines out more through the simple, and thus persevere in being governed by Him rather than by an educated man [dotto], who for the most part, governs with human prudence; the simple, however, as weak instruments, pray to God more, the One in whom you yourself confide, and more immediately does the governing of God stand out [si spica] than human prudence.[17]

Less than “simple,” and a superior for most of his religious life, John Pili of Fano was one who persecuted the nascent reform as the Provincial of the Marches, the Capuchin “cradle.”[18] Having authored a Rule Commentary, his famous Dialogo della Salute, in Order to justify the Observant interpretation of the Rule, he was forced to revise it after his own “conversion” to a Capuchin mindset. The work itself proves to be an interesting insight into how these early men may have handled the question of Obedience.[19]

In 1527, “Frater Rationabilis” was able to assure his young dialogue partner, “Frater Stimulatus,” that the community of Friars Minor was a secure road to obedience of the Rule:

I say that with a reasonable scruple [un stimolo rasonevole] and with a secure conscience, we can remain in the community. And by so doing we can choose to remain in those places which the Chapter has placed us. And you should endeavor to observe the Rule spiritually, because, if you want to do so, you can do so without any contradiction.[20]

In condemning the reform of the Capuchins, he did not mix words as to the error of their ways:

I say that they [these Capuchins] are reckless, ignorant of the Rule and its profession, vagabonds, proud-hearted and ambitious, who desire to be called Reformers of the Order, and they place [emphasis] on the exterior person, but they take very little care of the interior one. They are impatient, hard-headed [de dura cervice], and of an evil conscience (because they murmur about the other Orders disgracefully, even in front of seculars), without spirit and devotion.[21]

The reasons to remain under the trusty Obedience of the current superiors had much to do with the historical reality of the Order’s existence and the fact that the popes had successfully named the true sons of St. Francis and that many and great men have become holy by joining its august ranks.[22] Thus, Pili could confidently counsel:

I exhort [all the friars] to follow the counsel of the Lord who said: Nolite iudicare secundum faciem, sed iustum iudicium iudicate. And they will see, as I see that, even considering human imperfection, there is no greater relaxation [of the Rule] at the present time in the “family” than there was 30 or 40 years ago. The number of the imperfect has grown, but so has the number of the friars and thus so have the number of the “perfect.” And so, if they want to follow the light of reason and of conscience and not their own passions, they will see that the “family” is the most observant and is in no way lacking in the obedience, poverty, chastity, devotion and spirit that it has had in the past and that the scandals are no more present here than in the past and that they can do the Will of God, if they want to.[23]

The question comes down to obedience:

And if they observe what the most reverend Minister General, Frate Francesco de Angelis, has ordered, then everything would be fine; but because they do not observe him, up to now they have acted proudly [facto motivi grandi] and done what they wanted to do come hell or high water [fare maria et montes].[24]

Even though one might conjecture about the ways Pili was to “follow his own passions” in those subsequent years, the question in 1527 came down to a clear and recognizable obedience to the lawful superior. Within a few years, oddly enough, the question is still obedience. In fact, obedience is the “heart of the Order” but the essence in 1536 is an obedience to Jesus Christ, his law of love and the spirit, as it was in the “saints of the primitive Church.”[25] With the approbation of the Pope, the Lord has now provided the “good friars” a way to “satisfy their reasonable scruples:”

[Among the Capuchins], these friars may observe the Order’s holy profession without impediment. I believe that there has never been a reform as true and as lasting as this reform.[26]

Not surprisingly, Fano now has a need to justify both his previous and present positions and seems to land squarely on the side of the divine will:

But I didn’t know the will of God nor that this reform was according to his good pleasure . . . and I tell you that I did not think that I would ever have satisfied my conscience nor been securely saved had I continued to speak those words against such a holy and God-graced reform [reformatione].[27]

Later, he is even more explicit:

[The decision was made] with the utmost deliberation [exogitatissima consultazione] and for a long time I thought about it with many prayers, vigils and other provisions. I had researched the divine will. And his Majesty, seeing our good intentions, through many most evident signs, deigned to show me that this was his will and so I did it.[28]


In his Seventh Dialogue, the “Dialogue of the Divine Profession,” Bernardine Ochino imagines Catherine of Cybo making her final Will and Testament as she gives herself totally to her Lord in vows which, while they are not “religious,” are “divine.” Within this profession, he has her expressing various sentiments which would in no way be foreign to the High Medieval piety of her contemporaries. Among these is the following paragraph:

Unable to have any trust in myself and having lost confidence in all creatures, I will place all my hope in God alone. Now and forever I intend to depend on him alone and to place my hope in him alone. I intend to expect and acknowledge all good as deriving from divine goodness through Christ’s merits. Now and forever I realize that I have done, do or can do nothing. I have known and loved, know and love, shall know and will nothing. I had, have or shall have no power whatsoever. I desire nothing, I have or shall have nothing. I am nothing.[29]

Despite the obvious poetic and pious decoration which adorns the passage, this particular perspective is telling. It is what appears to unite Bernardine Ochino with John of Fano while uniting Ochino with his Protestant counterparts he was eventually to join. Ramifications of Francis’ “all-good, perfectly good God,” visions of Pseduo-Dionysius and Bonaventure, elements of Capuchin-Franciscan rootedness in the “naked Christ,” a resonance of the nihilistic hyperbole in Capuchin mysticism and heterodox currents of the benefices of Christ and Protestant notions of the merits of Christ seem to readily converge – with their corresponding difficulties. Who is doing the acting here?

“Quietism,” as it was eventually to be called, was not uncommon among the early Capuchins, even if the reasons for its official condemnation in Capuchin writings in 1584 and again in 1600 is contested.[30] Nevertheless, the “making nothing,” the “annihilation” of the soul, the “transformation of the soul in God” weaves its way through Capuchin writings in a constant refrain, be it in the “catolicissimi” John of Fano and Francis of Jesi or the more heterodox Bernardine Ochino and Jerome of Molfetta.

The merits of Christ, Christ’s labor on the cross on our behalf, and constant reflections on the “benefits of Christ” are not foreign to the more “Catholic” Capuchin thinkers, just as the “annihilation of the soul” and the transformation of the soul in God is not lacking in more heterodox thinkers. The Franciscan Bartholomew of Cordoni spoke of the soul as “totally loved by God and totally transformed in him,”[31] while Francis Ripanti of Jesi could speak about the “exercise of love,” which made it very difficult to distinguish if it were the human person or God himself who is doing the loving.[32]

The Capuchin treatises echo with cries of a “naked faith” which trumpet a kind of deification in the one school of the Crucifixion, in the annihilation of the human will in order to “drown,” or be submerged, in a “sea of divine Will.”[33] Be it hyperbole or theological anthropology, one wonders whether the “simple Capuchins” could tell the difference when treatises such as the following were so prevalent in their ranks:

[There are two kinds of freedom: good and bad.] The good holds man captive: he is taken and imprisoned, and he is not allowed to act [on his own] at all. The bad one “frees” him, letting him into the hands of his own counsels [Sirach 15, 14]. O cursed Freedom, and how much evil you’ve created for me, and how many enemies you’ve enslaved me to, and how many passions you’ve bound me by, how many goods [beni] you’ve stripped from me, and what treasures you’ve deprived me of. What intolerable wars you have surrounded me by!

Blessed snares, happy chains, divine captivity, with what joys you fill me, with what happiness you clothe me, what sweetness you bring to bear on me, with what tears you gift me, writing or almost praying! With what peace you satisfy me, and for what divine satiety you make me hunger!

Blessed the hour, my Jesus, that you imprisoned me! O what a grace! Blessed the point at which you freed me from such wild freedom to be with you and to your signals, O my only treasure, you have bound me.

May I never free myself from the sweet snare with which you have taken me![34]

In John of Fano’s “unitive way,” he takes on much of what he had inherited from Western mysticism and rejoices at the soul’s accomplishment of its goal so that “one can say with the Canticle: ‘Anima mea liquefacta est, dum dilectus locutus est fulcite me floribus, stipate me malis, quia amore langueo’” [Ct 5,6 and 2,5].[35]

Is this pious rhetoric?


Time and time again, the proof of the validity of the Capuchin reform lay in its fruits: it seemed to accomplish externally what it had valued internally, and throughout the early period of the Reform, the most prevalent values continued to be “holy prayer” and “holy poverty.” Jerome of Molfetta was a popular Observant preacher who was to grow in popularity among the Capuchins. While not rivaling his friend Bernardine Ochino, he certainly equaled him in some Italian territories. Before his own eventual move among the Calvinists, Girolamo wrote his Rules of Mental Prayer, and lashed out against those religious who were less than authentic:

[As I searched for him whom my heart loves,] I had forgotten that I had not searched among the religious and this gave me much hope. These religious seemed to be of two kinds, and so, to those who were closest to me, I said, “Have you seen my beloved?” And a voice from one standing in front of them responded: “Here, you are searching in vain, because these are those who look after themselves and who do not look for Jesus Christ. Of these, God said through the prophet: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And the Lord in the Gospel says: They are the blind leading the blind. These are those who place impossible and heavy burdens on others’ shoulders, but they will not themselves move a finger to help them. They do all their works to be seen, because they talk about things but do not put them into practice [dicano e non fanno].[36]

And Jerome was not alone. Even a superficial reading of the Capuchin sources shows that this “observance” was clear and unquestionable in the Capuchin psyche. Bernardine of Asti, both Bernardine Ochino’s predecessor and successor as Vicar General, was reported by Colpetrazzo to have said:

I never understood the true meaning of the Rule until I came to the Capuchins and saw how these simple Capuchins observed it not because they were taught to do so [non da’ dotti] because they were totally simple, but [they learned it] from the Holy Spirit so that through the great desire that they had to observe the Rule, God revealed to their minds the way that they had to hold it keep it.[37]

Another early witness quoted by Colpetrazzo continues along the same line:

I understand the Rule because I observe it and I simply confess that no one can understand the Rule unless he observes it. Because the Rule does not consist in the observance of rituals [ceremonie]; instead, it consists in those who are in love with God and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, can observe the Rule and the divine Francis, because it consists in a true denial of oneself, in fleeing all things which by their nature occupy the heart and in the true love of God; because the Rule is spiritual and it needs to be observed through the spirit. Let us thank the Lord God, then, who has granted us the grace of seeing St. Francis reborn, not him but his life.[38]

The important relation of the internal and external person, the inner man and the external man, the correspondence of the two and their sometimes contradictory nature, are part of the neo-Platonic Franciscan heritage. Colpetrazzo sees this quasi-sacramental importance as he tries to weigh placing emphasis on the “externals” of religion vs. the “internal.”

Since these [external practices] sharpen the contempt of the world and distance us from creatures, true Christian wisdom is a part of it; as much as a friar is obedient, poor, humble, distinct from the world, so much is he practiced in the loved of God, and to such an extent has he acquired the light and spirit of God. Just as in the sacraments, under the vile appearance of matter, divine grace exists and operates, so too under this observance and these diligent exteriors, exists the true spirit of God. Therefore, they must not be scorned.[39]

Capuchin self-authentication was owed to a perception that the Capuchins were living an authentic Franciscan lifestyle externally. Their external “poverty” and their rugged “austerity” were the proof of their Franciscan pedigree (without much consideration given to those in the Friars Minor who were living equally as austerely and “poorly” in their respective friaries and hermitages, as John of Fano had pointed out in 1527[40]). One might ask whether this pedigree would have been as appreciated without the approbation by the Holy See. Certainly, the Calabrian reformers to the south, as well those Minors who joined Capuchins after 1532 would not have done so if this group had been a “renegade” band. Yet, the fact that “authorities” were pitted against “authorities” bespeaks the tenuousness of ecclesial life in the early part of the 16th century.

The “external” condition of the person necessarily had to reflect an internal conversion and sanctification. Yet, the “externals” were the very things which could become corrupt in “empty ritual,” “ceremony” and “empty words.” The relation between the internal spiritual life and the external manifestation were as much a concern for the Capuchin as for the Humanist or the Protestant. They used observation and expectations as a ground for their discernment of authenticity.

Internally, this “discernment” took the form of a self-conscious examination of motives for their actions. James of Molfetta, an early friar much involved in the promotion of the early reform, recounts his experience of an “unreformed” guardian who wished to discuss the reasons for their “severity of life”:

. . . . He said to them: “[If friars are living so intensely] out of devotion, that’s good [sta bene]; but if they are doing this because they hold themselves obligated to it, they are stupid; if they are doing it out of hypocrisy, they are martyrs of the devil.” And with these thoughts, he said to them, “Fathers, for what reason are you living this life?” They responded that they are doing it to observe the Rule.[41]

Conscious of the complexities of motives which bring people to the way of life, the early Capuchins wanted to ensure that people who came were tested so that their motives could be made clear:

Desiring that our Order grow more in virtue, perfection and spirit, than in numbers; knowing also as the Infallible Truth teaches that “many are called, but few chosen,” and that, as our Seraphic Father foretold when near death: nothing is greater hindrance to the pure observance of the Rule than a multitude of useless, worldly, and self-indulgent Friars, we ordain that when any persons apply for admission the Vicars shall make careful enquiries as to their condition and character, and they shall not receive them if they do not manifest a very good intention and fervent will.[42]

Both John of Fano and Francis of Jesi, in their works on prayer, are also part and parcel of the spirituality which would indicate to them the testing of motives and the reasons behind one’s action were paramount.[43] Ochino’s analysis of the motives behind human action is almost painfully exemplified in his long and protracted analysis of how “a man should govern himself.”[44] He writes:

A man’s soul is like a kingdom in which the will is the queen. Her duty ought to be that of governing herself well, subduing all the other powers of the soul and directing them toward God, by following what is good and hating what is evil. Yet her freedom enables her to do as she likes. She is blind; she cannot see nor is she capable of seeing. That is why God has placed a great sage beside her called the intellect, so that she may be guided by his judgement.[45]

In this analysis, Ochino rhetorically delineates fifty steps through which the intellect and will must pass for proper discernment; a gargantuan task, and certainly not for the faint of heart!

Yet, it remains that the Capuchin world-view allowed for this optimism in the human ability to make choices and to discern justly. Mathias of Salò, the Capuchin preacher and teacher of prayer, could reflect his own Capuchin heritage when writing in 1573 as part of the second generation. While also reflecting currents of prayer which were a part of other traditions, like that of the Jesuit tradition, Matthias shows the importance of distinguishing means and goals in the spiritual life. The means serve the goal so that there is corresponding freedom from the “means” when they are no longer necessary.

So that meditation not be done for any other reason than for igniting [accendere] the affect, when you feel so moved [bene acceso], leave all the other acts of meditations [aside] and enter into the affective acts of the will . . . because you have reached home and reached the end for which you’ve taken this road; don’t worry about taking other roads. . . . And when, . . . without previous meditation you feel able to fly to God with your affect, than you don’t need these practices. Those who fly don’t need stairs; and make sure that the true contemplation is more in the affect than in the intellect.[46]

The certainty with which the Capuchins arrived regarding their choices can appear staggering to a much more complex and self-doubting age. Judgements of the good and the bad, the friends of God or the enemies of God, and the cowardly or the bold were easily found based on observation and astute analysis. A pericope from Pili’s text, “How one knows the unfaithful friends of God” can suffice as an example:

The unfaithful friends of God are known in many ways. Some, finding themselves without divine consolation, become lukewarm and without the fervor of charity, and growing weak in virtue and good works, they search out sensuality and bodily calm (quiete) more than is necessary and beyond the Rule and discretion. And it’s no wonder because they want spiritual consolation, but they don’t want to endure fatigue in order to attain it; and so when they don’t have it, they seek solace in creatures, where they run into many dangers.

Others are so cowardly that every comfort and humanity that they give the body they say is necessary. But remember that the Lord did not live in delights and he did not find himself in the land of those who lived the sweet life [suavamente]. And even though these people do not always run into the dangers of mortal sin, nonetheless, the ardor of devotion diminishes, the internal exercises are hampered and the taste of divine sweetness [suavità] and of virtue is weakened.

Others, finding themselves without any divine taste, become so impatient, disturbed and perverse that no one can talk to them and become upset and scandalized by everything (quantunque minima).[47]


In many ways, the “freedom” experienced by the early Capuchins was a freedom from making any real choices at all. Once one had personally experienced the love of God, had personally entered into this divine love, there was a “spiritual” sense in which the human being had no real “choice” whatsoever.

Bernardine Ochino had a sense of the imperative demands of the Gospel experience in his Dialogues. There is something more than rhetoric behind his image of the soul’s contemplation of Christ and its subsequent response:

If a soul longed for Christ like a true bride, if her eyes could meet his and if, even in part, she could taste his love and all that he suffered for her sake, if she could see his burning tears, hear the deep ardent sighs coming from his inflamed heart, see his loving blood and realize his thirst for her salvation, then she could not help loving him . . . She could not help becoming inflamed with divine love.[48]


If, with clear understanding, one meditated not only about such benefits, but also about the infinite love with which they were given, then one’s soul would feel so much sweetness that it could not help but detach itself from the body and ascend to God.[49]

And in the same dialogue, Ochino has the duchess reflect:

I think it is useful to have faith in God’s love and his benefits. If we truly believed that God loves us with infinite, constant, sincere and gratuitous love . . . then we would have to love him.[50]

The point of Capuchin meditation was to be an incitement to the love of God, an incitement from which a love in return would necessarily follow. One could see the importance of compelling rhetoric in the lives of the humanists of the sixteenth century: if the Gospel were communicated well, conversion and change of life would follow. The problem for the humanists was that this message, its simplicity and its kernel, had been lost.[51] This is not far from the Capuchin sense.

Because the choice is so clear, so overwhelming, the need to make the obvious decision to go to the Reform is not an option. As indicated in Ochino’s dialogues above, Christ frustration with the procrastinating soul is palpable:

Soul: I may be slow in coming to you, yet I am full of good will.

Christ: If you were full of good will, you would prove it.

Soul: One must give such things a great deal of thought. Such steps may be taken only once, so one must give them serious consideration.

Christ: It is certainly advisable to consider doubtful matters carefully. Also, when one intends to do something bad, one should give it serious thinking. But everyone should be ready and resolute to serve God.[52]

The dialogue itself, on the “Need to be Converted Early,” reaches a fever pitch towards its end as Christ inflames the Soul to action:

Christ: . . . Hurry up! Do not wait until your head is on the block! The longer you wait, the farther from me you will go and the harder it will be for you to come back. Your bad habits will grow stronger and stronger. Why wait then? Consider my love; do not render vain all my labors; do not render fruitless the shedding of my blood.[53]

In the dialogue of John of Fano, Frate Stimolato is searching for some definite answer from Frate Razionabile regarding salvation and what he must do in order to save himself. This is no minor interrogation. Is it good and right to remain among the Friar Observants or must one go to the Capuchins in order to live the Gospel?

While conceding that living among the “family” is “secure in the sense that [the Order] was ordained and came to be through these holy reforming fathers,” he goes on to offer a clear caveat:

Where one gives honor to God and there is health for the soul, follow your conscience and let the others say what they will . . . Speaking of the present time, I say that I don’t want to descend to this particularity [whether there is salvation among the Community] out of respect, but you yourself study well all of this Dialogue. Then you will see with much attention the way things are these days among them [the modern living] mentioned above and you will respond in the same way to your doubt.[54]


“It is better to be saved alone than to be damned in company.”[55]

This telling sentence from one of Ochino’s Dialogue (“the Pilgrimage to Heaven”) occurs after the “Pilgrim Soul” has been encouraged by his “Guardian Angel” to “try to take with you” all of the soul’s loved ones and family by convincing them of the importance of the pilgrimage. The citation itself is the response to the question: “What if they refuse to come?”[56] but the dialogue does go on to offer suggestions about how to deal with the others we encounter “on our way”:

Guardian Angel: You must enlighten them, persuade them to follow Christ, help them, rebuke them, correct them, and do as much good to them as you can with your words, examples, life and prayers.[57]

Yet, there remains the reality that the journey to heaven is a singular affair. It was this singularity, this sense of personal freedom from external influence which compelled Bernardine Ochino to have Catherine Cybo profess her “vows” of a “new” religion only to God. In the end it was her “conscience” which was the lasting witness to her “will and testament.”[58] In the Dialogue mentioned above, Ochino was also to be so bold as to insist that the soul must never “resist divine inspiration. If Christ calls from heaven, hasten your steps and answer him.”[59]

Both Ochino and Pili had made decisions which were “above the fray,” so to speak, and the Capuchins had prided themselves on the image of the small community of faithful friars who had to fight the large Community against all odds and succeeded. Another paradox lies precisely in this Capuchin singularity: the official desire for “holy uniformity” in the manner of the Franciscan life[60] can be tenuously juxtaposed with the individualism which marked the Order’s prayer life, and which had accompanied their own personal decisions to defect from their original Obediences.

The role of individual conscience and its exercise is perhaps the most provocative characteristics of the early Capuchins still in need of study.[61] There was a confidence and trust in the individual conscience, exemplified in this example from the preaching of Ochino in Venice:

Hold fast to this secure book which, if you study it and skim through the pages well, reading and re-reading it, it will illuminate you; it will teach you; it will tell you what is good and what is evil: that book is your own conscience.[62]

As we saw above, “conscience” was also the secure guide for Frate Razionabile as he confronted Fra Stimolo.[63] It was this kind of decision-making which allowed men of the sixteenth century to make decisions which may not have been supported by institutional forces of the time, but which were demanded of individual perceptions. Note the decision-making process in the example given by Ochino below:

One of the lepers in the Gospel, seeing that he was healed, didn’t obey Christ and didn’t go to the priest, but he returned to Christ with the greatest of love [carità], thanking him for this gift that he had been granted and prostrated himself on the ground to give him that thanks. To which Christ replied: Ten were healed. Where are the other nine? Notice that he used as an example the one who didn’t obey his word and go to the priest! He commended him, seeing that he had followed the spirit of love [carità]. And, rather may you always violate that good spirit by means of ardent love, following the real spirit — that is a book that will continually guide you and minister to you the kinds of things in which you can never go wrong. And if you want to do a work of piety, you will go to your spirit, to your conscience and it will tell you everything you should do.[64]

In what ways were Capuchin decisions individual expressions of conscientious choice and in what way were they based on external, institutional approbation? One could safely say that few Capuchins would have joined the ranks of the Order without Clement VII’s bull of 1528, but the question which needs to be asked is more one of possibility than actual fact, a possibility which would lay the groundwork for anti-institutional decisions within the next 15 years for many of those early Capuchins. Were the two sets of decisions able to be absolutely divorced from one another (as sources up to now prefer) or were they two movements of the same reform? A look at their decisions for reform and their processes of obedience or disobedience would make an interesting study.


  1. Bernardine Ochino, “Dialogue V: On the Need to be Converted Early,” in Seven Dialogues, ed. and trans. Rita Belladonna (Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1988), p. 51.
  2. See, for example, Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, Ratio vivendi fratrum, MHOC IV, 6.
  3. This was, essentially, the “line of demarcation” in the rhetoric of Franciscan reform and the crux of the struggle between the Community and the more Spiritual elements. Inspired by the Testament of Francis as the primary interpretation of the Rule [Capuchin Constitutions #5, 6], the Capuchins included in their prolegomenon for reform the notion that the Rule was to suffer no interpretations or complex legal manipulations. The only “spiritual” gloss on the Rule was the Testament itself. They were even emboldened to admonish the friars not to reform or change the Constitutions themselves [See # 146]. Whether they were successful in not placing glosses on the Rule is debatable; they certainly did not succeed in the latter.
  4. Bernardine of Colpetrazzo even compared the Franciscan situation to that of the world at the time of Noah. Reinforcing an understanding of some monumental divine intervention in the Capuchin foundation, the chronicler imagines that Franciscan corruption had reached such a scandalous point that the Lord “could no longer tolerate it.” MHOC IV, 3.
  5. Thaddeus MacVicar, Franciscan Spirituals, p. 102. In this classic text analyzing the Capuchins and their connection to “spiritual” movements which preceded them, MacVicar chose to sidestep the “danger” of “calling up old controversies” with the Observant branch. Instead, citing the fact that the “Church” sided with these few men at the outset, MacVicar reiterates the “fact” that the Capuchin reform was “perfectly justified” vis a vis the Observants of the time. The important treatment of Duncan Nimmo needs to be cited here and his analysis of the initial divide as well as the history of reform and division within the Franciscan confines. Though it is not necessarily appreciated with full support in Capuchin circles because of its tendency to view Franciscan history from a more relative position (Nimmo himself is a layman), his work on Franciscan conflict through the eyes of an “observer” is seminal. Nimmo attempts a tripartite approach to the interpretation of Franciscan history, what might be called a “complementary” approach. The “union of hearts,” he writes, “may best be won by separation of structures” [p. 658] – a point which is not necessarily far from that of sixteenth century reformers like Cardinal Carafa or, initially, John of Fano (at least in fact): reform and division were necessary and divided structures were the only way to achieve this reform. There is no doubt, however, that the initial Capuchins did not seek “complementarity” – they were after something much more definite and were a bit more “certain” of their absolute convictions. While there is no proof that they ever actually accused their Observant counterparts of being “heretics,” it is certainly sure that some questioned whether you could truly follow Christ and the Gospel while remaining among them. Cf. Duncan Nimmo, Reform and Division, pp. 653-656.
  6. Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, MHOC III, 187.
  7. Vittoria Colonna, “Vittoria Colonna al Card. Contarini,” in FC, II, p. 219-220.
  8. Cargnoni, FC III, 60.
  9. From Prosatori minori del Trecento, I, Scrittori di religione, ed. Giuseppe De Luca (Milan-Napoli, 1954), 1103, 1105.
  10. In FC III, 297-428. Note too the correspondence of this work with the Franciscan Bartholomew Cordoni, Dialogue of the Spiritual Union of God with the Soul, Milan, 1539, from which Pili borrows liberally. Pili’s work, along with Cordoni’s, could not overcome the charges of quietism later in the century, a point we will touch on below.
  11. FC III, p. 305.
  12. Ochino, p. 18.
  13. MHOC, IV, 7.
  14. Bernardine of Colpetrazzo, MHOC III, 55. (Check footnote) Perhaps Colpetrazzo would have found consolation in the words of his contemporary, the Theatine Gianpietro Carafa in his now famous letter to Clement VII: “It is impossible without a sweeping reformation, to speak about, let alone observe the pure rule of St. Francis. Since the matter is too obvious and supported by the witness of the entire people, no arguments are necessary. If anyone says, ‘Well, then, that entire congregation should be reformed,’ I answer that this is simply impossible for any human agency on account of the great multitude of evil men who belong to that congregation and keep the good oppressed in such a way that they are not allowed to exercise any influence . . . Nothing good can come from merely remaining together. The bad not only do not become better because of the enemy of the good, but as we actually see, they become much worse almost as a retort. Therefore, it is necessary that His holiness no longer keep the door bolted, but open the depth of his charity to so many souls who want to serve God truly . . . Let not his Holiness be stopped by false and deceptive suggestions of tyrannical, wicked and false friars. — Gianpietro Carafa, “Memorial to Pope Clement VII (1532),” Reform Thought in Sixteenth Century Italy, (American Academy of Religion, Texts and Translation Series, 4) ed. and trans. Elizabeth G. Gleason (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), p.74-75.
  15. MHOC, IV, p.10.
  16. Colpetrazzo, Ratio Vivendi, MHOC IV, 11. That which accompanies this rule of life is telling in itself. The story is told of a certain monk, Malco, who, after his wife had died, had killed his own son at the command of the prelate, throwing him into the fire. Colpetrazzo weaves his way around this account of the story with this risible moral: “Who would ever doubt that this was murder? And nonetheless it was revealed from God that this was pleasing to him as an act of obedience, just as the sacrifice which the great Patriarch Abraham made of his only son pleased him.” Ibid. Much could be said here of a Scotist Voluntarism and its effects on the Franciscan mind of the sixteenth century . . .
  17. MHOC, IV, 10.
  18. The Marches include the city of Camerino, home of the duchess of Camerino, Catherine of Cybo, and site of the first permanent Capuchin residence. It is considered in Italy to be “la culla dell’Ordine.”
  19. Noteworthy sections of the 1527 version of John of Fano’s Dialogo de la salute tra el frate Stimulato et el frate Rationabile circa la Regula de li frati Minori et sue dechiaratione per stimulati, dated June 5, 1527, are found reproduced in FC II, pp. 41ff. His version of 1536, Dialogo de la salute tra il frate Stimolato e el frate Razionabile circa la Regula delli frati Minori e sue dechiarazioni con molte necessarie addizzioni, di nouvo ricomposto e ristampato, appears in FC I, pp. 585ff. The references below will indicate the difference by the dates written, “Dialogue 1527” and “Dialogue 1536”, accompanied by the page numbers within the aforementioned editions of FC.
  20. Dialogue 1527, FC II, 66.
  21. Dialogue 1527, FC II, 61.
  22. See Dialogue 1527, FC II, 64.
  23. Dialogue 1527, FC II, 65-66.
  24. Dialogue 1527, FC II, 67.
  25. See Dialogue 1536, FC I, 602.
  26. Dialogue 1536, FC I, 609.
  27. Dialogue 1536, FC I, 610.
  28. Dialogue 1536, FC I, 613. He sees no conflict with a continued understanding of the Will of God spoken through the superior. In his section on obedience, e.g., he relates the example of the questor who is told by the superior to go out in search of alms even though the friars have enough to eat at present, this despite the Rules specific prohibition of such “storing.” Pili writes that it is “better to obey” the guardian to prevent “great disturbances in the house.” FC I, 622.
  29. Ochino, Dialogue VII, p. 75.
  30. Costanzo Cargnoni believes that these charges were against John Pili of Fano’s Art of Union or Francis Ripanti of Jesi’s Circle of Divine Love were, more often than not, a guilt by association. He believes especially that those who make the charge were incapable of understanding the subtlety of Scotistic ontology. Cf. Cargnoni FC III 55 ff. See also FC III, p. 398, n. 361 in his commentary on Pili’s passage that, in the unitive way, “only the divine will, honor and glory are complete accomplished in [the man of prayer].”
  31. Bartholomew Cordoni, Dialogue of the Spiritual Union of God with the Soul, Milan, 1539, line 135.
  32. Cf. Francis of Jesi, Circolo de carità divina, FC III, 293 ff.
  33. Gregory of Naples, Dottrina Mirabile, FC III, 1063. See also Cargnoni’s Introduction to this work in FC III, p. 897.
  34. Gregory of Naples, Dottrina Mirabile, FC III, p. 1063.
  35. Art of Union, FC III, 370.
  36. Girolamo da Molfetta, Regule de la Orazione Mentale, FC III, 433.
  37. Colpetrazzo, MHOC III, 185 ff.
  38. Matthew of Schio in Colpetrazzo, MHOC III, 380.
  39. Bernard of Offida in MHOC, VII, 497.
  40. See note 22, on page 10 above.
  41. MHOC VI, 246
  42. Constitutions of 1536, #12.
  43. Cf. John of Fano’s Art of Union, #3826ff., FC III, 307 and Francis of Jesi’s more complex but still poignant self-analysis in his Circle of Divine Love, FC 3798ff., p. 281.
  44. This dialogue is most often seen as his most “scholastic of the dialogues and most removed from humanist or evangelist tendencies. It was not, however, foreign to his Franciscan and Scotist education.
  45. Dialogue I, p. 29.
  46. Mattias [Bellintani] of Salò, The Practice of Mental Prayer (1573), FC III/I, [665-736], p. 717.
  47. Art of Union, FC III, p. 325-6. Whether becoming “scandalized” by another is a good thing or a bad thing is in doubt. In the Dialogue of 1527, Pili felt that Fra Stimolo should not be scandalized by the “bad” friars because there were many “good” friars who lived the Rule [see FC II, p. 64], while Pili himself appears scandalized by the friars’ behavior and looking for a way to settle the “fearful scruples” of those who want to live “rightly” in 1536 [FC I, p. 609].
  48. Ochino, Dialogue I, p. 15.
  49. Ochino, Dialogue I, p. 16.
  50. Ochino, Dialogue I, p. 16. This image is consistent in Ochino. See also his use of it with his treatment of the Thief on the Cross, Dialogue IV, p. 44: “Seeing [all of Christ’s suffering and works on his behalf], the thief on the cross could not help believing that Christ indeed was the Son of God.”
  51. See, e.g., Erasmus’ closing paragraphs of his Paraclesis: “Happy is that man whom death takes as he meditates upon this literature [of Christ]. Let us all, therefore, with our whole heart covet this literature, let us embrace it, let us continually occupy ourselves with it, let us fondly kiss it, at length let us die in its embrace, let us be transformed in it, since indeed studies are transmuted into morals.”
  52. Ochino, Dialogue V, p. 51.
  53. Ochino, Dialogue V, p. 57.
  54. Dialogue 1536, FC I, pp. 611, 612.
  55. Ochino, Dialogue VI, p. 63.
  56. Ochino, Dialogue VI, p. 63.
  57. Ochino, Dialogue VI, p. 63.
  58. Ochino, Dialogue VII, p. 80.
  59. Ochino, Dialogue VI, p. 69.
  60. Cf. Capuchin Constitutions, # 146: “These Constitutions shall be left intact and in accordance with them our Congregation should live and be governed with a holy uniformity.”
  61. One could certainly also look at the “individualism” which was to mark Capuchin prayer as it came to emphasize the value of personal devotion and meditation over liturgical, communal prayer. Cf. Capuchins Constitutions, #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 with the lips. Each one, therefore, should endeavor to pray mentally, and according to the teaching of Christ, taking diligent care to enlighten the mind and enkindle the affections far more than to frame words . . . And no other Offices shall be said in choir except that of the Blessed Virgin, so that the Friars have more time to devote to private and mental prayer which is far more fruitful than vocal prayer.”
  62. Ochino, Venetian Preaching, FC III, 2181.
  63. Dialogue 1536, FC I, pp. 611. This “singularity” remains in Pili despite the fact that, a few paragraphs later, the author will justify the validity of his Capuchin choice by recounting that: “Many great and holy fathers . . . have come and are coming [to this reform].” Ibid., p. 613.
  64. Ochino, Venetian Preaching, FC III, 2240.