Capuchin Franciscan History
There were figures who hankered for the good old days ofSt. Francis and his early followers and disciples.
In a world characterized by conflicting interpretations and of shifting loyalties at the time. The large family of Franciscans had their share of animosities, divisions, and alliances. Among the various groups there were counted in the ranks a number of prominent ideological and political figures in diverse aides of these conflicts yet also possessed a number of false and true prophets and reformers. During this Age of Reform in the Church, there were figures who hankered for the good old days of St. Francis and his early followers and disciples. There was Fra Matteo da Bascio residing in one of the friaries of the Friars Minor of the Observance or Friars Minor Observants in the Marches of Ancona. These Friars Minor of the Observance belonged to a reformed branch of the large Franciscan family that split into the simply so-called Friars Minor and the Friars Minor Conventuals. It should be pointed out at the outset that in English grammar the particular always follows the generic designation.
In 1525, without taking leave from the Guardian of the convent. Matteo set out on his own to Rome to speak about his concerns to the Pope himself. Now, at this time it was still possible to see the Pope since there was not much bureaucratic protocols. Matteo personally expressed his simple desire to live a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Francis. He also wanted to wear his “modified habit” which he felt was more closely like the habit worn by St. Francis himself. But since he did not have the permission of his Guardian and, therefore, carried with him an official obedience, he was technically, in accordance with Canon Law, a fugitive. This did not seem like a good beginning! But, fortunately, Matteo’s request was verbally granted by the Pope. Clement VII gave him permission to wear his strange-looking habit and to “go about the world preaching the commandments of God and, by word and example, exhort men to walk in the way of God and in good works.” This permission carried one simple condition: that each year during the Chapter, he was to present himself to the Minister Provincial of the Observants of his Province as a taken of obedience.”
His superiors tried to suppress these new notions, and thus Matteo and his first companions were forced to hide from the Church authorities, who wanted to arrest them for abandoning their religious obligations. These were the years of the Lutheran Reformation and, therefore, any attempt at renewal was badly regarded by the superiors of the religious orders. Matteo and his friends found refuge with the Camaldolese monks; in gratitude, they subsequently adopted the hood worn by that order, which was the hermit's mark in the Marche region, in addition to wearing a beard. The popular name of their movement originates from this characteristic of their habit.
In 1528, with the mediation of Caterina Cibò, Duchess of Camerino, Matteo obtained the approval of Pope Clement VII with the bull Religionis zelus. He was given permission to live as a hermit and to go everywhere preaching to the poor. And this permission was not only for him, but for all those who would join him in his attempt to restore the most literal observance possible of the rule of St. Francis. Matteo and the original group were soon joined by others and initially they were called Friars Minor of the Hermetical Life and due to the opposition of the Observants, they became the congregation: the Friars Minor Hermits, a branch of the Conventual Franciscans, but with their own vicar. A difficult period was encountered in 1542, when the Vicar General of the Order, Bernardino Ochino, joined the Protestant Reformation.
This may seem to be the end of the story. But God works in mysterious ways, indeed. From this seeming inauspicious beginning, that tiny insignificant spark ignited a mighty movement that blazed a trail across the centuries, confirmed by the testimonies of the holiness of saints and holy men and woman of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin that fulfilled those words of the Vicar of Christ: “go about the world preaching the commandments of God by word and example, exhort all men to walk in the way of God and in good works.”
-Br. Joseph Nacua, OFMCap. D.D.
Friar Minor Capuchin.
But what is a Capuchin? First, a Capuchin is a Franciscan. Capuchins are a 16th century reform of the Franciscan Order, recognized by the Church as a legitimate branch of the Order of Friars Minor founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. The name given the Order by Saint Francis-Friars Minor-tells us two key things about Franciscan and Capuchin identity. Friar means brother. Franciscans are brothers. In his Testament, Saint Francis described his vocation and said, "the Lord gave me brothers." A Capuchin lives with his brother Capuchins. The brothers pray together, eat together, work together for the Church and share together the joys and sorrows of life. A Capuchin living alone would be an anomaly, not true to the essence of his Franciscan identity. Capuchins share all that they earn and they share daily life in community.
The Capuchins truly captured the hearts of the people when the Black Plague struck Western Europe killing millions. While many of the clergy and religious fled the catastrophe, the Capuchins remained to care for the people. Over 2,000 friars died from the plague as Martyrs of Charity. Today, the Capuchins number about more than10,500 friars worldwide situated in many different cultural and social contexts but all joyfully living the charisms that have always made them worthy sons of St. Francis.
"The Marines of the Church" - Pope Pius XI
As their reputation as men of prayer and service of God’s people spread, the Capuchin movement spread rapidly throughout Europe and they became one of the largest religious orders in the Church. The Capuchins became especially known for their preaching and their missionary work, two aspects of their ministerial charism that they are still greatly respected and loved for today. Pope Pius XI once called the Capuchins “the marines of the Church” because they went where no other religious order wanted to go but did so because there was work to be done and, because they knew they had God and their brothers with them, they were not afraid to do it!