Genesis of the Capuchin Order

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M. Cap; in England and Ireland, O.S.F.C) is an order of friars (derived from the Latin root frater = brother) in the Catholic Church, among the chief offshoots of the Franciscans. The worldwide head of the Capuchins, called a minister general, is currently Fr. Mauro Jöhri.

The Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), in its attempt to remain faithful to the intentions of the founder, St. Francis of Assisi, went through many difficulties in the course of its history, which led to disagreements and divisions. There were occasional revivals and reforms. The original Order was divided twice and three branches came into existence. They are: the Franciscan Friars Minor (OFM), the Conventual Friars Minor (OFM Conv) and the Capuchin Friars Minor (OFM Cap). These three major branches of the First Order for Religious men have their own organisation and legal structure, but share Francis as their Father and Founder.

The Beginning of the Franciscan Order

St Francis of Assisi founded the Order of Friars Minor in 1209. Departing from the traditional monastic set-up of those days the Franciscans lived among the simple people and, for three centuries, played a leading role in the evangelization of the East. Having gathered about twelve disciples around him, St. Francis of Assisi appeared before Innocent III, who gave verbal sanction to the Franciscan Rule. Thus was legally founded the Order of Friars Minor (Ordo Fratrum Minorum). The precise date, according to an ancient tradition in the order is 16 April, 1209. However Francis got solemn confirmation for his rule from Pope Honorius III by the bull "Solet annuere" on 29 November 1223.

The Capuchin Reform

The Capuchins are the youngest branch, going back to around 1520, when some Friars Minor in the Marches wanted to live a stricter life of prayer and poverty to be closer to the original intentions of St. Francis. Matteo da Bascio, an "Observant" Franciscan friar native to the Italian area of Marche, said he was inspired by God with the idea that the manner of life led by the Franciscans of his day was not the one which St. Francis had envisaged. He sought to return to the primitive way of life in solitude and penance as practiced by the founder of his order. His superiors tried to suppress these innovations, and Friar Matteo and his first companions were forced into hiding from Church authorities, who sought to arrest them for having abandoned their religious duties. They were given refuge by the Camaldolese monks, in gratitude for which they later adopted the hood or capuccio worn by that order - which was the mark of a hermit in that region of Italy - and the practice of wearing a beard.

In 1529, they had four houses and held their first general chapter, at which their special rules were drawn up. The eremitical idea was abandoned, but the life was to be one of extreme austerity, simplicity and poverty - in all things as near an approach to St Francis's idea as was practicable. Neither the monasteries nor the congregation should possess anything, nor were any devices to be resorted to for evading this law; no large provision against temporal wants should be made, and the supplies in the house should never exceed what was necessary for a few days. Everything was to be obtained by begging, and the friars were not allowed even to touch money. The communities were to be small, eight being fixed as the normal number and twelve as the limit. In furniture and clothing extreme simplicity was enjoined and the friars were discalced, required to go bare-footed without even sandals.

Besides the choral canonical office, a portion of which was recited at midnight, there were two hours of private prayer daily. The fasts and disciplines were rigorous and frequent. The great external work was preaching and spiritual ministrations among the poor. In theology, the Capuchins abandoned the later Franciscan school of Scotus, and returned to the earlier school of St. Bonaventure.

Peculiarities of the Capuchins

The name Capuchins refers to the peculiar shape of the long hood. When the first friars went to preach in Camerino in 1534, the locals called them "Scapuccini" and "Romiti". They soon became known as Friars Minor Capuchins. Originally a popular nickname, it has become the official name of the Order, which now exists in over 104 countries all over the world, with around 12,000 brothers living in more than 1,800 communities (fraternities, friaries). Simplicity, closeness to the people, a fraternal spirit in our houses and our apostolate are visible signs that mark our lifestyle, while the emphasis on penance and prayer in the life of the first Capuchins needs to be revived.

Early setbacks

The new congregation at the outset of its history underwent a series of severe blows. The two founders left it, Matteo Serafini of Bascio to return to the Observants, while his first companion, on being superseded in the office of vicar, became so insubordinate that he had to be expelled. Even more scandalously, the third vicar Bernardino Ochino in 1543 became a Calvinist and married. The whole congregation came under the suspicion of heretical tendencies and the pope resolved to suppress it. He was with difficulty dissuaded, but the Capuchins were forbidden to preach.

Expansion

Thanks to the support of the Papal Court, the new branch received early recognition and grew fast, first in Italy, and since 1574 all over Europe. Despite earlier setbacks, the authorities were satisfied as to the soundness of the general body of Capuchin friars and the permission to preach was restored. The congregation at once began to multiply rapidly, and by the end of the 16th century the Capuchins had spread all over the Catholic parts of Europe, so that in 1619 they were freed from their dependence on the Conventual Franciscans and became an independent order. They are said to have had at that time 1500 houses divided into fifty provinces. They were one of the chief tools in the Catholic Counter-reformation, the aim of the order being to work among the poor, impressing the minds of the common people by the poverty and austerity of their life, and sometimes with sensationalist preaching.

The activities of the Capuchins were not confined to Europe. From an early date they undertook missions to non-Catholics in America, Asia and Africa, and a college was founded in Rome for the purpose of preparing their subjects for foreign missions. A large number of Capuchins have suffered martyrdom. Activity in Europe and elsewhere continued until the close of the 18th century, when the number of Capuchin friars was estimated at 31,000.

CAPUCHIN FRANCISCANS THE WORLD OVER

At December 2009 the Capuchins are 10,549 in number, of which 6939 are priests, in 106 world countries: Africa: 1354; South America: 1762; North America: 682; Asia-Oceania: 2196; West Europe: 3755; Central-East Europe: 770.

There are roughly 12000 Capuchin Franciscan Friars in the world. The Order has its Headquarters in Rome. The minister General of the Order is Brother Mauro Jöhri, OFM Cap. The Capuchin Franciscan Order is organized into smaller geographical jurisdictions called Provinces. There are over 86 Capuchin Provinces worldwide. In addition, there are around twenty Vice-Provinces. The Capuchin Order is currently present in over 104 countries.