he seeds of the Order were planted in 1525 when a Franciscan priest from the Marche region of Italy, Matteo da Bascio, was convinced that the Franciscans of his time were not what Saint Francis had imagined. He wished to return to the original lifestyle, as practiced by the founder, living in solitude and penance.
His superiors tried to suppress these new notions, forcing Matteo and his companions to hide from the authorities who wanted to arrest them for abandoning their religious obligations. Those years coincided with the Reformation and therefore, any attempt at reform or renewal was held suspect by the superiors of the religious Orders. Matteo and his companions found refuge with the Camaldolese monks. In gratitude, the friars subsequently adopted the Camaldolese custom of wearing an untrimmed beard and a hood similar to theirs (the mark of a hermit in the Marches region). The friars’ nickname (cappuccino) derives from their characteristic hood.
In 1528, through the mediation of Caterina Cibo, 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 about preaching to the poor. The permission was not limited to himself, but extended to all those who would join him in his attempt to live by the most literal observance possible of the Rule of St. Francis. Matteo and the original group were soon joined by others. Initially, they were called Friars Minor of the Eremitical Life. Due to strong opposition on the part of the Observant Franciscans the new group was placed under the authority of the Conventual Franciscans, but had their own Vicar. They became known as the congregation of the Friars Minor Hermits.
Trying times ensued when, in 1542, the General Vicar of the Order, Bernardino Ochino, joined the Protestant Reformation.
In 1574, Pope Gregory XIII allowed the Order to settle in “France and all other parts of the world and to erect houses, places, Custodies and Provinces,” thereby authorizing its diffusion outside Italy. In the 16th century, the Capuchins numbered about 14,000 friars, with nearly 1,000 friaries. The Order’s numbers would further increase between 1600 and the mid-1700s. Eventually, they would reach 34,000 friars and 1,700 friaries. During that same period, the Order modified, or rather, developed some of its initial characteristics. While remaining faithful to the vow of radical poverty, the Capuchins had proven to be effective preachers. Given their initial relationship with the Conventuals, this led to a certain “conventualization” of the Order. This development was also supported by the Holy See which was urging religious Orders to suppress smaller religious houses and encouraging larger local fraternities which could be better controlled. One example of this development is reflected in the original permission to allow the brothers a few useful books, primarily to insure proper training for preachers, developed into having full-fledged libraries. To appreciate better the image of the Capuchins in the mind of the common folk, one has only to consider the contrast between the Capuchin, Br. Cristofo, and Don Rodrigo in Alessandro Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).
The Capuchins were also very active in the missions. For example, as Pellegrino da Forlì reported, as early as 1703, the Indian Archdiocese of Agra was entrusted to the brothers of the Order.
Eighteenth Century Until Today
rom the second half of the 1700s to the end of the 1800s, the Order experienced a time of crisis. Already between 1787 and 1847, no general chapters of the Order were celebrated. In their stead, assemblies were held involving Major Superiors from various groups of Provinces within the Order. The difficulties the Order faced were due more to socio-political reasons than religious ones. The French Revolution and similar events throughout Europe led to the suppression of friaries and even of entire Provinces. In Italy, for example, in the late 19th century, the Law of Papal Guarantees brought about the confiscation of much of the property and goods belonging to religious Orders, and even of their religious houses. However, the same period witnessed a blossoming of missionary endeavors, especially in the Americas, where the Order grew very rapidly.
Despite the difficulties at the beginning of the 20th century, the Capuchins numbered around 9,500 in over 600 friaries. The General Chapter of 1884 decided to buy back many of the friaries that had been lost during the previous century and approved new Constitutions. Not unlike the historical precedents set in 1643, the 20th century was a time for all religious Order to rediscover their roots while showing a new openness to the contemporary world. The Second Vatican Council called all religious communities to refound themselves according to their original charism. The Capuchins were not exempt from the crisis of vocations which especially affected Catholic Orders in Europe and North America during the 1960s through the 1980s. The Capuchins nevertheless continued its work on evangelization by sending brothers, and opening new communities in several missionary countries. The Provinces in North America, in particular, participated in this missionary zeal. They established communities in Saudi Arabia and Arabian Peninsula, in Mexico and Central American countries of Honduras and Nicaragua, New Zealand, Japan, Papua New Guinea and many others. The Capuchins remain one of the largest and most widespread Orders in the Catholic Church today.
Capuchins Around the World
North and Central America 1611
South America 605
Total Brothers - 10,515
Brothers in Perpetual Vows – 8,521
Brothers in Temporary Vows – 1,612
Novices – 382
Postulants – 541
Houses and Friaries - 1,564
Lay Brothers - 3,069
In Temporary Vows – 1,605
In Perpetual Vows – 1,464
Ordained Brothers - 7,064
Bishops – 85
Priests – 6,797
Permanent Deacons – 15
Transitional Deacons – 167
The Spirituality of the Order
he establishment of the Capuchins in the 16th century was a significant reform of the Franciscan tradition because of the way they expressed the radicalness of the primitive eremitical life and literal observance of the Franciscan rule. They sought the highest poverty through the expression of the strict use of things, preferring small buildings, poor clothing, frugality in food, non-accumulation of goods and questing for their needs. Frequent fasting by way of bread and water and conceding nothing to pleasures or comfortability was part of their daily lives. Their corporeal and external practices of austerity and harsh lifestyle was the fuel that propelled the spirit of the reform.
Since their earliest days, Capuchins have been characterized by a particular attachment to mental prayer that fed into their apostolic zeal:
From the primitive legislation of the Order (Albacina 1529, Constitutions of Roma-S. Eufemia 1536and the letter of Bernardino d’Asti 1548) some essential elements of this spirituality have been revealed: the reforming spirit of the Franciscan tradition, the centrality of interior and mental prayer, conformity to Christ crucified after the example of Saint Francis, the essential value and inspiration of the mysteries of Christ and the Virgin, poverty, especially in its interior aspect, and the love of God and of neighbour, overflowing into apostolic itinerancy and going forth as missionaries. ~Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap
Given its commitment to imitate Jesus as depicted in the Gospels, the Order grew rapidly both in size and popularity. These perspectives often led the brothers to the periphery of society, often literally to the countryside, where the common folk were poorly served by the existing pastoral structures. There, in the absence of an effectively prepared secular clergy, they met the pastoral needs of the people. Their physical proximity to people on the periphery became a characteristic of the Capuchin heart and soul. It imbued even their style of preaching with a simplicity replete with down-to-earth, everyday example.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between a “Capuchin” Franciscan and a regular Franciscan?
Capuchins are an Order of men who look to St. Francis as their founder and example in the way they live their lives. They are part of the First Order of Franciscans having the unique charism of contemplative prayer with radical approach to austerity and simplicity of life.
How many kinds of Franciscans are there anyway?
St. Francis’ vision was so powerful, that there are literally hundreds of groups who call themselves Franciscan. The Franciscan Order is divided up into three distinct groups. The First Order are the order of men which bears the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.) after their name. The Second Order are the order of cloistered women (Poor Clares, Colettine Poor Clares & Capuchin Poor Clares). The Third Order includes the Secular Franciscans (OSC) which is the lay order of men and women, Third Order Regulars (TOR), and the various men and women religious orders that do not fall within the First or Second Order. The Capuchins Friars (O.F.M. Cap.) is the last reform of the First Order of Franciscans that includes the Conventuals Friars (O.F.M. Conv.) and the Friars of the Leonine Union (O.F.M.).
Is your Order named after the coffee drink called “cappuccino”
Cappuccino (Italian for “Capuchin”) is named after the Capuchin Franciscans. Legend has it that the whipped cream rising to a point reminded some Italian wag of a Capuchin friar with his long, pointed hood, or capuche, up and he dubbed the coffee beverage “cappuccino”. The drink ‘capuccino’ has also been attributed to Capuchin Blessed Marco of Aviano , a charismatic figure that helped Pope Innocent XI gather an army to oppose the Ottoman Empire’s expansion over Europe in the mid 17th century. It is said that after the war, the armies captured numerous bags of coffee which they found too bitter to drink. One legend said the Blessed Marco advised them to mix it with milk to sweeten it. Thus the drink was born and since it was the same color as the friar’s habit – they named it after the Order in honor of Blessed Marco’s contributions.
Are you guys named after the “capuchin monkey”?
No, in fact the monkey is named after us. These creatures reminded the early Spaniards of the friars because their heads appeared shaved (like the friars who wore the tonsure) and they seemed to have beards, a trademark of the Capuchins. So they called the monkeys capuchinos, which has caused the friars delight and embarrassment ever since.
What does “Capuchin” mean?
The word “Capuchin” is a reference to the long hood that the friars adopted from the Camaldolese Monks, which in Italian is called ‘capuce.’ In its early years, children would call them ‘cappuccini – cappuccini’ as they pass along streets in the town or cities they would minister to. The nickname eventually stuck. The word became ‘Capucin’ in French, ‘Kapuziner’ in German, and Capuchin in English.
What are “Provinces” and how many are there?
The Capuchin Order, like many others, is divided into various regions, called provinces. Sometimes a province encompasses an entire nation, at other times there may be several provinces in a single country. In the United States there are six provinces, and two in Canada. The Capuchin friars of Western America comprise the Province of Our Lady of Angels, with friaries in California and Northern Mexico.
If I join the Capuchins in California, could I be stationed anywhere in the world there are Capuchins?
It is possible for a friar to serve anywhere in the world where there are Capuchins. In practice, a friar usually stays within his own province. Thus, friars in Our Lady of Angels Province are usually assigned to our houses in California or Northern Mexico. The Province has ministerial responsibility for the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. The custody of San Juan Diego has ministerial responsibilities for Northern Mexico.
Are there Capuchin bishops?
St. Francis of Assisi, out of desire for minority and humility, wanted his friars avoid high offices. Throughout history, the Church has called on Capuchin friars to become bishops, usually in missionary lands. However, friars do at times answer the call even in non-mission areas like the United States. Both Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and former Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput are Capuchin Friars Minor. There are currently 85 Capuchin Bishops serving the Church around the world.
How long does it take to become a “full-fledged” Capuchin?
In many ways one never becomes a full-fledged Capuchin Franciscan friar, because the vocation of a Capuchin is to continue growing in the Spirit throughout his entire life. However there is a period of initial formation leading up to the profession of perpetual vows, and this can be from three to six years. If a friar is studying to be a priest, he will also be involved in theological studies for several years. You can read more about it in our Capuchin Formation page.
Do I need a college degree to be a Capuchin?
A college degree is not necessary to join the Capuchins, although some experience of life and work is desirable. For some of the ministerial work friars are given professional and technical education, as St. Francis wanted us to use our gifts and talents in service of Jesus and the Church.
Was Padre Pio a Capuchin? Is he a saint?
Padre Pio was a Capuchin friar who belonged to the Province of Foggia in Italy. Although he is known for his extraordinary holiness and, of course, miracles such as the sacred stigmata, in many ways his life was that of an ordinary friar. He prayed, lived a fraternal life, and ministered to the people who came to the friary, especially for confession. Padre Pio, of course, was canonized by Pope John Paul II and thousands of pilgrims continue to visit his tomb at San Giovanni Rotondo, where the friars still work to serve their spiritual needs.
Do I have to be a Catholic to be a Capuchin?
The Capuchin Franciscans are a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church, and so membership to the Order comes from among faithful Catholic men. Some friars have been Catholics from childhood, while others came into the Church later in life.
Is the Capuchin Order only for men?
The order of friars is a brotherhood, open to faithful Catholic men. However, there are also Capuchin Poor Clare sisters who lead a contemplative life, and various communities of Sisters founded within the Capuchin ideal. There are also Secular Franciscans, men and women who try to follow the ideals of St. Francis within lay life.
Why do Capuchins live in celibacy? Isn’t it very difficult and lonely?
We believe Jesus called some Christians to witness to the kingdom as celibates. Like any form of Christian life, this has its challenges. For the Capuchins this celibacy is lived within a fraternal life, where the friars strive to support each other. The friars also seek God’s help in prayer to remain faithful to their vow of chastity. They also nurture life-giving friendships, among themselves and with others, especially those with whom they minister.
Celibacy is also a gift which free oneself from the responsibility of raising a family. This allows a celibate to fully give himself up to the work God has asked him to do. In essence, you are given a bigger family – which is the people of the Church.
Why do the Capuchins take a vow of poverty ? How do you pay for stuff?
St. Francis wanted his followers to learn to put all their trust in God. While we look on all creation and the things of this world as good gifts of God, we try to live simply and trust in the Lord’s providence. Sometimes we are compensated for the work we do; often, especially in serving the poor, we have to depend on the generosity of our benefactors. It’s all part of learning to trust in God’s love for us.
What about the vow of obedience? Does it mean you have to do what your told or else?
Like the other vows, obedience is meant to help us grow in God’s grace. We believe that God acts through the ministers of our Order and our friaries in guiding us in grace. Our obedience is not “blind obedience,” but a faith-filled openness to going beyond our own desires and fears. Ultimately, this vow is meant to help us mean it when we pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”
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