An autonomous branch of the first Franciscan Order, the other branches being the Friars Minor simply so called (but until lately usually known as Observants or Recollects), and the Conventual Friars Minor. This division of the first Franciscan Order has come about by reason of various reforms ; thus the Observants were a reform which separated from the Conventuals, and the Capuchins are a reform of the Observants.
The Capuchin Reform dates from 1525. It had its origin in the Marches, the Italian province where, after Umbria, the Franciscan spirit seems to have found its most congenial dwelling-place. Cut off by the mountains from the great highways of Italy, the inhabitants of the Marches have to this day retained a delightful simplicity of character and blend a mystical tendency with a practical bent of mind. They may be said to possess the anima naturaliter Franciscana, and it is easy to understand the quick response of the people of this province to the Franciscan teaching, and the tenacity with which the friars of the Marches clung to the primitive simplicity of the order. We have a monument of the enduring vigour of the Franciscan spirit in the Marches in the "Fioretti di San Francesco", wherein the first freshness of the Franciscan spirit seems to have been caught up and enshrined. From the Marches, too, we get another book, of a very different character, but which in its own way bears eloquent witness to the zeal of the brethren of this province for poverty, the "Historia VII Tribulationum" of Angelo Clareno. And at Camerino, on the borders of the province, are preserved the relics of Blessed John of Parma, another of the leaders of the "Spiritual" Friars. The Marches were, in fact, from the earliest days of the order, a centre of resistance to the secularizing tendency which found an entrance amongst the friars even in the days of St. Francis, of which tendency the famous Brother Elias is the historic type.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Franciscans in the Marches, as elsewhere, were divided into the two distinct families of Conventuals and Observants or Zoccolanti. The dividing line between the two families was their adhesion to the primitive ideal of Franciscan poverty and simplicity; the Conventuals accepted revenues by papal dispensation ; the Observants refused fixed revenues and lived by casual alms. At least such was the principle; but in practice the Observants had come themselves to relax the principle under various legal devices. Thus, though they would not accept money themselves, they allowed secular persons, styled syndics, to accept money for their use; they accepted chaplaincies to which were affixed regular stipends. To those who looked to the primitive custom of the order, such acceptances seemed but legalized betrayal of the rule, nor were these relaxations at any time allowed to pass without protest from the more zealous of the Observants. But the question was not merely concerning this or that point; it was one of general tendency. Was the order to maintain itself in the simplicity and unworldliness of St. Francis, or was it to admit and bow to the spirit of the world? Was it to be dominated by the spirit of St. Francis or by the spirit of Brother Elias ? Such was the question as it shaped itself in the minds of the reforming friars ; and one has to recognize this truly to appreciate the history of the various Franciscan reforms. The difficulty which met each reform, as it arose and acquired an independent constitution, was the difficulty which meets every unworldly ideal in its attempt to propagate itself in the actual world. To live on and endure it must take to itself a secular embodiment, and in the process is apt to acquire something of the secular spirit; and the more unworldly the original ideal, the more difficult is its process of secular development. This is peculiarly so in the case of a religious community like the Franciscan Order, which aims at realizing a principle of life so entirely opposed to the principles commonly accepted in the world at large. Hence it is that the Observants, after breaking away from the Conventuals, themselves gave rise to various reforms which aimed at a more perfect return to the primitive type. In this way the Capuchin Reform took its origin from amongst the Observants of the Marches. The leader of the reform was Father Matteo di Bassi, a member of the Observant community in the Diocese of Fermo. He was an exemplary religious and a zealous preacher. It is said that Leo X had given him permission to institute a reform amongst the Observants; but if so Father Matteo did not avail himself of the permission, perhaps because of the death of that pontiff. But in 1525, a year of Jubilee, he went to Rome and whilst there obtained from Clement VII leave to wear the Capuchin habit and to live in strictest poverty. Matteo di Bassi was finally led to this step by an incident which recalls to mind the history of St. Francis. The friar had been attending a funeral and was returning to his convent, when he met a beggar by the wayside barely clad. Moved with compassion, Father Matteo gave the beggar part of his own clothing. Shortly afterwards the friar was in prayer when he heard a voice, which three times admonished him, saying "Observe the Rule to the letter". Whereupon he arose, and took an old habit, and made a long pointed hood out of the cappa, and donning the habit at once set out for Rome. This story, retailed by all the earliest chroniclers, makes it certain that the aspiration to observe the rule to the letter was the one compelling motive of the reform, and that the taking of the habit with the long pointed hood was the symbol of this aspiration. For the habit in this shape was supposed to be the original form of the Franciscan habit, whilst the habit with the cappa and small rounded hood was held by many to be an innovation introduced with the spirit of relaxation. Certain it is that the habit adopted by Father Matteo and his followers was known in the order before their time. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is a copy of an altar-piece dating from the fifteenth century, representing Our Lady with a number of friars gathered under her outspread mantle; and they are wearing a habit similar in form to that of the Capuchins. In a picture of St. Francis in the library of Christchurch, Oxford, attributed to Margaritone, we find the same form of habit; and in at least one other instance of early portraiture of the Seraphic saint he seems to have been represented with a habit of this sort. (See "On the Authentic Portraiture of St. Francis of Assisi ", by N. H. J. Westlake, London, 1897.) Thomas of Celano again seems to speak of it as a novelty that a certain friar went about wearing a habit "with the hood not sewn to the tunic " (II Celano, 32 -- ed. d'Alençon, Rome, 1906). And at the Ognisanti, in Florence, is preserved a habit, said to be one worn by St. Francis, the hood of which is sewn to the tunic. At any rate the reforming friars, in assuming the pointed hood sewn to the habit, claimed to be assuming the form of habit worn by St. Francis and the first friars, and in their eyes it was a symbol of their return to the primitive observance.
In putting his hand to the reform, Matteo di Bassi had no intention of separating himself from the jurisdiction of the Observants; he thought rather to introduce the reform amongst them. All he asked from Clement VII was liberty for himself and other friars of a like mind to wear the habit of St. Francis, to observe the rule strictly in accordance with the earliest tradition, and to preach the Word of God in the world. From the days of St. Francis himself the liberty of the stricter observance had been allowed; and the friars enjoying such liberty had usually dwelt apart in small houses or hermitages, but under the effective jurisdiction of the superiors of the order. But when, on Matteo di Bassi's return from Rome, two other friars, Louis of Fossombrone and his brother Raphael, sought to join the new reform, they were stoutly opposed by the superiors, especially by the minister provincial, John of Fano, who, however, himself eventually joined the Capuchins. Nevertheless, the two friars were at length, through the intervention of the Duke of Camerino allowed to proceed to Rome. On 18 May, 1526, they received from the Cardinal-Bishop of Palestrina, the Grand Penitentiary, the Brief, "Ex parte vestrâ", whereby Clement VII formally allowed them, together with Matteo di Bassi, to separate from the community of the Observants and live in hermitages, in order that they might be free to observe the rule as they desired; and, to protect them against molestation on the part of the superiors of the order, they were placed under the protection of the Bishop of Camerino. They were by the same Brief permitted to aggregate others to their manner of life. They were, however, still considered to belong to the Observant family, though separated from the community; but on 3 July, 1528, owing to the continued opposition of the Observant superiors, Clement VII, by the Bull "Religionis zellus", released them from their obedience to the Observants and constituted them a distinct family of the order, in a certain dependence, however, upon the Master-General of the Conventuals, to whom it belonged to confirm the vicar-general to be elected by the new reform.
In the following April, 1529, the first chapter was held at Albacina. At this time the reform numbered eighteen friars and four convents or hermitages. Matteo di Bassi having been elected vicar-general, the chapter drew up the new constitutions designed to safeguard the primitive observance of the rule. No one can read these "Constitutions of Albacina" without being struck with the similarity of tone and purpose between them and the "Speculum Perfectionis", about which so much has been heard since M. Paul Sabatier published his edition in 1898. The provisions relating to poverty and studies would almost seem an echo of that celebrated legend. Thus, when "hermitages or monasteries " are to be erected, the constitutions decree that no more land is to be taken than is in keeping with their poor estate; the houses are to be built, if possible, of mud and wattles, but earth and stones may be used where wattles cannot be obtained; the churches, however, shall be of more becoming structure, yet small and narrow. The friars are to bear in mind the admonition of St. Francis that their churches and houses must be such as to proclaim that those who dwell in them are but pilgrims and strangers on the earth. The houses are to be built outside the cities or towns, yet not far distant from them. In the houses near large cities not more than twelve friars might dwell, and in the other houses not more than eight -- "for such indeed was the will of St. Francis as is set forth in the chronicles of the Order." The proprietorships must always be vested in the municipality or the donor, who may turn the friars out at will, and should this happen the friars are to go out at once without delay and seek another place. To each house a hermitage must be attached, where the friars may retire for solitary contemplation. In regard to alms they were not to quest for meat, eggs, or cheese, but they might receive these things when offered spontaneously. They were never, however, to lay in a store of food, but to depend on daily alms. At the utmost they might receive sufficient food to last for three days, and rarely for one week. They are forbidden to have syndics or procurators to receive property for them. -- "No other syndic shall there be for us save Christ our Lord; and our procurator and protector shall be the most Blessed virgin Mother of God ; our deputy shall be our blessed Father Francis; but all other procurators we absolutely reject." The preachers were to be kept busy in the vineyard of the Lord, not only during Lent, but at all other times. They were not, however, allowed to use many books; two or three at most were deemed sufficient. They sermons were to be simple and plain, without studied rhetoric; nor were they to be allowed to receive any remuneration for their preaching. Classes for the study of literature were not be established; but they might study the Scriptures and such devout authors as " love God and teach us to embrace the Cross of Christ". The friars were not to hear the confessions of seculars except in cases of extreme necessity. In the houses of the order only one Mass was to be said each day, at which all the priests should be present, except on Sundays and solemn feasts, when all might celebrate; nor were they to receive any honoraria for Masses. They were, moreover, forbidden to follow funerals or celebrate dirges, except in case of necessity. Finally, they were to go barefoot, shod only in simple sandals; and to recite the Divine Office at midnight even on the three last days of Holy Week ; and on no account were extra Offices to be added to the canonical Office, so that the friars might have more time for private prayer.
Such were the "Constitutions of Albacina". Their intention is evident to any one conversant with the early Franciscan legends: they sought to re-establish the Franciscan life in the spirit and letter of the earliest Franciscan tradition. One point needs explanation here. In the earliest pontifical documents concerning the new reform, it is stated that the friars are to be free to observe the rule strictly in the eremitical life. The meaning of this, however, was not that they should be hermits in the sense of living always a retired and solitary life. Matteo di Bassi had asked of Clement VII liberty to observe the Rule of St. Francis in hermitages, to preach the Word of God in the world, and to bring sinners to repentance. The preaching of the Word of God was an essential feature of the Capuchin reform. We have already seen how the constitutions of the order bade the preachers be frequently employed in their work of souls at all times of the year. Matteo di Bassi himself had no sooner received the sanction of Clement VII than he returned to the Marches and began to preach and to nurse the sick during the pestilence which swept through the Marches in 1525. The explanation, however, is simple enough to those who know the Franciscan legends. Amongst the Franciscans the hermitage stood in opposition to the large convent. The first houses of the order were built outside the city walls in some quiet spot where the friars, when not engaged in active ministry for others, could live undisturbedly in the cultivation of the spirit. These houses were small, and only a few friars dwelt in the same place. Besides the small communities, there were also hermitages, technically so called, at some distance from the community, whither the friars might retire for a still more secluded life. The original Franciscan life was thus a commingling of the active life with the eremitical. As the order increased in numbers, large convents were built in which the simplicity and seclusion of the original Franciscan community were in great measure lost; in these large houses it became impossible to observe the primitive standard of poverty, and the tendency was to conform to the more complex life and ceremonial of the monastic orders, properly so called. Hence every reform of the order turned again towards the ideal of the small community and the more secluded situation, where the original simplicity and poverty could more easily be maintained.
Matteo di Bassi remained vicar-general of the reform only for two months; then he resigned his jurisdiction into the hands of Louis of Fossombrone, as commissary general, in order that he might be free to give himself to the work of the apostolate. From this time he can hardly be said to belong to the family of the reform; though he seems to have still availed himself of the privileges granted him in 1525 by Clement VII. He died in 1552 and was buried in the church of the Observants in Venice, where his body was for a long time accorded the honours given to the relics of a saint, until a recent decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites restricted such honours to those formally beatified. But though not formally beatified, Matte di Bassi is styled 'Blessed" in the martyrologies of the order. During the government of Louis of Fossombrone the reform began to spread quickly and widely. Shortly after the Chapter of Albacina the friars were invited to Rome and given a house, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, near the Flaminian Gate, from which they removed in the following year to the convent of Santa Euphemia near Santa Maria Maggiore. Meanwhile a movement for reform was taking place amongst the Observants of Calabria, which was to have a marked influence upon the development of the reform in the Marches. Two friars, Louis of Reggio and Bernardine of Reggio, surnamed lo Giorgio, had, about the same time that Matteo di Bassi had visited Rome, also arrived in the Eternal City, and with the sanction of Clement VII had attempted to reform movement amongst the Observants of Santi Apostoli. Their efforts proving futile, they obtained leave, in 1526, to return to Calabria and choose three convents for their purpose. They assumed the name of Recollects - a name very generally given to the reforming friars, for the reason stated above. Here, as in the Marches, the superiors of the Observants regarded the reform with disfavour and treated the reformers as rebellious subjects; hence, at a chapter held by the Minister General of the Observants, at Messina, in 1532, the Calabrian Recollects petitioned to be allowed to pass to the Capuchin jurisdiction. Their petition, however, only drew upon them further rebuke. As they continued to persist in their demand, the minister general obtained from the pope a Brief of excommunication against them; but this was shortly withdrawn through the intervention of the Duke of Nocera and the Duchess of Camerino, and the Calabrian Recollects passed into the Capuchin family, forming the first province of the order outside of Marches.
Following the example of the Calabrians, the most zealous Observants began to pass over to the Capuchins in such numbers that Paul III , at the instance of the Minister General of the Observants, issued two Briefs, the first dated 18 December, 1534, and the second 12 January, 1535, forbidding any more Observants to be received by the Capuchins until the next general chapter of the Observant family. The second of these Briefs is noteworthy by reason of the fact that in it the friars of the new reform are for the first time called Capucini -- Capuchins. Hitherto, in the pontifical documents they had been styled Fratres Ord. S. Francisci Capucciati. But in the Brief of 12 January, 1535, the pope adopted the name already conferred upon the new reform by the populace, who, seeing the long hoods, at once called the friars Cappuccini. Henceforth the friars are officially styled " Friars Minor of the Order of St. Francis, Capuchin".
At the chapter of the order held at Rome in November, 1535, Bernardine of Asti was elected vicar-general. He was a remarkable man -- the genius and saviour of the new reform. He combined great prudence and power of organization with a rare humility and sweetness of character. He had held high office amongst the Observants before he joined the Capuchins in 1534. He died in 1554, and is styled blessed in the martyrology of the Franciscan Order. His election was providential, for the Capuchin family had now to pass through a time of storm and stress, which the wisdom and fame of Bernardine of Asti, in great measure, enabled it to survive. Hardly had Bernardine of Asti taken up the reins of government than Louis of Fossombrone created a disturbance amongst the friars, alleging that the election was invalid. He himself had aspired to the headship of the order. A new chapter was thereupon convoked, in April, 1536, and Bernardine of Asti was again elected, whereupon Louis of Fossombrone threw off the habit and apostatized. His apostasy perhaps influenced Paul III when on 3 January, 1537, he forbade the Capuchins to establish any houses of their reform outside Italy. But a greater blow fell in 1542 when Bernardine of Siena -- the famous Occhino, not to be confounded with Saint Bernardine, who d. in 1444 -- the successor of Bernardine of Asti as vicar-general, apostatized and joined the Protestant Reformers. The scandal caused by this defection gave new vigour to the efforts of those who were opposed to the Capuchins, and at this time it was seriously considered at the Roman Court whether they should be suppressed. In fact it was generally said amongst the people that their suppression was already decreed. To dispel this rumour the new vicar-general, Francis of Jesi, assembled two hundred of his brethren at Assisi for the feast of the Portiuncula, in 1543. But it was Bernardine of Asti who pleaded the cause of the reform at the Council of Trent and averted the threatened disaster. And by his eloquent pleading he saved not only the new reform from extinction, but also the essential character of the Franciscan Order. For the conciliar Fathers had resolved that in future all religious orders should possess common property, and not be dependent upon alms. This resolution struck at the very fundamental principle of the Franciscan life, since, according to the Rule of St. Francis , his friars were to possess property neither individually nor in common, but to depend for their daily sustenance upon their labour and upon alms. As St. Francis had pleaded for this absolute poverty before Pope Innocent III , so Bernardine of Asti now pleaded before the council, and with such success that the Capuchin Friars and the Observants were expressly exempted from the general law and allowed the privilege of common, as well as of individual, poverty. By a providential coincidence, whilst the fate of the new reform was hanging in the balance, it received a new recruit in a poor countryman who was destined perhaps more than anyone else to establish the Capuchin family in the love and veneration of the Roman people: this was St. Felix of Cantalicio, the lay brother friend of St. Philip Neri. But in a short while the cloud passed away, and the Capuchin family grew with amazing swiftness in numbers and in fame. At the chapter of 1536 the reform numbered five hundred friars ; in 1587 it had increased to five thousand nine hundred and fifty-three friars. In 1574 Gregory XIII revoked the decree of Paul III , and granted Capuchins the right to establish ultramontane provinces; and in 1619 the reform was released from all dependence upon the Conventuals, and given a minister general of its own election. It need hardly be said that, as the order increased in numbers and spread to various countries, it was found necessary to modify the stringent regulations of the first constitutions. The Council of Trent compelled the Capuchins to establish courses of studies for the friars destined for the priesthood ; larger convents were built, and the regulation forbidding the friars to hear the concessions of secular people was rescinded. Yet a constant effort was made to maintain the simplicity of the Franciscan life. Notwithstanding the Council of Trent, the Capuchins obtained from St. Pius V for their lay brothers the privilege of voting in the elections of the order, thus conserving the original democratic character of the Franciscan family. In the ordinances of the general chapter of 1613 great stress was laid on simplicity of life, and regulations were made forbidding such innovations as high masses and introduction of spiritual exercises for novices, after the manner of the Jesuits. The same spirit and intention are found in the definitive constitutions formally approved by Urban VIII, in 1643. This pontiff had already, by a decree of the Sacred congregation of Bishops and Regulars (30 April, 1627), declared the Capuchins to be true sons of St. Francis, and on 28 June of the same year had issued the Bull "Salvatoris et Domini", in which he reaffirmed a former constitution of Paul V, "Ecclesiæ Militantis", of 15 October, 1608, setting forth that the Capuchins are the spiritual descendants of St. Francis in the direct line, and not a mere offshoot of the Franciscan Order.
In the time of Urban VIII the reform numbered over seventeen thousand friars in forty-two provinces; a century later, at the general chapter of 1754, there were representatives from sixty-three provinces, and the number of the friars was given as thirty-two thousand eight hundred and twenty-one. But during the French Revolution the order suffered severely; nearly all the provinces were disorganized or suppressed; and in the subsequent revolutions on the European continent the Capuchins suffered the fate of all the religious orders, being continually oppressed and dispersed. Yet during the last twenty years a notable revival has taken place. In 1889 the order had 636 houses and 7852 friars ; in 1906 there were 731 houses and 9970 friars, divided into 56 provinces.
The Capuchins, together with the Jesuits, were the most effective preachers and missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have already seen that the privilege granted by Clement VII to Matteo di Bassi was not only to observe the Rule of St. Francis in its primitive simplicity, but also to go about preaching the Word of God. In this matter the friars of the reform were but reasserting the primitive Franciscan life; and it is to be noted that the method of their apostolate was also thoroughly in accord with what the early legends of the order tell us about St. Francis's method. In their preaching they eschewed artificial oratory and set forth their message with simplicity and directness which came from the heart. But perhaps what most endeared them to the people, and gave them that singular power with all classes to which the history of the times bears witness, was their all-embracing charity. The picture of the Capuchin friar drawn by Manzoni in "I Promessi Sposi" is historical. In their apostolate they not merely preached from the pulpits ; they mingled in the daily life of the people, ministering to suffering humanity in its temporal as well as its spiritual needs. In the frequent pestilences which devastated Italy and Europe generally in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Capuchins were constantly found doing a notable part in the service of the sick. The annals of the order and the chronicles of the times tell us of the heroism of the friars in the pestilences which swept through Northern Italy and Spain in 1589, through Switzerland in 1609, through Germany in 1611. In the great pestilence of 1630 the friars took charge of the lazarettos at Milan, and acted as confessors, nurses, cooks, and dispensers to the victims. They did the same at Marseilles and Freiburg. At Siena the friars were assembled for the provincial chapter when the pestilence broke out; they prorogued the chapter and went out to nurse the sick, and forty-three of them fell victims to their charity. During the pestilence of 1636 in Franche-Comté, so many Capuchins died in ministering to the sick that Urban VIII allowed young clerics to be ordained priests before the canonical age to take the place of those who had succumbed. St. Laurence of Brindisi , sent as missionary Apostolic to Germany in 1599, began his apostolate by nursing the sick in the pestilence of that year. Undoubtedly their universal charity, united to the austerity of their lives, accounts for much of their success as missionaries, whether with Catholics or non-Catholics.
And not only were they popular with the multitude; they had the confidence of the authorities. This is shown in the frequent choice of the friars by the popes and princes to fill responsible positions. Thus in the wars against the Turks in the sixteenth century, it was usually the Capuchins who were appoint ed chaplains and spiritual directors to the Christian forces. In the Venetian expedition of 1571, a number of Capuchins accompanied the Venetian navy by command of St. Pius V, and at the battle of Lepanto, Father Anselmo da Pietramolara was in the thick of the fight, urging on the Christian forces with raised crucifix; in fact, it was his indomitable bravery which prevented the ship he was in from being captured by the Turks. The friars were similarly employed in the struggles of the German princes against the Turks in the seventeenth century. St. Laurence of Brindisi, in 1610, went as chaplain general with the Christian army, and so did Venerable Mark of Aviano, in 1687. It is pleasing to note that the friars obtained, from Gregory XII, power to absolve Christians who, during the wars, freed or hid captive Turks.
They were moreover not infrequently commissioned to transact affairs of state. St. Laurence of Brindisi was sent as ambassador by the Emperor Rudolph to solicit the alliance of Spain with the Catholic League of Germany. Gregory XIII employed the Capuchins to negotiate for the ransom of Christian captives in Algiers. Father Giacinto da Casale was commissioned by Gregory XV to unite the Catholic princes of Germany in defence of the Faith. Sometimes their personal influence, without any official status, enabled them to intervene with success in public matters, as in Switzerland, when the canton of Appenzell was hesitating whether to ally itself with the Catholic cantons or with the Protestant, the Capuchins went in and drew Appenzell to the Catholic side. In similar fashion, in 1637, a Swiss Capuchin acted as arbitrator in the canton of Aargau. These public acts testify to the great influence acquired by the friars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but their influence was gained by hard and strenuous labours both as home and as foreign missionaries. They were to be found everywhere, preaching and ministering to the people. Not only were they established in almost every country of Europe, but as foreign missionaries their activity seems almost incredible. At the general chapter of 1662 the list of foreign missions served by the friars included the Congo, Benin, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Smyrna, Mingrelia, Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Ecbatana, Kurdistan, Persia, Tatary, Brazil, New Granada , Canada, Morea, the Grecian Archipelago, whilst they also had missions, under Propaganda, in Rhætia, the Grisons, and the Valtellina.
As "home" missionaries they were mainly instrumental in reforming the pulpit, substituting solid teaching, with burning and convincing piety, for the vapid rhetoric so common amongst the preachers of the sixteenth century. Their object was always to reach the heart of the people. To be convinced of the solidity and piety of their preaching, one has only to consult the many books of sermons and treatises of devotion which the missionary friars have left us. According to Baronius and the chroniclers of the order, the devotion of the Quarant' Ore owes its origin to the missionary zeal of the Capuchins. Father Giuseppe da Ferno is said to have been the first to expose the Blessed Sacrament for forty hours' prayer, during a mission he was preaching in the Duomo at Milan, in 1637. Giuseppe da Ferno certainly wrote a treatise on the method of the Quarant' Ore, and from this time we find frequent mention of the devotion in the missionary chronicles of the order. But the supreme monument to their missionary zeal is the Congregation of the Propaganda itself. This congregation was instituted by Gregory XV, in 1622, at the suggestion of Father Girolamo da Narni, Vicar-General of the Reform. He was a noted preacher and experienced in missionary labours. When the congregation was established, its first prefect was the Capuchin Cardinal of Sant' Onofrio; and its first martyr was another Capuchin, St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, whom the propaganda had appointed Prefect of the Mission of Rhætia. The friars had already been established for some years in Switzerland, whither they had been called by St. Charles Borromeo in his capacity as Protector of the Catholics in those parts. The saint, backed by Pope Gregory XIII, had requested the general chapter of 1581 to send friars thither, and the chapter had at once acceded to the request. Such was their success in combating the errors of the Calvinists and in preserving the Faith in many cantons that to this day they are accorded a privileged position in the churches of the Catholic cantons as confessors and preachers. It was in the Grisons that Saint Fidelis was martyred, in 1622. Here the Calvinists had practically gained over the whole population, as also in the Valtellina, and only by heroic efforts were the friars able to keep alive any remnant of the Faith. The missions in these parts are still under the jurisdiction of the Capuchins.
In Savoy the friars, under the leadership of Father Cherubino da Mariana, the friend of St. Francis of Sales, were at work in 1596, and the mission of Thonon was especially given into their charge in 1610. Father Cherubino also introduced the friars into the Vallese in 1610, at which time, as St. Francis of Sales reported, the religious condition of that country seemed hopeless. Under St. Laurence of Brindisi twelve Capuchins were sent, in 1599, to combat the influence of Protestantism in Germany, where by their public controversies with Protestants, as well as by their preaching, they did much to win back many to the Faith. They rapidly established houses in all parts of Southern Germany, and in 1611 they were established in the Rhine Provinces by Father Francis Nugent, a distinguished Irish friar.
On the foreign missions they were equally energetic. The first foreign mission was undertaken in 1551, when two friars were commissioned by Julius III to go to Constantinople. They were, however, expelled, after being imprisoned and tortured. But we find them shortly afterwards in Crete, where Father Ignazio d'Apiro established five missionary centres in two years, besides a hospital at Canea. He was a man well versed in Oriental languages. He died in 1569. About this time two Capuchins were put to death in Palestine. But it was at the general chapter of 1581 that the friars put their hand definitively to the matter of foreign missions. They then obtained a faculty from Sixtus V to send missionaries to the East, and a band of friars, amongst whom was St. Joseph of Leonessa, were despatched to Constantinople. Imprisonment and torture awaited them; but from that time the friars have held fast to their missions in the Turkish dominions. In 1623 the Propaganda commissioned the Capuchins to found missions in Syria, Egypt, and Abyssinia. Six friars were sent to Constantinople, where they at once established a school for the study of Oriental languages; others went to Aleppo, Alexandria, and Armenia. Their method was to open schools wherever they settled, and they were active in publishing books. As a result of their labours in Syria at this time, a schismatic Armenian metropolitan and a schismatic Greek metropolitan sought reunion with the Church. In 1618 the general chapter, at the request of Paul V, sent missionaries to the Congo. They encountered great difficulties, owing to the Dutch traders, and success seemed hopeless. Yet they struggled on till 1654, when a fresh effort was made, and a new band of missionaries was sent out, including Father G. Antonio Cavazzi , the writer of a well-known work on the Congo.
From Aleppo friars were sent, in 1630, to Cairo, under the leader ship of the Blessed Agathange de Vendôme, one of the most remarkable missionaries of the seventeenth century. He was an Arabic scholar, and had published books in Arabic setting forth the Catholic Faith. On the coming of the friars to Cairo Urban VIII addressed a letter to the Catholics in Egypt, bidding them welcome the friars and accord them every assistance. But unhappily the friars found that their work amongst the Copts, for whose reunion with the Roman See they more particularly laboured, was hindered chiefly by the scandalous lives of the European Catholic merchants. Yet the friars obtained leave from the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria to preach in the churches of the Copts, and the pope even granted them permission to celebrate Mass in the same churches. Father Agathange's influence with the Copts was such that he persuaded the Coptic patriarch to appoint for the Copts in Abyssinia a bishop who would live in peace with the Catholics. In 1637 Father Agathange, together with Father Cassian de Nantes, entered Abyssinia, but owing to the treachery of a German Lutheran they were at once seized and imprisoned, and the following year suffered martyrdom. The Capuchin mission in Abyssinia was thus brought swiftly to a close, but only to be renewed in later years. Towards the end of the last century the friars were again established in the dominions of the Negus, chiefly through the exertions of the celebrated Capuchin missionary afterwards known as Cardinal Massaïa. He has left a record of his experiences in his book, "I miei trentacinque anni nell' alta Etiopia" (Rome and Milan, 1895).
Towards the middle of the seventeenth century the friars established missions in India at Surat, Pegu, Golconda, and Madras, and a little later at Pondicherry. The story of their Indian missions is much the same as elsewhere; they established schools, wrote books in the vernacular of the country, held public conferences with the learned heathen, and found their chief obstacle in the European traders -- in this case, the Portuguese. At the present day the missions in India are amongst the most important in the order: the Archdiocese of Agra (the premier diocese in India ), the Dioceses of Lahore and Allahabad, and the Prefecture of Rajputana, are entirely served by Capuchins. They still carry on their work in Asia Minor , where they have a flourishing missionary seminary at Smyrna. Other present-day missions are in Central and South America, in Arabia and Somaliland, in the Seychelles, Philippines, and Caroline Islands, in Abyssinia and Mesopotamia; whilst in Europe they carry on missionary work in Constantinople and Bulgaria. In 1906 eight hundred and fifty-five friars of the reform were engaged in foreign missionary labour.
The reform has produced few writers of the first order in literature or scholarship, though the "Bibliotheca Scriptorum Ord. Min. Cap." (Genoa, 1680; Venice, 1747) gives the names of a great number of writers and goodly list of works, many of them of no mean merit. But most of their writings are connected with their apostolic labours -- books of sermons, devotional treatises, and works dealing with the history of the missions. In this last department they have produced several valuable works, such as Cavazzi's treatise on the Congo, Dionigi Carli's book on the customs, rites, and religion of the people of Africa, Merolla da Sorrento's account of the Congo and South Africa, and Cardinal Massaïa's work on Abyssinia. In the seventeenth century the French Capuchins were noted for their studies of Oriental languages, and in view of the present revival of the Celtic tongues, it may be recalled that a Breton Capuchin, Gregorius de Rostrenen, published in 1732 "Dictionarium Gallo-Celticum, seu Gallo-Aremoricum" (Rennes, 1732) and "Grammatica cum Syntaxi Gallo-Celtica, seu Gallo-Aremorica" (Rennes, 1738). In Scriptural exegesisBernardine a Piconio has a deservedly high name as the author of the "Triplex expositio" (1706), whilst in the sixteenth century Francis Titelmann, who left the theological chair of Louvain to put on the habit of St. Francis, gained European repute by his treatises on Scripture and his controversy with
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