In Spotlight, Capuchins Set Model for Reform

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Rome]
November 14, 2003

Although Franciscans abhor celebrity, if there were a Billboard chart for religious communities in the Catholic church these days, the Capuchins might well be slugged with a bullet -- meaning a hit that's moving up fast.

Their surprising new high profile coincides with some deep soul-searching in the order about fraternity, poverty and power, and what they're discovering could thus exercise a wide influence in the Catholic church.

The fourth-largest men's religious community has long moved in the shadows of its older and larger Franciscan cousin, the Order of Friars Minor. Now, however, Capuchin bishops head two of the premiere archdioceses in the United States, Boston and Denver, bringing the total of Capuchin bishops in the world to a robust 85. The order has reversed a 30-year downward trend in membership, with strong new growth in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. The legendary Capuchin miracle worker and stigmatic Padre Pio was canonized last year in perhaps the largest ceremony, and certainly the most boisterous, ever staged in St. Peter's Square.

No doubt about it: The Capuchins are hot.

Fr. John Corriveau said, “When I first met the Capuchins, I fell in love with them.” He is a Canadian who since 1994 has served as minister general for the 11,300 Capuchins worldwide. “I've stayed because I'm convinced of my vocation. I believe our young brothers today stay for the same reason.”

Corriveau spoke to NCR Nov. 3 at the order's headquarters in Rome.

The Capuchins broke away from the rest of the Franciscan movement in 1525, led by Fr. Matteo di Bassi, whose guiding idea was to “observe the rule to the letter.” The aim was to recover the poverty and simplicity of St. Francis of Assisi.

The order has never lacked admirers. The Capuchins were famously defined in Alessandro Manzoni's 19th-century novel, I Promessi Sposi, as frati del popolo, “brothers of the people.”

Archbishop Sean O'Malley's arrival in Boston has created strong new interest in the Capuchins, especially since O'Malley wears his brown Capuchin habit and makes constant references to his Franciscan formation. His Capuchin confrere, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, doesn't normally wear the garb, but he's equally given to sprinkling his speech with Franciscan imagery.

Under Corriveau the Capuchins have been groping toward what he believes is a genuine reform, and the fact that many Catholics are just now discovering the order makes their reform potentially consequential for the broader church.

First up has been a return to fraternity.

"In the past hundred years, we became clericalized," Corriveau said. "Our impulse was toward ministries such as parishes and schools, especially in the missions. It brought great blessings, and we're a world community because of that outreach. But it meant that when choices had to be made, they were in favor of ministries and not our core charism.

"The central intuition of St. Francis was for fraternity, for building life based on communion," Corriveau said.

Concretely, recovering that ideal has meant traumatic choices to shut down schools, parishes and social service centers, consolidate others, and turn others over to local dioceses where Capuchins were not able to maintain common life.

"A Capuchin fraternity means living and sharing life with a minimum of three brothers under the same roof. We restructured the order, and that has been painful," Corriveau said.

Next, in 1998, a Capuchin plenary assembly reflected on what poverty means in today's world.

"Francis realized that avarice destroys human relationships with God, and competition destroys relationships between people," Corriveau said. "We can't replace the global economy, but Franciscans can withdraw from it and build instead a fraternal economy."

How? Corriveau said two principles are key.

First, transparency: "We have to practice absolute clarity on our money. Where there's a lack of transparency, there's a lack of trust," Corriveau said.

One symbolic application of the principle will come in San Giovanni Rotondo, the famed shrine of Padre Pio in Italy. It has become the largest pilgrimage center in Europe, and the Italian press delights in speculation about how many Euros flow through the shrine every year. Nagging suspicions of financial irregularities are said to be part of the reason that John Paul II recently appointed a pontifical delegate to oversee administration.

Corriveau said it's time for all that to stop. He has informed the shrine that beginning next year there will be an external financial audit.

The second principle is participation.

"Decisions can't be made by one person, otherwise there's disunity, even in a friary," Corriveau said. "If there's only one hand on a spigot, why not mine instead of yours?"

Next year the Capuchins will hold another plenary assembly, this one on what it means to embrace "minority." (As in "friars minor," or "little," an ideal that roughly translates as "humility.") Included in this discussion is what Corriveau described as the "explosive" question of power.

"Since the French Revolution and the American Revolution, the ideal of the Western world has been power to the individual," Corriveau said. "That works when there's only one person in the world, but in a world of 6 billion it creates great difficulties. It becomes a world of institutionalized conflict."

The question: How to reject forms of power that "dominate or control the lives of others," while still fostering genuine authority?

Word From Rome

This week John Allen interviews cardinals who head the Vatican's congregations for saints' causes and Evangelization of Peoples. Read the column at

The plenary will also look at the notions of service and identification with the dispossessed.

Corriveau said the Capuchin reform is in symphony with the church's emphasis after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on the theology of communion -- the idea that the church, before it is an institution, is first a communion among persons and with God.

"As we put these principles into practice in our ministries, in our parishes and schools and colleges and so forth, maybe we can offer a small model of alternative ways of structuring our lives," Corriveau said.

Since O'Malley has the lead role on the most-watched stage in American Catholicism, if he succeeds in transplanting the Capuchin spirit in Boston, his order could be headed for still greater heights of fame. Then Corriveau could worry about how to foster humility in a band of brothers who are not merely a happy few, but a hip few.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is


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