The grace of the origins and the origin of a bad feeling The juridical status of laymen brothers in 800 years of Franciscan Order

Fabiano Aguilar Salter, ofm

The tree branches of the Order of franciscan friars (Ordo Fratrum Minorum, OFM) are preparing to celebrate in 2009 the 8th centenary of its foundation. It was in 1209 that the initial group, under Francis’ leadership and in number of 12 members, gone to the pontifical court to solicit from the pope Innocence III the approval of their project of evangelical life. When we confront the request of those twelve brothers with the church’s situation in the period between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century, it’s worth to note the solicitude of Innocence III in approving verbally the life’s project of Francis of Assisi and his brothers, which is based on the evangelical poverty, whose definitive Rule would be approved only in 1223 by the pope Honorius III. In that period of time, many laical movements appealing to the poverty of Jesus, his mother and his apostles, have been multiplied in Italy and France. Such groups of women and men, beyond a life of poverty, demand the liberty to read the gospels, to interpret and preach them to the people. Many times, they assume a position in clear contestation against the official church. When confronted with the simonismus and the nicolaismus of the clergy in those days, such movements won the sympathy and protection of the local populations. The project presented by Francis of Assisi to the pope Innocence III in 1209 wasn’t formally very different from the way of life of many movements that were considered by the papal authority heretical. At that time, there were bad precedents. The Valdenses, who come from Lyon, were approved by the pope Alexander III thirty years before that meeting between Francis and the pope Innocence III and, some years latter, rebelled themselves against the papal authority and were condemned as heretical. 1 Fortunately, thanks to the cheerful spirit and the courage of Innocence III—who are not afraid to open spaces for those forces of renovation, even if doubtful, in the inner of the church—Francis and his companions got their life’s propose approved. For that, there was also the contribution of cardinal John of Saint Paul, to whom Francis was presented by his friend Guido, bishop of Assisi. That first verbal approving is considered the constitutional moment of the Franciscan movement, it’s the event 1

Cf. IRIARTE, L.: Historia Franciscana, (Ed. Asis: Valencia 1979), p. 44.

that makes possible the canonical erection of the fraternity, at the same time that Francis became authority from the pope to give it orientation in the name of the pope. Between that foundation’s moment and the few years that were gone till the grounder’s death, the Order suffered profound tensions and internal changes, above all concerning the aspect of a life in poorness, which was highly esteemed by Francis. The progressive keeping of distance from the ideal of evangelical poorness lived by Francis and fixed in the Rule brought with it another uncharacteristic not less worrying—the quick change of the Order in a clerical one and the consequent extermination of the laymen friars in their occupations. With this in progress, the access to services like guardian, vicar, custodian, and minister, was blocked to the few laymen friars that remained in the Order; consequently, this created a situation of division inside the Order which, through eight centuries of Franciscan history, have persisted till our days and which is expecting a solution, even if such one may be not impossible. The better word to describe that reality is discrimination. To discuss a subject like discrimination inside of a religious institution is something delicate, due to the reactions that it can give rise to. The fact that this discrimination concerns an impediment to the access to services of government and of authority makes the issue till more delicate, thus it can cause, in the spirits most closed, a suspect without foundation and an evaluation’s error—the looking for status instead of the end of a real discrimination, may it be any one. An additional aggravation that makes the issue still more difficult is the fact that someone who writes about it suffers herself the effects of such discrimination. But, since the religious institution that carries this discriminatory reality in itself is an Order which had Francis of Assisi as its grounder and inspirational leader, the only way to go ahead is to search the clarity and the solidity in the words to demonstrate the absurd of such a situation.

Francis and the first friars: laymen and clergymen

At the moment of his conversion, Francis was a layman and, as such, together with his twelve companions, among such only one was a priest, got from the pope Innocence III the approval of his project of life. But, like by another poorness movements in that time, the movement started by Francis was not exclusively laical. Since its beginning, laymen and clergymen from all social classes have lived in the Franciscan Order, eliminating every kind of discrimination in respect of social, cultural, or clerical condition of the candidate 2: “People of high-class and simple ones, clergymen and laymen, all


Cf. BÓRMIDA, J.: Dados históricos para uma eclesiologia franciscana, p. 125.

they receptive to the divine inspiration, used to looking at the saint in the hope, always with him to go under his orientation and mastership.” 3 Indeed, the only condition to take part in the Franciscan Movement was the conversion to the gospel. All of them who came to the new movement inaugurated by Francis lived under the single aim expressed by the name that Francis chose for his Order: minor friars. With this name—friars, brothers—lived all those who have decided to try to perform the ideal of evangelical minority. To live as a minor brother signify to live a life of maximal familiarity and equality, in the existential dimension as well as theological and juridical. The franciscan sources are abundantly in examples where, in the activities of preaching and teaching Christianity, to which all are called, there is just one common orientation for both clergymen and laymen. In this fraternity of equality, all have the right and the duty to perform the services which in no way imply the sense of power. The definitive Rule approved in 1223, when concerned with the matter of penance to impose to those who have sinned, says: “And the ministers, if clergymen, should impose them the penance with mercy; but if they are not clergymen, they should send them to the Order’s clergymen in order to these impose them the penance, according to the best divine inspiration.” 4 As such, this text was approved by the pope and found support in the ecclesiastical Right of that time. And, in a time that gave special emphasis to the ecclesiastical Right, after St. Francis’s death in 1226, the first two successors were laymen; the jurist John Parenti (1227-1232) and Elias of Assisi (12321239). In the meantime, the situation changed radically after Elias of Assisi, who was accused of despotism in the government of the Order and of making scandalously easy the access for laymen to the Order’s services; for that reason, he was forced to resign in the General Chapter of 1239, when the first General Constitutions were promulgated, ruling several aspects concerned with the internal organization of the Order. 5 At the same time taken place an internal transformation of the fraternity, that became eminently clerical. The laymen were taken away from the services of governing and were indicated for domestic services, thus the manual labors outside home as way to support the fraternity were prohibited to them also. At last, the ingress of laymen was reduced. 6 That process of becoming clerical and of exclusion of brothers, first from the governing services and than from the Order itself, has its high epoch in the time of Bonaventure’s government, during which the Constitutions are revised and new ones are promulgated: “And because not only for 3

Cf. 1 Cel 37, 4. RegB 7, 2. 5 Cf. IRIARTE, Op. cit., p. 75. 6 Idem, p. 76. 4

the cause of our salvation God has called us, but also for the edification of all through the example, advice and healthy exhortations, we order that nobody be received in our Order unless he is a clergyman trained in grammar or logic, or unless he is a layman and his ingress be well-known and his fame will serve for edification of the people and of the clergy. If someone is received regardless of these norms, it will be for the domestic services and in this case be received without urgent necessity and with special license from the general minister.” 7 In a short period of time, the discrimination’s process and division between clergymen and laymen in the Order was fulfilled. What we ask back today from the Holy Father—the juridical equality of all friars in the Order, clergymen and laymen—it must be said, was not usurped by the papal authority, but was the Order itself which eliminated it from its milieu. And this with the help from a general minister. And saint.

The state of affairs in the actuality

In the renovation’s atmosphere immediately after the Second Vatican Council, the General Chapter of the OFM in Madrid 1973 paid attention to ‘The Vocation of the Order today’, trying to get clear “the significance of our life, of our options and concerning the specific character of vocation of our Order in the present days.” 8 The final declaration of that Chapter in 1973 was recently mentioned in order to stimulate the reflection in view of the general extraordinary Chapter in 2006, in the context of the 8th centenary celebrations. In spit of the clarity and of the serious conscience exam of the Order itself, which is expressed in that document from 1973, it is nevertheless odd the total absence of the discrimination’s situation of the laymen. Despite the document makes clear that “it does not pretend to be an exhaustive exposition of all elements of the franciscan life”, it points out to pursue the purpose “to gather some of the essential elements from what has been said about the franciscan vocation, to put them into words summarized and sharply, and, in this way, to give that as a set of values which seem to us particularly significant in this days for the Order’s vocation.” 9 If we confront this claim with the absence of a reference to the discrimination of laymen inside of the Order, the only possible conclusion is that this theme did not seem to the friars in the Chapter, at that time, to be “particularly significant” for the Order.


Cf. BÓRMIDA, Op. cit., p. 138. General Chapter OFM, 1973: The Vocation of the Order Today (Declaration), number 1. 9 Idem, n. 2. 8

The document comes near to the theme, without to analyze it openly. It says that “our fraternity pretends to be the concentration of men coming under the impulse of the Spirit, from different social and cultural backgrounds, and which try to create among them truly relations of friendship, of respect, of reciprocal acceptance.” 10 It puts side by side the claims that “in our fraternity all of us are brothers, men, equal and nevertheless different, free and co-responsible” and that the fraternity “imply, nevertheless, the necessary service of unity and cohesion to be done by the ‘ministers and servants’ of the fraternity, to which the friars should obey.” 11 But it does not take the next step to explain the obvious circumstance that the presumable equality is not so in what concerns the services of ‘ministers and servants’. The only passage where the document explains the situation of the layman friar is when it analyzes the topic concerning the brothers’ labor. Reminding that Francis has introduced the concept of brothers’ labor in jobs outside the fraternity, it says that “such work was an opportunity to contact with the people and a way to announce the gospel”, and that “such innovation did not survive with the evolution of the Order and its gradual insertion in the models of clerical and monastic life stile”, remaining for the non-clergymen “the domestic work inside of the convents.” 12 The Second Vatican Council was concluded eight years ago and the Order was at the beginning of its first steps toward an internal configuration more close to to the spirit of its origins. More recently, the reality of the Franciscan Order as a clerical institute, where the access to the services of governing are closed to the laymen, has been debated in the Order and, also, in the meetings of the general ministers from the First Franciscan Order and from the Third Regular Order. With the Council of the bishops about the consecrated life, in 1984, and the respective lectures by the general ministers, occurs a possibility to solve the problem on the side of the Holy Father, with the creation of the so called ‘mixed institutes’, a new category to be jointed to the existent laical and clerical institutes. Indeed, in the apostolic exhortation associated with the Council, pope John Paul II has said: “Some religious institutes, that, in the original project of the founder, are fraternities, where all the members—priests and non-priests—were taken reciprocally equals, with the flow of time have won a diverse physiognomy. It’s important that these institutes called ‘compound’ investigate, on the basis of a search for the deep foundation’s charisma, where it is opportune and possible to turn back to the original inspiration. The priests of the Council have made the vote, in such institutes, to be recognized for all religious members, equality of rights and duties, except for those which derivate


Idem, n. 14. Loc. cit. 12 Idem, n. 26. 11

from the Sacra Order. To examine and solve the problems connected with this matter was created a specific commission, whose conclusions are to be expected, in order to take than the convenient options according to what may be authentically established.” 13 As feedback from that Exhortation, the final document of the General Chapter of the OFM, 1997, said that “The recovery of our identity as fraternity, in which all are called brothers, should happen at the level of principles, of legislation and increase of awareness.” 14 And it goes ahead with the following resolutions of the Chapter regarding this aspect: -

“Considering that the Congregation for the Religious Institutes of consecrated Life and the Societies of apostolic Life admitted the possibility of a third category of institutes, the ‘Mixed Institutes’, and considering that the Apostolic Exhortation post-Council ‘Vita Consecrata’ invited the institutes called ‘compound’ to examine, on the basis of the search for the deep foundation’s charisma itself, whether it is opportune and possible to turn back to the original inspiration, the general Council decides: The Order of Minor Friars, in view of its foundation’s charisma, declares to be a religious ‘compound’ institute (or clerical and laical), constituted by brothers clergymen and laymen.”


“‘The Order of Minor Friars, grounded by St. Francis, is a fraternity’ (General Constitutions): thus, all friars are really brothers, as they are called, with equal rights; furthermore, concerning the possibility of getting the service of guardian and minister, it must be set the principle according to which the laymen friars must exercise the acts that demand Sacra Order through the clergymen of the Order (cf. Reg B 7, 2).” 15

The Chapter anticipated and has voted the necessary modifications in the General Constitutions to rule the access of laymen friars to the services of major guardians (general minister, provincial minister, custodian of Holy Land, and his respective vicars), coming into force in case of approval by the Holy Father, the Order of Minor Friars as a mixed institute.16 And, more important, it has deliberated that all entities of the Order make its best to promote the mixed identity of the Order and equality of all friars, beginning with the vocational pastoral. 17 At the end of that year, the Conference of general ministers of the First Franciscan Order and of the TOR has created a mixed commission to the “Study of the Franciscan Order as ‘Mixed Institute’”, whose results are published in 1999. 13

Pope John Paul II: Apostolic Exhortation ‘Vita Consecrata’, n. 61. (NB: free translation upon a Portuguese version) General Chapter OFM, 1997: From Memory to Prophecy (Orientations and proposals), number 23. 15 Idem, n. 24. 16 Idem, n. 25. 17 Idem, n. 27. 14

The study resumes in precise form the main points in relation with the theological and juridical aspects of the franciscan fraternity in the time of its foundation, viz. between the approval of the franciscan life project in 1209 and the approval of Life’s Rule in 1223. That commission concludes with the claim that “the access of all friars to the responsibility for the ministering friars in the Order was never considered a simple exigency of rights at human level or an element merely structural or sociological; it was proposed to the ‘holy pope’ and was lived with the necessary consequence of the evangelical mission according to the identity of minor friars and the will or intention of the founder Francis”. Beyond that, “all services and functions in the Order, following the will or foundational intention of Francis, were in the same way accessible to all brothers, independently of their status, clerical or laical, provided that they were conferred on the basis of capacity of each one.” 18 Finally, the commission has concluded that it is possible to claim that the Franciscan Order, at the time of its foundation, was, de facto, a mixed institute, in the sense that it was an existential and effective reality in which have coexisted brothers who were priests (clergymen) and who were nonpriests (laymen). Nevertheless, from the point of view of rights, Francis does not pronounce himself about such aspect. 19 Meanwhile, in his chronicle of the General Chapter from 2003, the leaving general minister, brother Giacomo Bini, gave the Order to know that the question concerned with the recognition of the Order as a mixed institute “did not go and will not go ahead”, frustrating in this way the expectation that the declaration of principles and the consequent deliberation about the mixed institutes by the pope John Paul II could become reality, what “would have permitted us to recovery absolutely our identity of fraternity by force of the foundational charisma, confirmed by the pope Honorius.” 20

The origin of a bad feeling The year of 2006 was established by the OFM as the beginning of the celebrations of the 8th centenary remembering the approval of the Franciscan Rule. In this context, it would be regrettable a silence about that discrimination which was always present through the 800 years of our franciscan history. If, suddenly, it has been the other way around—clergymen set below that discrimination and the laymen in


Meeting of General Ministers of OFM & TOR, Roma 1999: The Identity of the Franciscan Order at the time of its Foundation, p. 24 (according to the Portuguese edition). 19 Idem, p. 34. 20 Giacomo Bini, General Minister: Message to the General Chapter OFM 2003, number 25.

the situation that the clergymen possess today—would the actual silence be the same? Would the General Curia be more insistent and interested in the dialogue with the Vatican? On the other side, what is the meaning of this silence and of the rejection by the Vatican in giving back to the franciscan Order something that is constitutive of its foundational identity? What non-verbalized fears are on the background of such refusal? May it be the case that the refusal to give to all friars of the Order (independently of their juridical situation, whether clergymen or laymen), the access to the services of governing in the Order would signify, as a logical consequence, the refusal to approve the life’s project of Francis and his companions today as it was approved 800 years ago? Would Francis find fears today in the pope and in the Roman Curia that he did not find in a pope of the Middle Age, despite of good motives to have found them? If yes, what kind of fears are they? One of that fears on the side of Vatican concerns certainly the possibility of a friar layman become hierarchical guardian from a clergyman friar. It could seem a simplistic claim and judgment but, even though, it is a plausible judgment. Is there something more unthinkable in the actual ecclesial context? What ecclesial meaning, in the broad sense, can it have, that a brother may be the hierarchical superior of the number of friars, the great majority clergymen, who compound the Order today? And, even internally, how would the friars react to such reality? Such a fear has no ground for mere statistical reasons. The laymen friars make up today 18 per cent of the totality of friars in the Order. There’s no indication that such percentage will increase in the near future. On the contrary, what we can see today in the Order is that the percentage of clergymen, relative to laymen, increase slowly, even if in a few Provinces the situation may be different. To this, the services of animation at the provincial level and of the Order have as their basis, according to the primary franciscan project, the capacity of the person selected by the fraternity to such a job (to what we can join the capacity to animation and to serve). If today it is difficult to find such friars among the clergymen, it is still more difficult to find them among the few laymen, for the hypothesis to make possible to choose among all them. Beyond that, it must be said, among the few laymen friars there are still a more reduced percentage of them who are prepared for such services as among clergymen. For that reason, the government’s situation of the Provinces and the Order will keep on unchanged in the near future. Going a little far, it’s possible to conjecture another fears. If the Vatican admits discrimination without any fundament, which chocks frontal with the project proposed by Francis and approved by the pope Inocensius III, what kind of answers can it give to questions concerning other forms of

discrimination inside the church? In this sense, the fear is not so much related with the petition of the Order, as it is much more in relation with what can follow in other sectors of the church. If any kind of discrimination is contrary to the human nature and the gospel, what can we said about a discrimination which is supported not on attributes of nature, like gender and ethnicity, but on a gift form God itself, such as the vocation for a determinate form of evangelical life, in this case, the masculine laical consecrated life? As it was made clear above, these are only conjectures in order to face the silence. But, if the decision in the constitution of the franciscan Order as a ‘mixed institute’ refers at least to the Vatican and his organisms, there’s a domestic job to be done relatively to the principles and in the Order’s concretization, as is was fixed by the General Chapter in 1997. There are some examples that clarify such a necessity. We may thing about the camouflaged pressure—and, sometimes, explicit—of the leaders in the formation or provincials on the young friar who expresses his option for the laical life, in the sense to persuade him to give his option up. What can we say about the facial expression of deception and reaction of a provincial, when a friar lets him know about his decision for the laical life? Such expression can be legitimate if it has the aim to confront the friar with his option and to verify its solidity. But, who are the ministers who make the same when a friar asks him for approval for his ordination? On the contrary, isn’t it the case that he is welcomed with an affectionate embrace? Other elucidative example is a certain untrustworthy feeling in some Order’s sectors relative to a small percentile increase of the number of friars with laical vocation in some provinces. Such sectors see this increase in connection with the frailty of such vocations, when compared with the vocations to become clergymen. The logic is simple: ‘only’ with the solemn profession, the friar would feel himself less responsible for the Order and could abandon it easier than an ordained one. To be a layman friar with ‘only’ the solemn profession is to have a step in and another out. Going deeper in this logic, we conclude that it is the ordination—and not the profession—that confers the status of true membership in the Order. By the evaluation of statistics relative to the ingresses of persons of both sates— clergymen and laymen—it should be taken on account the time flown between the profession and the abandon. Thus, the abandon of laymen friars immediately after the solemn profession could mean only one thing: that the friar did not perhaps do a true option for the franciscan life, and, consequently, neither for the laical nor for the clerical life. Another example, apparently trivial but not less significantly for the explanation of a subjacent mentality, is the persistence, among some clergymen friars, in recurring to the use of some elements typical of secular clergymen: the priestly collar and the corresponding reputation call (‘Father X’). If

it’s our identity as friars that gives us vital unity as members of the same Order, where clergymen and laymen life together under the same Rule of life, the use of such elements by the friars introduce an unnecessary line of clear division between both. It’s understandable that such mentality may persist among friars born and educated in another times, from which we try to take distance. It’s just a question of time. But it’s sad—and, at the same time, comic—to see young friars, who have recently completed their education and have been ordained, exhibiting the priestly collar, as were it expression of necessary self-affirmation, more through the ironed collar than through self convictions and human and vocational maturity. In Divinópolis, Brazil, lives fr. Antonio da Silva Rocha, a layman who have completed his 100 years in 2006, with the same clarity and youth spirit that characterize him. In his 77 years of franciscan life, he has worked a lot. In the last years, he took care of the farm in the convent. In Lisbon, Portugal, lives fr. José Luis Domingues, also a layman. He has worked as missionary in Mozambique during 40 years. With a solicitude and attention of mother, as Francis asked to his friars to behave to each other, he has welcomed the gests and has taken care with the brothers infected with countless malarias in Maputo all those years along. They are friars like these that, in the meantime between us and Francis with his companions, have granted the continuity of the original spirit of franciscan fraternity in the Order. They belong to that category of friars, where Francis has included himself: the simple ones, the uneducated friars. Today, they have the right, in the same way, to a minimum of religious and franciscan education, side by side with our clergymen candidates. But, in a different way as the clergymen and educated ones, they find opportunity to his education in our centers of franciscan formation, unless such centers have become too much sophisticated and unable to provide answer to this need of the Order—Is this the case? These are only some trivial examples, to which many others can be added in the different provinces of the Order. So, between silence and discrimination, the Order goes ahead with its preparations to the great celebration of the 8th centenary. At the same time, among the confusion of such preparations, a bad feeling persists. Notwithstanding I’m a member of a province that immediately after the Second Vatican Council, together with the other Brazilian provinces, have searched with sincerity to life the fraternal equality among its members, eliminating where it’s possible and according to the juridical principles the signs of division, it remains an unpleasant bad feeling in the background, due to that institutional discrimination by which friars like myself are affected. As layman friar, there is a sensation of being a strange body inside of the Order itself. And that is something hard to accept friendly, even after 800 years have been gone.


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