Red Hat, Brown Radical
Sure, Sean O'Malley's continued affinity for the habit he's referred to as the "brown wrapper" might ruffle some feathers among the presbyterate over which he presides, but eight centuries after St Francis, the widespread fascination continues with the garb and the Rule it represents.
Though canonically released from his vow of poverty on his appointment to the episcopacy in 1984, the Friar-prelate has gone to considerable lengths to maintain the simple state of life.
As bishop of Fall River, for example, O'Malley once got a group of priests excited by inviting them to dinner at his "new favorite restaurant," the clerics only discovering when they pulled into the parking lot that their bishop's choice was a Pizza Hut. Then, in Boston, he sold the Italianate palace occupied by a century's worth of his predecessors to help fund the archdiocese's abuse settlement, taking up residence in a spare room at the rectory of Holy Cross Cathedral.
The third US cardinal-elector ever to be drawn from the ranks of the vowed, the Bloggin' Eminence is more closely identified with his community than most of the church's professed princes (a quality he shares with the Salesian Secretary of State). Along those lines, in an unusually candid public intervention given last month in Venice, the "most authoritative American Capuchin" offered some pointed words of advice on the recently-announced revision of the order's constitutions.
Begun on Pentecost by the recently-elected Capuchin minister-general, Swiss Fr Mauro Jöhri, the constitutions will be reviewed for three years and are slated to be debated and approved at an extraordinary chapter of the congregation in 2010.
At the Venice event, held in anticipation of the 800th anniversary of the church's sanction of the Franciscan "Proto-Rule," the cardinal urged his community to shy away from "introducing the Trojan Horse into the City of God," a direction which, he said, would "allow the radical nature of our life as Capuchins to be watered down."
Noting that the community appeared set to include more elements of social justice and ecology into its foundational document, O'Malley warned of a "false sense of security," citing his experience in the US.
"I see many religious communities in my country produc[ing] documents worthy of the Green Party," he said, "but they are dying on the vine themselves."
While bishops who hail from the professed state are released from their vows of poverty and obedience on their elevation, they remain members of their native institute and may continue to take part in its deliberations. As one religious put it, when an episcopal confrere would speak in their community's chapters, it was understood that the bishop "spoke for the whole church."
First circulated among the friars of the cardinal's Pittsburgh-based home province, the order has posted the fulltext of O'Malley's remarks, which are excerpted below.
As a young friar I longed to go to the missions, and I was thrilled when I was ordained a deacon the Father General asked that I be sent to Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I was going to work with a German friar, Father Sebastian, who had been working with the Indians there for forty years.Coincidentally, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the mini-quake in the Capuchin world when eight friars, seeking an increased return to the radicality of their charism, left the fold to form a new community on their own in the South Bronx.
I began studying Rapanui, but before I left for the missions the Archbishop of Washington appealed to my Provincial for Spanish speaking friars who could work with the thousands of undocumented refugees fleeing the wars in Central America, from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. My assignment was changed from Easter Island to the Lent of the illegal aliens.
I was allowed to live among the poor in a building where the Centro Católico Hispano was located. There was seldom heat or hot water and the cockroaches were the size of rats, and the rats were the size of cats. There were often gunfights in the building so one day I gathered all the tenants in the lobby for a “disarmament summit”. I put a table in the center of the room and asked everyone to hand over their guns. One old grandmother wearing a little bonnet opened her purse and produced a huge pistol. She waved it under my nose and said: “You are a priest, no one is going to do anything to you; me, I am keeping my gun”. Needless to say, I did not collect any guns that day. Working with the poor and with my brother Capuchins was a joy. I was the happiest man in the world. One day God said – look at Father Seán. He is too happy. Let’s make him a Bishop. When I was told – I said: “I should have studied harder in the seminary.” I have been a friar for 42 years. I should be much holier after so many years of religious life. I am still a construction site.
The joy of my life has always been my vocation as a Capuchin. My reflections today are not those of an expert, but those of a lover. I love Francis, his ideal, his way of life, his rule.
I love the Capuchin Order more than my life. I feel so privileged to be a part of this family, and my only desire is that we be better sons of St. Francis. The more we love the same things, the more we do the same things, the more we live the same ideals the deeper our fraternity and the more powerful our witness of poverty, prayer and charity....
How the world has changed. When I was a seminarian, at the beginning of the 1960’s, I went to Europe. In those days, it was clear from the first glance what country a person came from by looking at their clothes, their shoes, and their haircut. Forty years later, everyone dresses the same. We call this phenomenon globalization. I am sure it has its advantages and its disadvantages, but it is a reality that has resulted in a smaller world, and it has leveled the peculiar aspects of individual culture and ethnic identity.
As members of the Catholic family and followers of Saint Francis who is the universal brother, our vocation has an aspect of spiritual globalization. When our new Constitutions were written, there was a great emphasis on pluriformity. Having participated in the Chapters that have worked on the Constitutions, I understand the noble motivations of the leaders. Still, it has always concerned me, I feared that we might be introducing the Trojan Horse into the City of God and so might allow the radical nature of our life as Capuchins to be watered down....
I am not a great theologian, I am not nor have I ever been a Provincial, nor a definitor, and not even a Guardian . When I was named Bishop, one of the friars was heard to say, “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” My sole credential for formulating these reflections is that I love the Capuchin Order more than my own life....
For us Capuchins, the Constitutions are always conceived as a way to follow more faithfully the general inspiration that is the life and the Rule of Saint Francis. A profound desire to return to the original inspiration of Saint Francis, of observing the Rule without exceptions, animated our first Capuchin brothers. For them, the Testament was the first spiritual commentary on the Rule and a source of profound inspiration for the life of Capuchins....
For me the great historical figure that has contributed in great measure to our way of living the Capuchin charism of following in the footsteps of St. Francis, is Fra Bernardino d’Asti. He has been called the third founder of the Capuchins. It is a shame that he has never been canonized; he was clearly such a holy friar and a real instrument of God in the codifying and organizing of the Capuchin Reform! He was the fundamental author of the Constitutions of 1535, a masterpiece of Capuchin spirituality. It is said that a camel is a horse constructed by a committee. This is my only concern about us 12,000 Capuchins that are helping Fra Mauro revise the Constitutions. The Rule, the Testament and the original Constitutions were not the work of a large committee, but rather of the Holy Spirit.
Saint Francis could not be clearer about the Rule and the authorship of our way of life. “No one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the Pattern of the Holy Gospel. I had this written down simply and in few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me” (Testament 14 and 15).
Saint Francis was a gentle person, in art he is portrayed surrounded by birds and Zeffirelli gave us a Saint Francis who was so sweet. But in reality he was a lion when it came to defending the Rule. Honorius at the end of the Rule warns us that anyone who tampers with the Rule or rashly dares to oppose it shall incur the anger of God and of His Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul. I am much more worried about the wrath of Saint Francis if we water down the Rule or produce Constitutions that are bland and innocuous.
In the first chapter of the Constitutions of 1536 it says that our life is the observance of the Gospel and that the Rule is simply the Incarnation of the Gospel. In this same chapter it is stipulated that the four Gospels be read three times a year, i.e., one Gospel every month. The second paragraph ordains that the Rule be read in each friary every Friday. Bernardino wisely points us to the Gospels and the Rule as the primary sources of our way of life.
Bernardino of Asti stated that three virtues were essential to the Capuchin way of Life: “Charity, Poverty and Prayer”. First and foremost is love but “charity cannot survive in us without prayer and poverty.” These three virtues, he added “witness one to the other.” Hence, there can be no real poverty where charity and prayer are missing. There can be no real prayer without charity and poverty, neither is there real love where there is not prayer or poverty (Litterae circulares 1548).
The Rule, the Testament and the early constitutions challenge us to live these Capuchin virtues in a radical way. We are to live them as individuals but also as a community.
The Constitutions of 1536 describe Capuchin poverty as a life of a fraternity committed to complete poverty, courting insecurity, rejecting any stable source of income. The Capuchin idea of poverty is not that of monastic poverty as practiced by the first Christians who possessed all things in common, but apostolic poverty as practiced by Christ and the Apostles. The sixth chapter portrays that sense of pilgrimage that betokens Francis’ words about living as pilgrims and strangers. The Constitutions say: “Let every friar remember that evangelical poverty consists in the firm resolution of not becoming attached to any earthly thing, of using the things of the world most sparingly as if compelled by necessity, and for the glory of God whom we are to recognize as the true owner of all things. Whatever is over and above our own needs, they shall for the honor of poverty, give it to the poor. We should always remember that we dwell in an Inn and eat the sins of the people” (No 67)....
The Constitutions of Bernardino of Asti go even further in underscoring the pilgrim nature of our existence. He wrote that the properties where we have friaries are to be owned by the government or other benefactors. And every year, within the octave of the feast of Saint Francis, each guardian shall go to the owner of the Friary, thank him for the use of it during the past year, and humbly beg to grant him and the friars the use of it for another year…should he refuse, “then without any sign of sadness, nay, with a joyful heart, accompanied by divine poverty, let them depart, feeling themselves indebted to their benefactor for the time they were permitted to dwell there, and not to be offended, because it is his property and that person has no obligation to offer it to the Friars.”
Not surprisingly, such a radical policy was changed by the 1552 revision of the Constitutions. Still the old legislation speaks to us about the need to be a pilgrim and stranger in this world. The friars of the Primitive Observance in my diocese are following the old practice but since they are few and have only four small houses, it is still doable....
I have not seen the recommendations for the new Constitutions. I am told that there is a desire to introduce more Peace and Justice and Ecology into the Constitutions. I believe the Capuchins should be very much embodied in promoting the social Gospel of the Church. I would like to express two caveats. First of all there is the danger of a false sense of security. In other words by talking a lot about the social justice themes we might think that we are living a radical form of the Gospel Life. I see many religious communities in my country produce documents worthy of the Green Party, but they are dying on the vine themselves. Was it Saint Francis who said the saints did all the work and we get the credit by talking about them?
Francis reformed the Church and society by living the Gospel Life in a radical way. He did not criticize the hierarchy, the nobilities, and the corrupt leaders. He lived a life of intense prayer, poverty and love – and it was like a bomb dropped on the world. His idea of brotherhood led to a Christian pacifism in the secular Franciscans that brought many wars to a halt. He even held out an olive branch to Islam at a time when our ancestors where planting the seeds of an ageless enmity that is blossoming in terrorism today....
Capuchin Identity is safeguarded by the Constitutions only in as much as it inspires us to live the Rule and Testament in a radical way. Generalities will never do. The Gospel Life of the Capuchin Brotherhood is about radical love. It is a life that begins with contemplative prayer. This allows one to imitate the self-emptying of Christ’s kenosis and leads to a radical witness that invites people to renounce the extreme individualism and materialism of our age in order to follow Christ poor and crucified.
Some people are advocating removing some of the concrete directives on prayer that are in the Constitutions and place them in the Ordinances. This would be a fatal mistake. The ordinances are unknown and irrelevant to most of the friars. The Rule and Constitutions will always be the documents that form us and teach us our identity. The Constitutions cannot be a weak exhortation to live a vague ideal of the most common denominator. Rather, the Constitutions should be a challenging document that incorporates concrete directives about the life of prayer, poverty, and austerity. We need more boldness in our Constitutions if we are going to inspire young men to join our ranks.
If we embrace or institutionalize a comfortable, bourgeois life style, the Order will die out, no matter how much lip service we give to a liberal social agenda. Our way of life lived in all its radical renunciation is capable of producing men whose witness of prayer, poverty and love will help transform society by calling people back to God, calling them to come home to the Church, by helping people to have a sense of personal vocation and to be part of a communal mission....
Preparing ourselves to celebrate the anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis, I pray so that our Capuchin Family commits itself anew to follow with decision and love our Seraphic Father, not at a safe distance, but up close.
Many of you know said group -- which has since grown to over 100 -- as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
PHOTO: Providence Journal File