Text: Giuseppe Nardi
(Rome) How far has the destruction of the Order of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate progressed? This is the updating of a chapter that is like a dark shadow on the pontificate of Pope Francis.
In 1969 two Fathers Minor, Stefano Maria Manelli and Gabriele Maria Pellettieri, asked the Father General of the Order, after a thorough study of Fontes Franciscani, to be allowed to start a “new experience of Franciscan life” back to its original rigor. In 1970 an abandoned monastery of the Order was made available to them where they gathered more men over time, and with the establishment of a female branch, women also joined. In 1990, the Community was canonically recognized as a separate order.
The Peculiarity of the Young Order
The Order represented an anomaly of Catholic orders until July 2013. While the old religious orders steeped in tradition suffer decline and waste away, the young Franciscan Order saw a veritable blooming of vocations.
Its peculiarity was that the founders did not turn to liberal openings after the Council, but returned to the rigor of the Franciscan ideal. The sensibility which unfolded there led to a return to the traditional rite under Pope Benedict XVI. The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate were thus the only new rite order, which moved to the traditional form of the Roman Rite and the rigor of its life, attracted many young people, while other orders starved.
The particularity which defined this Order as community of the old rite, is that it did not belong to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, but the Roman Congregation for Religious, which is otherwise only concerned with the new rite.
Another peculiarity distinguished the young, blossoming order from the Ecclesia Dei- communities. Besides the charism of the order, the Franciscan ideal of Marian devotion, love for tradition and the traditional rite, there was a missionary zeal.
While the Ecclesia Dei communities are enclosed in garden preserves, where in some dioceses they are tolerated more than accepted, the Franciscans of the Immaculate had the freedom of new rite communities to openly develop their apostolates freely and to be especially active in mission.
With its turn to the old rite, the first difficulties began with the diocesan bishops. Of the three known friaries established in German-speaking countries, only Kitzbühel (Archdiocese of Salzburg) established in 2002, was successful. The two other, more recent attempts (diocese of Bolzano-Brixen, and Linz Diocese) were rejected.
The Reversal Upon the Election of Pope Francis
The young religious order enjoyed papal benevolence under Benedict XVI., which suddenly changed under Francis. In July 2013, just four months after his election, the Religious Congregation completely overturned the order’s leadership with papal approval. The Order was placed under provisional administration. The Commissar, Capuchin Father, Fidenzio Volpi, who was no friend of the traditional rite, began a veritable destruction. Father Volpi, who died in June 2015, was replaced by the Salesian and canon lawyer, Sabino Ardito.
The destruction of the Order has continued nevertheless, unabated.
Reasons for radical intervention in the blossoming religious were still not known. Behind closed doors the Commissioner and the head of the religious congregation confirmed that which observers had suspected from the start: The reason was the aforementioned feature of the Order. A new rite order, which had moved to the traditional rite, attracted numerous vocations of young people and aroused growing attention from other new rite orders, which began to be interested in this “success story”, could not be.
The decree by which the provisional government was established, only contained a detailed determination. But it revealed the thrust of the action: Despite anything to the contrary that had been issued by Benedict XVI. with the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, it was determined that no priest of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate be allowed to celebrate the traditional rite any longer. Anyone who wished to celebrate the old rite had to make a private application, which had to be approved by the Commissioner. More contempt for the traditional rite could not be demonstrated.
Under Pope Benedict XVI. it had not been possible for hostile forces to take action against the order. With the election of Pope Francis, who commented disparagingly in June 2013 about traditional circles, the situation had changed in one fell swoop.
Because of his power, Pope Francis prevented that the leadership of the order could turn to the Apostolic Signatura against the actions of the Congregation of Religious. The order had no legal recourse. It had to endure.
No Benevolent Father
Since the beginning of the act of dismemberment, 14 monasteries were dissolved by the commissioners. Currently, even the dissolution of the monastery of Florence is being prepared, which was a center of the order before the provisional administration. It will be the 15th Monastery closure since the beginning of the provisional administration. The commissioners have proven to be employed against the order not as benevolent fathers, as Cardinal De Paolis was, whom Benedict XVI. placed at the top of the Legion of Christ in 2010 when the order had fallen into a spiral by uncovering of the double life of its founder.
The commissioners of the Franciscans of the Immaculate were employed, rather more like liquidators. Three and a half years after his establishment at the Legion of Christ, Cardinal De Paolis ended his administration with the election new leadership for the order. There is no end of the apostolic administration for Franciscans of the Immaculate. The poignant question now arises, what will then be left of the former order?
Alfonso Bruno and His Campaign
With the death of the first Commissioner, at least, the influence of Father Alfonso Bruno seems to have declined. Alfonso Bruno was the Media Representative of the order’s earlier leadership. He is considered the real brains behind the rebellion against the founders and the charism of the order. Officially, he does not seem to be among the five brothers, who had turned to the Congregation of Religious with a letter to complain against the exclusive use of the traditional rite in the order. In the concern for pastoral care, the order had actually remained biritual. Yet the letter was the incentive to intervene by the Congregation of Religious.
Commissioner Volpi appointed Alfonso Bruno Secretary General and was influenced by him. Otherwise, the Commissioner had mad false claims against Founder Stefano Maria Manelli, for he was convicted of defamation in a state court judgment. The execution of punishment was kept from him only by his unexpected death. The new Commissioner, Ardito, did not make the same mistake obviously. While Volpi was the sole Commissioner, Father Ardito has employed a Jesuit and Capuchin as assistants besides. He thus has dispensed with a General Secretary and sent Alfonso Bruno in September 2015 to be the head of a religious house in Messina, Sicily. However, he is set to continue his campaign against the former Superior General, Father Manelli, who was deposed in 2013. He is, according to rumors, behind a blog which is called “The Truth about the Provisional Administration of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate” and is only overflowing with malicious articles.
Abolition of the Fourth Marian Vow
Meanwhile, the first vows were conducted without the typical consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brazil and the Philippines. It was replaced by a simple expression of willingness to go on mission. The consecration to Mary is a fourth vow a characteristic of the order. In addition to the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, which is common to all religious communities, the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate make a fourth Marian vow which precedes the others.
The abolition of the consecration to Mary is the second concrete imposition upon the charism of the order. “It raises the question: Was this consecration the problem? And if not: Why do you force upon the order such a change of its original charism,” wrote Libertà e Persona.
The canon lawyer continues to debate whether the Decree of the Congregation of Religious of July 2013 is at all lawful or not. Opinions vary. The same applies to specific interventions such as the abolition of Consecration to Mary. Some canonists think that such an intervention could be resolved legally only by the General Chapter of the order. Again, opinions differ. Since Pope Francis forbade the courts to hear the discussions of the canonists, whatever conclusions they reach, for now, have no actual impact.
Since the provisional administration, numerous brothers have wanted to leave the Order. They want to maintain the lifestyle to which they have committed themselves through their vows. The planned start-up of an old rite order was banned by the Congregation of Religious. It’s another indication that it is opposed to tradition and the traditional rite. Commissioner Volpi threatened the bishops not to allow Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, leaving their order. At the same time he presented accused those “entrusted” to him, of wanting to overthrow Pope Francis.
The brothers want to remain faithful to their consecration to Mary, the full devotion to the Immaculate. Its abolition represents a serious encroachment on the identity of the order. It is a cause of uncertainty and anger that there is no recognizable connection between the abolition and the introduction of the provisional administration.
According to credible sources this intervention is to be extended to the female branch and thus also to the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate to place them in a moral dilemma, who have vowed loyalty to a particular charism that has been accepted and confirmed by Pope John Paul II in 1998. The media always finds new horror stories to publish about the Order. Comparable hate campaigns had appeared in the German language are endured by the Opus Dei, the Engelwerk that Auerbacher SSND and also includes The Work. Monastery walls seem to inspire outlandish fantasies not only for journalists.
With the cloister in Florence, 15 convents have been closed. The provisional administration is leaving a veritable trail of destruction.
60 brothers have officially asked to be released from their vows to leave the order. Since Rome fears the establishment of a new order, the applications are not being accepted. The majority of them have been blocked for almost three years. As this path has proved a dead end, more brothers have given up an application.
With a Rescript ex audientia from April 4, 2016, which was made public only last May 11th, Pope Francis has revoked the previously self-evident right in church history of the right of diocesan bishops to recognize new religious communities. On June 1st received the approval by the Holy See. With the Rescript, Francis noted that the establishment of an order by a diocesan bishop without the consent of Rome is null and void.
The centralization ordained by Francis is the exact opposite of the other “decentralization” represented by him for the Church is as it carried out concerning the nullity of marriage, where the diocesan Bishop alone can decide today, or aiming for the admission of remarried divorcees to Communion.
Bishops close to Francis confirm, as the progressive magazine Il Regno reports, that although much of collegiality and synodality is talk, that the concentration of power in the hands of the Pope had never been so great in Church history.
Libertà e Persona presented the question in this context: “Is a federation of the Congregation for Religious preparing a common formation for all religious orders with their different charisms? Is a leveling of all charisms into a sort of syncretism of religious life what is desired? ”