Pope Francis issued a rescript on May 18, allowing the possibility for lay members of a mixed religious community to be elected to positions of leadership.
This welcome change was a long time coming and there is an important history behind it. It was the heads of the four major men's branches of the first order Franciscans: Friars Minor, Conventuals, Capuchins and Third Order Regulars (TOR’s) that ultimately helped to bring about this change.
In 1983, the Central Canadian Capuchin Province elected Br. Ignatius Feaver, a lay brother, to the role of provincial minister, despite the fact that the Congregation for Religious had historically vetoed all such elections as violations of canon law. However, due to a clerical error – no pun intended – the Congregation mistakenly approved Br. Ignatius' election, but mandated that he should not be elected for a second term.
At the 1994 Synod of Bishops assembly on “The Consecrated Life and its Role in the Church and in the World,” Capuchin General Minister, Fr. John Corriveau, brought this important issue before Pope John Paul II and bishops from around the world. He made an impassioned plea to allow non-ordained members to be appointed to positions of leadership in accord with the earliest traditions of the order. Fr. Corriveau's intervention was taken up by many others among the synod participants. As a result, a special Vatican commission was established to study the issue of governance in mixed institutes. The issue even made it into the pope's post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata:
“Some religious institutes, which in the founder's original design were envisaged as a brotherhood in which all the members, priests and those who were not priests, were considered equal among themselves, have acquired a different form with the passing of time. It is necessary that these Institutes, known as ‘mixed,’ evaluate on the basis of a deeper understanding of their founding charism whether it is appropriate and possible to return to their original inspiration.”
Nothing ever seemed to come from the study commission, but the Capuchins, along with the other heads of the Franciscan branches, continued to push for change. In 2008, the Capuchin province in Detroit elected a lay brother as provincial minister. The congregation, again, firmly vetoed the election and ordered the friars to return to chapter and elect a priest as provincial minister.
Nothing more happened until 2019 when Br. Mark Schenk was elected provincial minister of the Capuchin Province of St. Conrad. Pope Francis intervened when the congregation issued its usual veto. Finally, in May 2022, the pope issued the rescript allowing lay members to be elected with the approval of the congregation. Persistence seems to run in the Franciscan bloodstream!