We know with certainty that St. Francis of Assisi was never ordained to the priesthood, although there is some evidence to suggest he may have been a deacon. Nevertheless, Francis exercised the role of leadership over the order which he himself had founded for several years. At the Chapter of 1232, Elias of Cortona, also a lay brother, was elected as the successor to St. Francis. Lay brothers were regularly elected to this role of general minister for much of the order’s early history.
This recognition of brotherhood as the heart of the Franciscan charism, regardless of the lay or clerical state, is enshrined in our Capuchin Constitutions, which state: “By reason of the same vocation, brothers are all equal.” The document continues, “All of us are called brothers without distinction,” and, therefore, all offices in the order should be open to all brothers.
However, for over 400 years the freedom to elect a lay member of the community has been denied mixed institutes (institutes with both ordained and non-ordained members). The 1983 Code of Canon Law, specifically Canon 129.1, prohibited lay brothers from holding jurisdiction over brothers who are ordained.
Despite this prohibition, the Capuchins and other branches of the Franciscan order, have continued to push for the freedom to elect any member of their community to positions of leadership, in keeping with the original intention of St. Francis.
In 2019, the Capuchin Province of St. Conrad elected a lay member, Br. Mark Schenk, as provincial minister. Although the Congregation for Religious initially vetoed the election, Pope Francis intervened, granting the dispensation necessary to take office for a three-year term. It was unclear whether this same dispensation would be granted in future elections.
So it was with some confusion and speculation among the brothers as we approached our Chapter of 2022 as to whether or not we would be permitted to reelect Br. Mark.
Providence intervened, however, and at long last the prayers of the friars to return to the practice of the order’s earliest days seemed to be heard. On May 18, just 12 days before our provincial Chapter, Pope Francis issued an official edict amending canon law to allow religious communities to elect lay brothers to roles of leadership with the approval of the Congregation for Religious.
On June 1, the friars of our province reelected Br. Mark to a second term as provincial minister. Additionally, the friars elected Fr. Bill Kraus as provincial vicar and Fr. Sojan Parapilly, Fr. Jason Moore and Fr. Joseph Elder as his councilors. We can now say with authentic joy that we are all “brothers without distinction.”