I’ve responded to many inquiries about the Capuchins with these or similar words: “We are an order of brothers who seek to follow Jesus in the spirituality of St. Francis.” This summation is usually slapped with the quick rejoinder: “Yes, but what do you actually do?”
It is a question which requires a nuanced answer. Certainly I can point to specific ministries in which our community works: homeless shelters, prisons, parishes, etc. But simply pointing to individual ministries does not get to the heart of what we do. After all, we are not Jesuits. We were not founded with a specific mission of teaching and spiritual direction. Neither are we the Dominicans, who were founded with a clear mandate to preach against heresy.
What then does a Capuchin do? To discover that answer, we have to look to St. Francis of Assisi. In the first lines of his Rule, he describes the essential identity of a Franciscan: “The Rule and life of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity.”
For Francis, we are to live as friars minor (lesser brothers) striving to be faithful to the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ by living fully and joyfully the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. We are to encounter everyone as our brothers and sisters; we are to be a little brother to the homeless man, to those incarcerated, to the sick and the needy, to the lost and lonely. As their little brothers, we are to bear the good news of Jesus Christ, witnessing to this reality by an authentic observance of our vows.
There is often a false dichotomy proposed between truth and love. Some Catholics argue that we should simply take care of everyone without any judgment, concern or emphasis on preaching the truth. Others would argue that we must proclaim the truth boldly, in season and out of season, whether it makes the hearer uncomfortable or not. What is at the heart of a Franciscan evangelization?
In caring for the needs of people, in sharing their hardships and sufferings, in being “little brothers” to them, we reveal Hesed – the Old Testament, Hebrew term for God’s merciful love. Through our actions, our words and the work of our hands, we reveal that our God is a God of merciful love. Does this mean we have no concern for the truth, for preaching and teaching? Certainly not! But in an age dominated by secular humanism and moral relativism, where everyone invents their own version of the truth, the truth is falling on deaf ears and hearts are closed. The Franciscan approach is to be a little brother to everyone, to show them the merciful love of God. This Franciscan dynamic of brotherhood creates in the other person a possibility of opening to the truth and discovering through their own experience that God is love. This is the ministry of the Capuchin Franciscans - this is what we strive to actually do!