The superiors of the four main branches of the Franciscan friars formally asked Pope Francis for permission to allow their communities to elect brothers to positions of leadership in their communities.
“With us Pope Francis is looking at the possibilities for moving this project forward,” Fr Michael Perry, minister general of the Friars Minor, told Vatican Radio. “We left a letter as a formal request for a dispensation” from canon law requirements that in most religious orders with both priests and brothers only a priest can be elected to the top leadership offices.
Fr Perry met the Pope on April 10 along with the Capuchin minister general, Fr Mauro Johri; the Conventual Franciscan minister general, Fr Marco Tasca; and the Third Order Regular minister general, Fr Nicholas Polichnowski.
Fr Tasca told Vatican Radio that Pope Francis brought up the terrorist bombings in Egypt on April 9 and “confirmed with great determination” that he would visit Egypt at the end of April as planned. They also spoke of the ongoing violence in Syria and the presence of Franciscans, who continue to minister there and in other regions where tension and violence are a daily occurrence.
But, Fr Perry said, “we mostly spoke about the steps we are taking to create communion among us, among the different orders of the Franciscan family.”
The four different branches, he said, are working together to reunite their institutes of higher learning in Rome and have a variety of cooperative projects in the Holy Land.
“In addition,” he said, “we have spoken of the importance of the possibility of allowing lay friars to serve in an ordinary way in our respective orders.”
The rules governing eligibility for leadership in religious orders with a strong mix of brothers and priests — especially if those orders, like the Franciscans, were founded without distinction between lay and ordained — has been going on since the Second Vatican Council.
The council’s decree on religious life said, “Monasteries of men and communities which are not exclusively lay can, according to their nature and constitutions, admit clerics and lay persons on an equal footing and with equal rights and obligations, excepting those which flow from sacred orders.”
Still, for orders like the Franciscans in which most members are priests, the Vatican has insisted that ordination is a requisite for “the power of governance.” It has vetoed the election of brothers as superiors of orders that have more priests than brothers as members, even when the order’s constitutions do not insist the superior be a priest.
At the Synod of Bishops on religious life in 1994, the question was raised repeatedly. Franciscan Father Hermann Schaluck, minister general of the Friars Minor at the time, told the synod that his order was founded by a layman, St Francis of Assisi, who was never ordained a priest. The charism of the order was not tied to ordination, but to a life of following the Gospel in a radical way.
The equal footing of lay and ordained friars, he said, should mean they both could be called to leadership roles. And he asked the Vatican that the possibility be “officially and juridically” recognised.
Responding to the synod members’ propositions in 1996, St John Paul II said, “A special commission has been established to examine and resolve the problems connected with this issue; it is necessary to await this commission’s conclusions before coming to suitable decisions in accordance with what will be authoritatively determined.”
The study appears to have been interrupted. In December 2015, the Vatican issued a document on the identity and mission of religious brothers. At the time, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said his office would ask Pope Francis for an ad hoc commission to study the question.