Skip to main content

State of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate

In this post I am publishing two documents.  First, there is an unsigned piece written by a friar of the Immaculate, which has been distributed in the form of a Word document named “State of the FFI.docx”.  Whether this document has been received by a small number of friars only or has had a wider distribution I do not know.  Clearly, however, the document is a concise set of talking points defending the former superiors of the FFI against the Apostolic Commissioner, Most Reverend Fr. Fidenzio Volpi, and the Prefect for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, His Eminence Cardinal João Braz de Aviz.  I certainly do not agree with what is said in this document.  It is is reproduced here in its complete unedited form.

The second document is my commentary on “State of the FFI,” which I wrote with assistance of Fr. Agnellus Maria Murphy and am publishing with the approval of Fr. Alfonso Maria Bruno.  Please read both documents and simply do not bother to comment unless you have read both in their entirety.  Please also bear with my use of emphasis, as from experience I know that points get glossed over or ignored in the heat of the reading.

I am one of the original five friars who appealed to the Holy See concerning the problems within our Institute.  I mention this in the interests of full disclosure.

Comment moderation is on.

Since the establishment of the Apostolic Commission more than eight months ago, disinformation has continually emanated from within the Institute and has been broadcast internationally on the blogs.  It has persisted even until now and this is truly unfortunate. As I have said many times before, this problem would never best be adjudicated in the public forum.  But since the reputations of innocent people are involved, particularly those in the Holy See, and because the current crisis will only get worse in the face of the disinformation, these documents are being made public.

Father Angelo Mary Geiger


First Document: “State of the FFI”

In mid-July 2013, the Founder and Minister General of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, the Co-Founder and Vicar General, and the Procurator General were called to the offices of the Congregation for Religious. There they met with the Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation, who delivered to them a decree assigning an Apostolic Commissioner to govern the Institute, and thereby deposing them. Fr. Stefano M. Manelli, the Founder, asked the reason for this drastic step. The Prefect said that it was because he had imposed the use of the extraordinary form on all the friars. Since the accusation was obviously false, Fr. Stefano tried to object, but the Prefect would not listen. The Commissioner, Fr. Fidenzio Volpi, OFM Cap, was also present, and announced that he had come “to demolish everything and rebuild.”

The decree came after an Apostolic Visitation deemed necessary because it was “requested by 21 members of the Institute” (which had some 350 at the time). It was a rather curious Visitation, in which the Visitor was physically present at only a few religious houses and never for more than a few hours. He spoke with only a handful of religious, never went to the General Archive, and saw only those few records that he asked to have brought to him. Although he is said to have presented hundreds of pages of documentation to the Congregation after he completed his work, the primary means by which he conducted his visit seems to have been a questionnaire for the solemnly professed friars that contained leading questions, and that was to be submitted by post or e-mail, without any verification of who compiled it.

The reasons for which a Commissioner was assigned remain unclear even eight months after his assignment. At no time prior to the decree did the Congregation ever ask to meet with representatives of the Institute. They were never informed of the accusations, nor were they given the opportunity to offer any explanation or defense. By the unusual step of obtaining Papal approval for the decree, the Congregation kept the Institute from being able to appeal.

While the Prefect originally indicated the extraordinary form was the problem, representatives of the Congregation have since said that there were other reasons for the decree. Yet they have never explained what exactly these were. Not infrequently, they point to the motivation indicated in the decree: “for the internal unity of the Religious Institutes [sic plural] and fraternal communion, adequate formation for religious and consecrated life, the organization of apostolic activities, and the proper management of temporal goods.” However, when formators and young religious asked what was wrong with the formation, they received no reply. When ex-members of the General Council asked what was wrong with the management of temporal goods (also wondering how this was determined without looking at the financial records), they received no reply. There was the Commissioner’s promise on 30 August 2013 to send all the friars a detailed written explanation of the reasons for his assignment within a few days, but this has not been forthcoming. That problems with a Religious Institute cannot be explained to the general public is understandable, but that they cannot be explained even to the highest-ranking members of the Institute is rather odd. It would appear that whatever the motives are, they would not stand up to scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner continues his pre-announced mission of demolition:

  • He has already closed or ordered the closure of not less than 9 religious houses.
  • He has deposed all of the regional superiors and many local superiors, undaunted by canon law, which requires a grave cause to remove the holder of an ecclesiastical office.
  • The friars are prohibited from contributing to the magazines and journals published by the Institute’s press and from distributing its books.
  • Meetings of the Institute’s lay movement have been banned in Italy (where half of the religious houses are located) unless and until the members provide a written declaration of their support for the Commissioner’s renewal of the Institute.
  • The seminary has been closed, and the students have been told that not all of them will be allowed to resume their studies in the fall (at other faculties). A number of the students have been told they will not be allowed to renew their vows.
  • Permission from the Commissioner is required to provide spiritual assistance to the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate (to which the Institute has a duty to provide spiritual assistance in virtue of canonical aggregation of the two Institutes).
  • etc.

To prepare the rebuilding that is to follow the demolition, the Commissioner has organized secret meetings to reinvent the charism. Since something supposedly went wrong with the Founder, it is necessary to return what is called the “original charism,” even if this new charism will reject things like poverty in common, which was practiced from the very beginning. The handful of members of the Institute considered qualified to participate in this “renewal” of the charism are chosen from those who requested the Apostolic Visitation.

What really seems to be going on here is the clash between two visions of the Church and of religious life. On one side are the Prefect of the Congregation for Religious, who heartily approves of the reformed religious life practiced by the American sisters whose leadership has trouble with the CDF; the Apostolic Commissioner, who has praised Card. Martini and has said that Benedict XVI divided the Church with Summorum Pontificum; and a group of friars who reject the idea that the extraordinary form can be used alongside the ordinary form in the Institute’s life of prayer.

On the other side is Fr. Stefano and the majority of the friars, supported by various Cardinals and Bishops, who, however, don’t have the authority to intervene. These are supporters of the hermeneutic of continuity, who say that something is wrong with a reform of religious life that was accompanied by a dramatic loss of vocations. Fr. Stefano proposed a different kind of reform in 1970, one which continued to value the past instead of breaking with it. Bl. John Paul II approved this reform by personally intervening twice, in 1990 to create the Institute and in 1997 to make it of Pontifical Right. The Congregation for Religious apparently did not want it then and does not want it now. Perhaps it is embarrassing to have Institutes that follow its idea of religious life in decline while this one is flourishing. As in 1990, only the Pope can save it, but it is unclear whether he will do so—as, indeed, it was then.


Second Document: My Commentary on “State of the FFI”

The Historical Narrative

The narrative in “State of the FFI” regarding the history of the Commission claims that no legitimate reasons for its establishment were ever clearly described to the former superiors.  It is implied that this is because no reasons exist.  However, the account fails to  mention the Commissioner’s letter of 8 December 8 2013.  At the very least, multiple concrete reasons are given there.

Aside from this, however, there is absent from the narrative in “State of the FFI” an account of the history leading up to the Visitation and Commission, in which over the course of a number of years multiple friars brought various concerns to the General Superior.  The matters definitely brought before the General Superior regarded

  1. the authoritarian implementation of Summorum Pontificum,
  2. the manipulation of the General Chapter of 2008 in this regard,
  3. the traditionalist drift in the seminary and apostolic work,
  4. our association with known sympathizers of the traditionalist movement,
  5. the arbitrary character of the government of the Institute and absence of any mechanism to address this problem,
  6. the ways in which all these problems had been affecting the formation program,
  7. the influence of the former Mother General of the Sisters on the Founder,
  8. and the increasingly radicalized character of the sisters’ community.

In January of 2012 five friars who had served for many years in various senior capacities within the Institute met with the General Council (the Founder in absentia) in regard to the above specific concerns.  Not at that time, nor at any time since, has there ever been an admission by the former members of the General Council there were any serious problems within the community.  This is the context in which the five friars appealed to the Holy See, and then in which the Visitation was conducted and the Commission established.

Furthermore, over the course of the history of the Commission, friars within the Institute, such as the author of “State of the FFI,” have engaged in a propaganda campaign against the Commissioner and against the Holy See and have characterized the intervention of the Holy See as a move against Tradition and the old liturgy.  One of the principle traditionalist sympathizers with whom the former regime was associated, namely, Roberto de Mattei, has, since the establishment of the Commission, encouraged the friars to disobey the Holy See, has rejected the infallibility of the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XIII, and now is encouraging both friars and sisters to leave the Institute.  This simply confirms that the apprehension of the five appellants was well founded.

The implication of the narrative, that the former superiors do not understand why the Holy See has taken such drastic measures, is disingenuous and is simply more of the same denial and disinformation that led to the appeal in the first place.  One could reasonably surmise that if the Holy See was guarded in its manner of dealing with the former superiors, it was because it understood just how unscrupulous they are.

The List of Grievances 

The list of grievances following the historical narrative in “State of FFI” serves to confirm the above analysis.  It states that the removal of office holders by the Commissioner is contrary to canon law.  However, the Commission is already an extraordinary measure implemented by Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, against which the Holy Father has eliminated the possibility of appeal.  The list also notably fails to mention that among persons involved in the lay groups associated with the FI there is open rebellion against the Commissioner, or that the publishing apostolate is now controlled by laity that are rebellious against the Commissioner.  It also does not mention that the seminary has been a source of rebellion and that seminarians have been leaking information to traditionalist blogs that are working to sabotage the mission entrusted to the Commissioner by the Holy See.

The author of the narrative is also intellectually dishonest insofar as he claims that the Commissioner is committed to undoing poverty in common, when in fact the current version of the Directory, part of the Institute’s ecclesiastically approved legislation, includes a footnote, inserted by the former superiors, which allows the friars to control the entities established for the administration of goods:  “Where possible members of the corporation should be friars and sisters named by the Minister General and by the Mother General” (section 35, footnote 33). After the establishment of the Commission the former superiors extracted themselves from such control, but only to turn over the administration of goods to lay persons exclusively, thus alienating the goods of the Institute and effectively preventing the Commissioner from providing for the friars with such goods.  This is particularly the case of the house in Via Boccea, Rome, where laypersons are now effectively in control of the building and are evicting the friars from the premises.

Two Visions of the Church

“The State of the FFI” concludes by describing two different visions of the Church and religious life. The author places in opposition the vision of the Prefect for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life along with that of the Commissioner, on the one hand, and that of the Founder, on the other.

The author presumes to suggest that the Founder and the friars who support him advocate the “hermeneutic of continuity” taught by Benedict XVI, when, in fact, under the Founder’s direction our Institute became one of principle instruments of the traditionalist movement in Italy to undermine the authority of that same hermeneutic.  This is the kind of lie and half-truth that has been driving the Institute into deeper crisis for a very long time.

The author also suggests that the life of the friars over the last six years or more is consistent with what was established at the original formation of Casa Mariana in 1970, where and when the Founder received the charism.  Our founding document, the Traccia, expresses that charism in the following way:

A community life of Prayer, of Poverty, of Penance, in the spirit of the vow of total consecration to the Immaculate Virgin, so that She may transform us, like St. Francis, into Jesus Crucified, and make us Her instruments for the conquest of all souls for God (section 1).

He claims that in fact there has been no substantial change in the observance and that the appellants are simply rebelling against the charism and the Founder.  But the author knows that this is not true either.  The points listed above concerning arbitrary and autocratic governance, an observance of poverty that was in many ways only apparent, and a marked change in the spirit of the Institute in association with the adoption of traditionalist ideology, sufficiently indicate wherein the differences lie.

This is also a typical problem within the Institute and one that led to the appeal in the first place.  Concerns about the former superiors, their policies, and the changes they introduced into the observance, without the approval of either the General Chapter or of the Holy See have been simply dismissed out of hand.  The former superiors have interpreted such concerns, even when raised by senior friars, as groundless or as some modernist, liberal or laxist plot against the Founder or against the good of religious life.

In fact, what the appellants have complained about are aspects of our life that have been introduced moto proprio by the Founder and his confidants, and are not mandated by the approved legislation of our Institute.  The argument is not about the Traccia, Constitutions, or Directory, our ecclesiastically approved legislation. It is about the arbitrary rule of a small group of friars who abused their authority and then have used every Machiavellian tactic to protect it.  And they continue to do so.

This manifests a vision of the Church that is not consistent with a “hermeneutic of continuity,” because continuity requires harmonious integration into the life of the Church.  In fact, the author makes full ecclesial communion the problem, not the solution.  At the same time, the legitimate ecclesiastical superiors are cast as the villains.  This is especially ironic considering that our formation in the Marian Vow inculcates in us a radical form of religious obedience.  How can any such thing exist if it does not first mean radical obedience to the Church itself?

In the end, the “vision” of the Church offered by the author of “The State of the FFI” is not Catholic, that is, “universal,” but one mired in dissention.  It is closer to the one offered by the SSPX rather than one that can be located within the bounds of continuity.   It is not a vision of the Church but the promotion of a sect.

In this regard the legitimate magisterium is the solution not the problem, because our vocation as Franciscans is to rebuild the Church, not to tear it down.

Filed under: Catholicism, Church, Holy Father, Liturgy, News, Religion, Spirituality Tagged: Apostolic Commissioner, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Extraordinary Form, Father Fidenzio Volpi, Franciscan Friars the Immaculate, Pope Francis, Professor Roberto Mattei, Summorum Pontificum

Fr Angelo

Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

More posts by Fr Angelo