poor Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, persecuted by heartless
bureaucrats who despise all things preconciliar! Weep for their
Superior General, put under house arrest, his councilors banished to Earth’s remotest ends! Woe to the Vatican commissar, systematically
demolishing the community, its charism, and its apostolic works!
by the authorities makes for gripping headlines. Since Capuchin
Father Fidenzio Volpi was appointed in July 2013 as Apostolic
Commissioner to govern the FFI temporarily, the Italian press has
publicized a steady stream of serious accusations: the spokesman for
the community had acted treacherously and exceeded his authority;
severe penalties were imposed on the aged founder, Father Stefano
Manelli, without due canonical process. French-, German-, and
English-language traditional Catholic websites and blogs have spread the
stories as proof positive that insidious forces in the Vatican Curia
are dead-set on eradicating the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
absent from all these accounts is any explanation grounded in fact of
the actions taken by the Apostolic Commissioner in governing the FFI.
Seemingly harsh decisions made by Father Volpi are reported, but not
his own stated reasons for those decisions. Instead, every real or
perceived slight, setback, inconvenience, or disciplinary measure is
ascribed to hostility toward the traditional Latin Mass and those
devoted to it.
The axiom “Audiatur et altera pars” applies
here: “The other side deserves a hearing.” This article calls
attention to some basic facts that have been overlooked in the
media hype and summarizes Father Volpi’s written responses to a number
of objections and accusations. The source material used is the
Italian-language documentationsurvey results, press releases, open
letters, clarificationsposted at the order's website, www.immacolata.com.
Note that Catholic World Report respects
the confidentiality of internal communications of the Apostolic
Commissioner with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and will
neither publish nor comment on their contents, unless and until such
documents are posted on the official website of the religious community.
Institute of Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate was founded in 1970
by Father Stefano M. Manelli and Father Gabriel M. Pelletieri, who were
then Conventual Franciscan Friars. Their purpose was to renew
Franciscan consecrated life based on historical Franciscan sources, the
spirituality of Maximilian Kolbe, and the conciliar decree Perfectae caritatis.
As they started their austere life of prayer, penance, and apostolic
work, they chose as their new home the poorest friary in the Province of
Naples, located in Piano della Croce in Frigento. One year later they
started a novitiate, and in 1975 an internal seminary. The Franciscan
Sisters of the Immaculate were founded by the same co-founders in 1982,
with the specific apostolate of diffusing the Gospel through the mass
media. In 1990 the archbishop of Benevento granted the institute of
friars the status of Diocesan Right. That same year, an affiliated
public association of laypeople was founded, the Militia of the
Immaculate Mediatrix. The FFI rapidly spread worldwide, and based on
recommendations from many bishops it was officially recognized by the
Holy See as an Institute of Pontifical Right on January 1, 1998, the
Solemnity of the Mother of God. The Holy See approved the Sisters’
Institute on November 9, 1998.
In 2012, five Franciscan Fathers
from the motherhouse at the Casa Mariana Frigento formally petitioned
the Congregation for Religious, asking them to intervene, because they
had found it impossible to dialogue with Father Manelli about the
governance of their tripartite community. As a result, the Holy See
ordered an apostolic visitation of the Institute, which took place from
July 2012 to July 2013.
No one disputes the fact that the FFI is
one of the rare postconciliar religious communities that has thrived
and done excellent apostolic and missionary work. It is naive, however,
to assume that the government of a fledgling institute with three
branches should be running smoothly and trouble-free less than 15 years
after it received papal approval. The call to Rome for help came, not
from a handful of malcontents, as they are often portrayed, but from
friars who had collaborated closely with the Minister General of the
On September 19, 2013, authorization was obtained
from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life to publish the
results of a questionnaire sent by the Apostolic Visitor to all the
friars in perpetual vows. Slightly less than two-fifths said that the
Minister General was governing well; 61 percent said that there were
significant problems. Of the latter group, almost three quarters
thought that the problems could not be resolved by an Ordinary General
Chapter but required either an Extraordinary General Chapter or a
Vatican-appointed Commissioner. The response to the question about the
Minister General’s decisions in liturgical matters was similar: almost
two to one, the friars admitted that there were problems, and about half
of the respondents said that extraordinary measures were needed to
resolve them (77 percent of 64 percent = 49.3 percent). Finally, more than half (53 percent) said that the Superior General’s relations with the Sisters’ Institute were problematic, and of them, 85 percent considered extraordinary measures necessary.
argument that all was well until Vatican bureaucrats unfairly singled
out the “conservative” FFI for persecution is baseless. Members of a
religious community, like loyal members of a family, usually do not air
their disagreements in public but try to deal with them privately. The
statistics summarized above clearly indicate that it was high time for
the FFI to seek outside help from the authorities in Rome and that there
was significant support for that petition.
encyclopedia of accusations” has been leveled in the press
against Father Fidenzio Volpi and several friars who are assisting him
in his work as Apostolic Commissioner. In a letter to the Franciscan
Friars of the Immaculate dated November 27, Father Volpi had to defend
“our dear Confrere Father Alfonso Maria Bruno, whom I called to the
difficult and demanding job of Secretary General of the Institute
[against] a long, persistent, and malicious campaign of defamation.” He
was alternately accused, in the blogosphere and even at the laymen’s
MIM meetings, of overstepping his authority and betraying the FFI. The
Commissioner recalled that there are canonical penalties for calumny
against a priest, because of the harm not only to the individual’s good
name but also to the Church and/or religious community and its work.
an open letter to Mario Nevano dated December 6, Father Volpi denied
that Father Bruno had acted independently and claimed responsibility for
all official documents that he himself had signed. He asked
rhetorically: If Father Bruno had harmed the Institute by acting
insubordinately, why were no canonical proceedings brought against him?
Even before the Apostolic Commissioner was
appointed, Father Bruno had served the FFI responsibly as director of
The recurring charge that the founder had been
placed under “house arrest” may have started with an article by Luisella
Scrosati published in early autumn at the website LibertÀ e Persona,
in which she assumed that canon 1337, concerning the “expiatory
penalty” prohibiting a religious from residing in a certain place, had
been applied unfairly and improperly to Father Manelli. In
response, Father Volpi explained that no canonical sanction was
involved; that it was a normal administrative procedure by the
competent authority of the Institute. “Father Stefano Manelli was
assigned, like all religious, to a conventual house, and
moreover procedures concerning his residence therein were determined.
[He] in no way contested this measure and made no complaint in this
regard; he had recourse neither to me personally nor to any other
religious Authority.” Father Manelli was assigned to the house “in
which he already habitually lived by his own choice, and was able, with
previous authorization, to travel ... outside the diocesan territory.”
In his patient reply on October 9 to another challenge from
Signora Scrosati, Father Volpi explained that the operative law in the
matter was canon 665, about the residence of religious, together with
article 26 of the Constitutions of the Institute: “The Marian Vow, by
virtue of the unlimited character of the Consecration to the Immaculate,
obliges the friars to have a ‘missionary spirit’, in other words, to be
willing to be sent even to mission territory or to any other place, for
obedience’ sake.” He denied again that Father Manelli was under “house
arrest”, since even without permission he was absolutely free to move
about within the diocese where his religious house is located; nor was
he “on probation”, since there was no probation officer to keep track of
his movements. Father Volpi himself had determined the procedures to
be followed by Father Manelli regarding his residence, because it would
show little respect for the founder of the FFI to ask him to take orders
from anyone other than the highest authority of the Institute. In a
later posting, the Apostolic Commissioner pointed out that the ability
to travel long-distance without permission would make Father Manelli a
second de facto General Superior.
The December 6 letter
to Signore Nevano, posted at the Institute website, also explains why
communications with Father Manelli are now restricted.
he asked and received permission to be admitted to a trusted private
clinic, which made it impossible for him to respond to my summons to a
conference concerning the situation of the Institute or to receive
visits, as the treating physician attested in a certificate addressed to
me. At that point, for the purpose of safeguarding the health of the
Religious, I decided that the medical prescription should be accompanied
by a canonical prescription to the same effect. I then wrote him a
letter, asking him to provide his answers in writing. These answers
proved to be altogether evasive and unsatisfactory, since he did not
reply to some of my simple direct questions.... The isolation in which
Father Manelli finds himself is therefore to be ascribed to the
responsibility of the healthcare staff, and not to any decision of mine.
put it bluntly: Father Manelli has been uncooperative, using poor
health as an excuse not to communicate about his foundation with the
Apostolic Commissioner. Therefore the latter responded: “Have it your
key question that Father Manelli refuses to answer concerns the
temporalities of the Institute, which are managed by associations of
laymen. (Signore Nevano is a partner in one of them.) The statutes of
these proprietary associations were revised so as to exclude the
Superior General from any future act of disposing of those goods.
Father Manelli previously approved that revision. Father Volpi wrote,
asking whether he realized the consequences of his actionhis failure to
protect the ecclesial character of the material goods of a Religious
Institute of Pontifical Right. No response.
revelation was overlooked in the furor that resulted when a letter dated
December 8 from the Apostolic Commissioner to all the friars was
leaked. What was supposed to be a traditional Advent letter to
confreres with spiritual exhortations started round two in the media.
Yes, the ecclesiastical authorities have really begun to clamp down. No, CWR will not discuss the particulars of the December 8 letter. It is clear enough from the earlier documentation posted at www.immacolata.com that:
Some friars and lay associates who resented the appointment of an
Apostolic Commissioner initiated no legal recourse against that
disciplinary measure but instead started a media campaign of
disinformation and vilification, aided and abetted by some
traditionalist groups and by members of the media who have little love
for the Church.
- Fr. Volpi wrote in a ‘Reply of October 9, 2013,’ that ‘The General
Chapter of the Female Institute presumed to deliberate in a matter that does not fall within its competence
by modifying the norms that govern the appointment of friars
responsible for providing spiritual assistance in the religious houses
of the Sisters...’” [emphasis in the Italian original].
Father Stefano M. Manelli imposed Mass in Latin as the only form of
celebration permitted in the seminary and novitiates; again, this
substantially modified the character of FFI formation and de facto changed the constitutions of the Institute without prior approval.
The right to dispose of movable and immovable property of the Institute
was transferred to a family member of the founder, specifically
to Father Manelli’s brother-in-law, Antonio Allocca, with his
appointment as secretary of the association responsible for
those ecclesiastical goods.
In light of these facts, the current
petition drive started by laymen calling for the resignation of Father
Volpi is laughable. It has been officially disavowed by the FFI, as was
an earlier petition drive in 2012 against the appointment of an
final word on these unhappy revelations about the FFI should go to
their current acting Superior General, Father Volpi, who had done his
best to keep the lid on. On the occasion of the ceremony on
August 31 in which 14 friars made their perpetual profession, the
Apostolic Commissioner sent a written message. He concluded it with an
One day a
father was watching his little son, who was trying to move a very heavy
vase of flowers. The child strained and puffed and grumbled, but could
not budge the vase even an inch.
“Have you made every effort?” the father asked him.
“Yes,” the boy replied.
“That’s not true,” the father retorted, “because you did not ask me to help you."
Editor's note: The following corrections were made to this article by the author and editors on January 6, 2014:
1. The following inaccurate statement: “Finally, more than half (53 percent) said that relations with the Superior General of the Sisters’ Institute were problematic, and of them, 85 percent considered extraordinary measures necessary,” should read: “Finally, more than half (53 percent) said that the Superior General’s relations with the Sisters’ Institute were problematic, and of them, 85 percent considered extraordinary measures necessary.”
2. The following inaccurate statement: “The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate tried to modify their constitutions without seeking the approval of Rome so that they could select their own spiritual directors exclusively from among the Friars who promote the Extraordinary Form of the Mass,” should read: “Fr. Volpi wrote in a ‘Reply of October 9, 2013,’ that ‘The General Chapter of the Female Institute presumed to deliberate in a matter that does not fall within its competence by modifying the norms that govern the appointment of friars responsible for providing spiritual assistance in the religious houses of the Sisters...’” [emphasis in the Italian original].