Hype and Hope for the FFI

Separating wheat from chaff in the current controversies surrounding the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate

Pity the 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!

Victimization 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.  

Curiously 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 documentation—survey results, press releases, open letters, clarifications—posted 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.  

Background information

The 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 Institute.  

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.

Again, the 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.  

Disinformation campaign

“An 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.  

In 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 communications.  

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.  

VOLUNTARILY 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.

To 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 way.”  

Financial irregularities

One 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 action—his failure to protect the ecclesial character of the material goods of a Religious Institute of Pontifical Right.  No response.  

This startling 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 Apostolic Commissioner.

The 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 anecdote:

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].

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.