I recently attended the Formation Meeting of the Capuchin Lay Brothers of Northern Italy, where I was asked to speak about the international gathering held in 1996 on The Lay Expressions of the Capuchin Vocation. It was a good exercise for me to look back at the issues that were of major concern for lay brothers eleven years ago, and how those issues have been addressed since then. I thought I would summarize my presentation in this forum. I spoke about five issues: the number of lay brothers in the Order; formation and vocation promotion; ministry; service of authority; and the perception of lay brothers in the Order, Church and society. I will present each topic in a separate blog entry.
In 1996, many friars, myself included, were concerned that the lay dimension of the Capuchin Order was headed for extinction. Paul Hinder stated in his opening address to the gathering that at 17% the percentage of lay brothers in the Order had never been as low as it was in those years. Furthermore, the percentage of lay brothers in the areas of the world with the greatest number of vocations at that time, especially Africa and Asia, was among the lowest in the Order. It looked at the time as if the percentage of brothers who chose not to be ordained would only decrease over time.
Looking back now, it appears that those fears were unfounded. The percentage of lay friars in the Order has slightly increased since 1996. In preparation for these talks, I used the General Curia’s databases to find the percentage of friars making perpetual profession between 1930 and the present who were not ordained six years after their perpetual profession—in other words, the percentage who originally chose to be lay friars. The results, shown by the blue line in the graph below, were interesting (click on the graph to open a larger version in a new window).
The percentage varied from year to year, but there was a clear cyclical trend of periods when more friars chose to remain lay and periods when fewer friars made this choice. The period of the cycle was approximately 15 years. The lowest percentage occurred in 1980, when only 11% of friars chose the lay state. The highest percentage—33%—was in 1969. On average, 20% of friars in this time period chose to be lay friars. I also studied the percentage of friars in the same time period who remained lay friars for their whole lives. On the whole, about two percent of the friars making profession during the period of the study chose to be ordained more than six years after their perpetual profession, which means that about 18% of friars ultimately chose to remain lay friars. There is a slight increase in recent years in the number of friars choosing to be ordained later in life, which is attributable, I think, to the fact that friars are now free to choose between being ordained or not, whereas in the past the choice was often made for them by their superiors.