We begin our reflection on Chapters in the Franciscan Tradition with a small clarification of the word that Francis of Assisi used: “What does capitulum mean?”
Since the 8th century monks, after Prime, gathered to listen to the reading of a “chapter” (capitulum) of the Rule of St. Benedict. Bit by bit, the meeting itself came to be called “the chapter,” and the room where it was held, “the chapter room.” In monasteries there were “chapters” of two types:
1) The first was for Consultation: the abbot asked the advice of the community on some issue;
2) The second was for Formation: the abbot commented on the reading from the Rule.
The “General Chapter” was established by the Cistercians in 1195. All the abbots met each year at Cîteaux (France).
In November 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, that Francis attended, decided that religious orders must celebrate chapters periodically, as a means for reform of religious life, following the example of the Cistercians:
In every ecclesiastical province there shall be held every three years, saving the right of the diocesan ordinaries, a general chapter of abbots and of priors having no abbots, who have not been accustomed to celebrate such chapters. This shall be held in a monastery best adapted to this purpose and shall be attended by all who are not canonically impeded, with this restriction, however, that no one bring with him more than six horses and eight persons. In inaugurating this new arrangement, let two neighboring abbots of the Cistercian order be invited to give them counsel and opportune assistance, since among them the celebration of such chapters is of long standing. These two Cistercians shall without hindrance choose from those present two whom they consider the most competent, and these four shall preside over the entire chapter, so that no one of these four may assume the authority of leadership; should it become expedient, they may be changed by prudent deliberation. Such a chapter shall be celebrated for several consecutive days according the custom of the Cistercian order. During its deliberations careful attention is to be given to the reform of the order and to regular observance, and what has been enacted with the approval of the four shall be observed inviolably by all, excuses, contradictions, and appeals to the contrary notwithstanding. In each of these chapters the place for the holding of the following one is to be determined. All those in attendance, even if for want of room many must occupy other houses, must live the vita communis and bear proportionately all common expenses. In the same chapter religious and prudent persons should be appointed who, in our name, shall visit every abbey in the province, not only of monks but also of nuns, according to a form prescribed for them, correcting and reforming those things that need correction and reform….
(Lateran Council IV, canon 12)
Francis and his early companions began regular meetings for mutual encouragement and support, admonition and correction early in their life together. Each of these would later be called capitulum (“chapter”) after the example of the Cistercians.