Capuchins aren’t generally known for being on the Church’s avant-garde, but the friars of the Mid-America Province just did something which, technically, they’re not supposed to do according to canon law. And, frankly, they’re pretty proud of it.

They elected Brother Mark Shenk, a lay friar, as their provincial minister.

The problem lies with Canon 129 Sect.1, which prohibits a lay person from holding jurisdiction over ordained men. This rule clashes with the Capuchins’ understanding of their constitution, which, in its latest form ratified by the Vatican in 2013, reads, “By reason of the same vocation, brothers are equal.” It goes on to say that “all of us are called brothers without distinction,” and all offices in the order are open to all brothers.

St. Francis, from whom the Capuchins trace their origins following one of the notorious fractures in the Franciscan family, was not a priest. Whether or not he was a deacon is a subject of some controversy, but what is undisputed is that his successor was not ordained. Brotherhood is the Franciscan tradition, and it’s something they continue to fight for in terms of who leads their provinces.

Capuchin-Franciscan Father Blaine Burkey says the distinction between brothers and fathers is irrelevant, because their “gift to the world is brotherhood.”

Twice before, the Capuchins have elected lay friars as provincial ministers. The first was Brother Ignatius Feaver of the Central Canadian Vice Province in 1983, who, according to the oral tradition, was approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (commonly known as the “Congregation for Religious”), only because the official who normally would have responded with a traditional ‘no’ was on vacation, so it went to someone else’s desk who mistakenly gave the okay.

Once approved, the congregation couldn’t take it back, but they did let the Capuchins know they were not to re-elect Feaver once his term was up.

In the second instance with Brother Robert Smith of the Calvary Province in 2008, the Congregation for Religious simply didn’t approve the choice and the province ended up electing someone else.

Although the Congregation for Religious vetoed Shenk initially too, he said he’s got friends in high places who went directly to Pope Francis and said something along the lines of, “Holy Father, this should happen.” In the end, he got the dispensation necessary to take office for a three-year term, though it’s uncertain what might happen if he is re-elected.

Shenk describes the Vatican process as byzantine.

“When I was elected, they notified our general minister. Since I was not a cleric he had to write a letter to the Congregation for Consecrated Life requesting them to grant the dispensation. Their automatic response is always ‘no, it’s not been our tradition to grant it.’ Even though they knew that would be the response, they still have to go through the process.”

Still, “I’m mildly hopeful that something will change,” says Shenk.

Now that Francis has set the precedent, Shenk said the Congregation for Religious could change some of its procedures so that they don’t deny permission for a non-ordained person out of hand, but instead take qualified people directly to the Holy Father for consideration.

Burkey too thinks Francis can make a difference, “especially his wanting to have lay people be involved in the leadership of the Church. He says that, and we hope he’ll actually push it rather than just reacting when the congregation comes to him.”

“We hope that it will someday become a more normal thing to do,” Burkey said, while adding, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Shenk, 62, hails from Olmitz, Kansas, and earned Master’s degrees in theology and divinity from Aquinas Institute in 1984 and a Master’s in business administration from Regis University in 2004. He worked for 22 years at the order’s international headquarters in Rome, where he was the first lay friar to be vicar of the General Curia fraternity (1993), the first lay secretary general of the Order (1994), and the first lay friar elected a general councilor of the Order (2006).

“We thought that he’s a very qualified person and he had much wider experience than practically anyone in the provinces, having worked 22 years at the international level. He’s dealt with all the English-speaking Capuchins throughout the world and can bring a lot of wisdom to our province that many another friar being here their whole life would not have,” Burkey said.

Shenk says that when he entered the order, “the question of priesthood or brotherhood did not enter into the picture initially.” Later, even though he did all the preparations for the priesthood, he “never felt a strong call” to it but did it due to what he “thought were the expectations of others.”

He suspects that when the question of why he chose to stay a brother is asked, “There’s a second part to the question, namely, ‘instead of becoming a priest?’” In spite of others’ presumed expectations he stayed the course, because he felt “it was not my calling, and I didn’t think the world needed a lukewarm priest.”

Shenk uses the tongue-in-cheek ‘Just A Brother’ title both in his Twitter handle and his blog bringing the point home.

With all of the drama of will they or won’t they, when asked the most basic question of whether or not he’s happy with the job, Shenk starts off with a sigh.

“I wasn’t expecting it, I never would’ve asked for it, but I’ve always said however I could be of service to the brothers I want to do it. In that sense I’m happy because it’s a great affirmation from the brothers.”

He says he thinks he’ll be happy in the job “once I figure things out and get things under control.”

“It’s really overwhelming when you step into it. In Rome, I did everything on my own. Suddenly I have to think about keeping an office environment happy. I also have to look after almost 70 friars and their spiritual needs and their human needs and also then look over the health of the province in terms of the financial health of the province. I have to pay attention to donors, so it’s trying to find the balance among these various things.”

Burkey is confident that he will find that balance and the Capuchins made the right choice.

“I voted for him, and I’m happy that he was chosen,” he said.