Pope Francis met privately in early June with seminarians belonging to the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception, a religious order placed under the direction of an apostolic commissioner a year earlier.
Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed Wednesday that Pope Francis met with the youngest members of the order June 10. "All the seminarians" of the order were invited, he said.
The meeting "demonstrates the interest with which Pope Francis follows the situation of the Franciscans of the Immaculate and his closeness to the work being undertaken by the commissioner," Lombardi said.
One of the decisions made by the commissioner, Capuchin Fr. Fidenzio Volpi, was to close the order's theological seminary. Lombardi said a search is underway for a house in Rome where those preparing for ordination can live while studying at the city's pontifical universities.
Announcing Volpi's appointment in July 2013, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life also issued a decree saying Pope Francis required all the friars "to celebrate the liturgy according to the ordinary rite," the post-Vatican II Mass, and that use of the extraordinary form, the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, "must be explicitly authorized by the competent authorities for every religious or community that makes a request."
Some Catholic bloggers and websites suggested the Vatican's aim in appointing a commissioner was to restrict use of the old Mass, but Lombardi said at the time that the move concerned the "life and governance of the congregation as a whole and not just liturgical questions."
Despite Lombardi's statement, the situation of the friars continues to provoke concern among Catholics who believe the religious are being punished for their dedication to the Mass in the extraordinary form.