Franciscans

Franciscans

Franciscans is the common designation for a number of religious communities professing to live according to the ideals of Francis of Assisi (1181/1182–1226). In 1206 Francis withdrew to the margins of society to adopt the life of a penitent hermit. His vocation received a decisive focus in 1208, when others joined him and he was inspired to "live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel," as he called it, "following the footsteps and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Testament, 14; Earlier Rule, 1.1 [Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, I: 63-64, 125]). Within Francis's lifetime his followers organized into three distinct but related orders: his own Lesser Brothers; communities of contemplative women under the leadership of Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), known now as Poor Clare nuns; and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, laypersons who wished to remain in the midst of society, later commonly known as the Third Order. Although they differed in their manner of expression, all were based on Francis's vision of a gospel way of life. The concrete implications of this vision have often led to bitter internal dissension over the course of Franciscan history.

The Order of Lesser Brothers (the literal meaning of Ordo Fratrum Minorum, commonly translated as Friars Minor) began as a largely lay movement of hermits and itinerant preachers. They lived on a mere subsistence level, without any permanent residences, supporting themselves by whatever trade they knew or by begging. Despite the radical nature of this way of life, Francis and his companions received initial papal approbation in 1209/1210. However, the new order underwent a rapid transformation over the ensuing decades. First of all, its phenomenal growth—by 1221 there were about three thousand brothers—demanded greater internal discipline and organization. At the same time the papacy recognized in the movement a potent instrument of church reform and increasingly intervened to oversee and channel its growth. Cardinal Hugolino di Segni, later Pope Gregory IX, played an important role in these developments. Historians have long debated Francis's own attitude toward this process, already evident in the definitive 1223 version of his rule. In any event by midcentury the friars were primarily engaged in the official pastoral ministry of the church, especially preaching and hearing confessions. The friars increasingly abandoned their hermitages to settle down in urban residences attached to a church, where they adopted more traditional patterns of religious life and pursued theological studies. In light of the new demands placed upon them, the brothers' rigorous observance of poverty was relaxed by several papal interventions. The houses of the order at such academic centers as Paris and Oxford soon produced some of the greatest masters of Scholastic theology, such as Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham.
 
Within the order, however, there was a significant resistance to these new directions. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, various minority factions, known collectively as Spirituals, demanded a literal observance of the rule and refused to submit to the modifications accepted by the majority of friars. The increasingly bitter internal conflict eventually led to the outright persecution of the Spirituals, culminating in a decision by John XXII in 1323 to brand as heretical the opinion that Christ and his apostles had led a life of absolute poverty. The Friars Minor thus gradually conformed to the practice of common ownership of property that was standard among other religious orders.
 
During the latter part of the fourteenth century, however, a reaction set in, with small groups of friars receiving permission to retire to remote houses to observe a more primitive form of Franciscan life. This movement, known as the Observant reform, gained momentum in the next century under such leaders as Bernardino of Siena, ultimately achieving virtual autonomy within the order. Nevertheless, relations between those friars who accepted this reform and those who did not, known as Conventuals (from the conventi, or large houses, they favored), grew increasingly acrimonious, leading Leo X in 1517 to divide the order into two independent congregations.
 
Over the course of the sixteenth century, the contemporary zeal for church reform continued to spawn new movements within the order, motivated by the desire for even stricter forms of Franciscan life. The largest of these, the Capuchins, so called because of the distinctive hood (cappuccino) of their habit, played a prominent role during the Counter-Reformation as popular preachers; they achieved the status of an independent congregation in 1619. Other groups of stricter observance—Discalced, Recollect, and Reformed friars—attained a large measure of autonomy while remaining under the leadership of the Observant general. Despite this fragmentation, the Friars Minor prospered between 1500 and 1750, a period that also witnessed a vast missionary effort by Franciscans, who accompanied Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonial expansion. By 1760 the Friars Minor had reached their peak membership, totaling 135,000 in their three branches.
 
Franciscans, especially the Conventuals, suffered greatly during the years 1760–1880, when secularizing government policies in Europe and Latin America restricted traditional religious orders. However, in the latter part of the nineteenth century a revival took place, accompanied by critical research into early Franciscan sources. Also, under papal initiative, the various groups within the Observant branch were reunited in 1897 under the simple name of the Order of Friars Minor. After 1965, Franciscans experienced a period of profound renewal and transition in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized a return to the founding vision of Francis. In 2002 there were 16,300 Friars Minor, 10,800 Capuchins, and 4,500 Conventuals. There is also a small community of friars, the Society of Saint Francis, in the Anglican Church.
 
The Poor Clares, sometimes referred to as the Second Order, date from 1212, when Clare, of a noble Assisi family, renounced her social status and received the habit from Francis. Under his direction, Clare and her companions followed a simple form of life, but Cardinal Hugolino intervened in 1219, prescribing regulations that emphasized monastic observances, such as a strict cloister. Clare managed to gain approval for her own rule embodying her vision of poverty in 1253. Because each monastery of Poor Clares is largely autonomous, practices have varied greatly. A reform, analogous to the Observance among the friars, was begun by Colette of Corbie in the fourteenth century. In 2002 there were more than eight hundred monasteries of Poor Clares with fourteen thousand nuns.
 
Francis can be called the founder of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, or Third Order, only in an analogous sense. His preaching of gospel conversion moved many of his hearers to reform their lives, and so he sought to prescribe for these individuals a way of life appropriate to their respective social conditions. Some became hermits, whereas others continued to live in their own homes but formed confraternities for mutual support. Rules for these local groups were developed in 1221; the fraternities developed closer relations with the friars over the course of the century. This Order of Penance was characterized by a simple way of life, engaging in works of charity, and the refusal to bear arms. The tertiaries were a potent religious and social force in late medieval society. In the latter part of the thirteenth century, some of these Franciscan penitents began living together in communities, eventually binding themselves under religious vows. The rule of this Third Order Regular received definitive form in 1521. During the nineteenth century there was a veritable explosion of congregations of women following this rule devoted to teaching, nursing, and other charitable activities. In 2002 there were over 450 distinct congregations of Franciscan sisters, with approximately 100,000 members and about 1,500 male members of the Third Order Regular. Meanwhile, the secular Franciscan fraternities continued to expand, but their countercultural way of life increasingly conformed outwardly to general societal norms; they numbered over one million in 2002. After Vatican II both branches of the Third Order revised their rule of life, attempting to return more closely to their original inspiration.
 
Bibliography
 
A general survey of the entire Franciscan movement is L├ízaro Iriarte de Aspurz, Franciscan History: The Three Orders of St. Francis of Assisi (Chicago, 1982). For the medieval period, John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Oxford, 1968) is valuable. However, research during the late twentieth century significantly nuanced the understanding of early Franciscan history. The biographical sources on Francis, valuable for the understanding of the early movement, have been gathered in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, three volumes (New York, 1999–2001. A good summary is Maria Pia Alberzoni et al., Francesco d'Assisi e il primo secolo di storia francescana (Turin, Italy, 1997). David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century after Saint Francis (University Park, Pa., 2001), provides an excellent survey of that movement. Maurice Carmody, The Leonine Union of the Order of Friars Minor, 1897 (St. Bonaventure, N.Y., 1994), presents the nineteenth-century revival. The best introduction to the Third Order Regular women's congregations is Raffaele Pazzelli, The Franciscan Sisters: Outlines of History and Spirituality (Steubenville, Ohio, 1993).
 

Dominic V. Monti

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