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Franciscans, First Order


The popular name for the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.), founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The formal English term, "Friars Minor," is a literal translation of the Latin fratres minores ("Lesser Brothers"). Over the centuries the Order of Friars Minor has split into several independent congregations. Their common history is treated in this article.

The Lesser Brothers emerged from the "form of Gospel life" chosen by Francis (1181/821226) and his first companions in Assisi. Research into their origins over the past quarter of a century has emphasized the essentially lay origins of the movement. Their call "to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ" led Francis and his brothers "to leave the world" by rejecting the structures of Assisi's communal life to live at the margins of society among the poor and the outcasts. Although the life of these early "Lesser Brothers" had a strong eremetical element, they also were convinced they had an evangelical mission to their society. Supporting themselves by whatever trade they knew or by begging, they engaged in informal street preaching to call their hearers to a committed Christian life. The little band received initial papal approval in 1209. What quickly set the Lesser Brothers apart from many other lay penitential groups was their phenomenal expansion, both numerical and geographical. By 1217, they had decided to spread north of the Alps and to the Crusader States, even to Muslim "unbelievers." By 1221, there were between three and five thousand brothers.

Both the Lesser Brothers' rapid growth and their desire to gain official canonical recognition of their novel way of life led them to develop greater internal organization. They soon began conforming to many of the patterns of traditional religious life. A formal version of Francis's Rule of Life was definitively approved in 1223. At the same time, the complexion of the community was quickly changing, as more and more clerics were drawn to the apostolic ideals of the brotherhood. The popes, especially Gregory IX, who canonized Francis in 1228, recognized in the Franciscan movement a potent instrument to implement the pastoral reform vision of the Fourth Lateran Council and increasingly intervened to oversee and channel its growth to this end.

Early Developments. The attitude of Francis himself toward these developments continues to be debated by historians. In any event, whether viewed as a betrayal or a providential evolution, by mid-century the life of the Lesser Brothers was largely focused on the official pastoral ministry of the Church, especially doctrinal and moral preaching and the hearing of confessions. A predominantly lay brotherhood had become an order of educated clerics; the friars largely abandoned their rural hermitages, settling down in urban residences similar to those of canons regular, following a traditional conventual routine with churches to accommodate their growing clientele. To support these apostolic tasks, the earlier strict poverty was relaxed by several Papal interventions. The study houses of the Order in such academic centers as Paris and Oxford produced some of the greatest masters of Scholastic theology, such as Bonaventure (+1274),

John Duns Scotus (+1308), and William of Ockham (+1347).

This rapid transformation provoked serious external and internal crises. Many clergy resented what they viewed as the intrusion of the new mendicant orders armed with papal privilegesinto the pastoral ministry entrusted to them. Largely exempt from the local hierarchy, the friars' churches were drawing away their audience and their incomes. Their complaints found a voice in a strong theological attack on both the life and ministry of the mendicant orders mounted by several prominent theologians of the University of Paris between 1254 and 1271. The brothers, led by Bonaventure (General Minister from 1257 to 1274), responded by constructed an ideology justifying their pastoral ministry in the Church. They saw their mission as grounded in their perfect observance of the life of Christ and his apostles, particularly evident in their distinctive renunciation of the ownership

of property and the use of money. Supported by the papacy, the Franciscans beat back the attempt of some bishops to suppress or restrict them at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. In 1279 Nicholas III issued an apostolic constitution, Exiit Qui Seminat, which upheld the Franciscan ideology on poverty as official church teaching and also ruled on disputed points of religious observance among the friars. The latter points to the severe crisis of identity that was tearing apart the Order from within.

Poverty Controversy. A vocal minority had resisted the new orientations from the outset; by the end of the century, reacting against what they saw as increasing laxism among the main body of brothers, a protest movement, known as the Spirituals, formed. Influenced by the apocalyptic views of joachim of fiore, the Spirituals considered Francis as a prophetic sign of a coming age of renewal in the Church. Any betrayal of his practice of poverty "to the letter' could therefore only be viewed as surrender to the forces of the carnal institutional Church of a passing age. The increasingly acrimonious debate within the Order eventually led to outright schism on the part of the Spirituals and their eventual suppression in a series of decisions by John XXII between 1317 and 1329. However, in the process John also re-interpreted Exiit, condemning the characteristic Franciscan doctrine of the absolute poverty of Christ. The elected leadership of the Order, aided by the writings of William of Ockham, refused to submit to these decisions; they rejected John as a false Pope, seeking refuge in Bavaria with the Emperor Louis IV. The vast majority of the Order remained faithful to John, but with the theoretical underpinnings of their distinctive observance now undercut, the Lesser Brothers soon conformed to the pattern of common ownership of property customary among other religious.

During the latter part of the 14th century, however, a certain reaction to this accommodation set in, with small groups of friars seeking permission to retire to remote houses to live a more primitive form of Franciscan life. Besides attempting to conform to the earlier practice of poverty, this movement, known as the Observant reform, also stressed the eremetical dimension of Franciscan life and the fundamental equality of all friars. These aims originally limited the reformers' engagement in organized pastoral ministries. As the movement gained momentum in the 15th century, tensions within the Order increased between these "Observant" friars and those who wished to maintain the now-traditional practices, known as "Conventuals." This was partially due to the fact that more and more Observants, such as Bernardino of Siena (+1444), were increasingly engaged in the ministry of itinerant popular preaching, thus bringing them into pastoral competition with their Conventual brethren. Wishing to preserve and promote their vision of Franciscan life, the Observants sought protection from superiors they viewed as lax. The papacy acquiesced, granting them virtual autonomy within the structures of the Order in 1446. However, the acrimony between the two parties only continued to increase, finally forcing an ultimate solution: in 1517, Pope Leo X divided the Order into two independent congregations, the Friars Minor of the Regular Observance and the Friars Minor Conventual.

More Divisions. The Regular Observance thus created in 1517 had merged together various local reforms with differing standards. Very quickly, friars dissatisfied with the settlement initiated movements of "stricter observance," leading to the further splintering of the Franciscan Order. The largest of these, originally known as the Friars Minor of the Eremetical Life, but popularly called Capuchin Friars ("the brothers with little hoods") because of their distinctive habit, quickly achieved autonomy in 1528. Characterized by their zeal for the ideals of the primitive Franciscan fraternity and for an intense blending of its contemplative and missionary energies, the Capuchins grew rapidly, playing a prominent role as popular preachers during the Counter-Reformation. They gained total independence as a third congregation of Friars Minor, under their own general minister, in 1619.

Other groups seeking a more austere life also appeared, although they remained under the jurisdiction of the Observant General: the Discalced, led by Peter of Alcantara (+1562), in Spain and Portugal; the Reformed, concentrated in Italy and Eastern Europe; and the Recollects, in France, Germany, the Low Countries, and the British Isles. These three families of "stricter observance" gained considerable autonomy within the Observant branch, organized into their own provinces with their own distinctive statutes. Despiteor because of this process of continual fragmentation, the Franciscans flourished during the Counter-Reformation and Baroque periods. They were notably active as missionaries: the Observants and Capuchins within the Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonial dominions, the Conventuals in Eastern Europe. By 1760, the Order reached its peak membership, totaling 130,000 friars in the three congregations.

The next century brought a series of wrenching crises for the Franciscans. First, the Enlightenment reform policies of Spain, Portugal, France, and the Austrian Empire drastically limited recruitment to the Order. Then, in the wake of the French Revolution, governments inspired by liberal anticlerical ideologies suppressed religious houses in a number of European countries. Finally, Bismarck's Kulturkampf banished the friars from much of Germany in 1875. The breakdown of communal life and the challenge of modern values caused a lack of identity for many Franciscans. By 1880, the three branches of Friars Minor had been reduced to a total of only 25,000 friars. However, new ground for expansion providentially appeared at this point in the rapidly growing church in the United States.

Move to the Americas. Franciscans had been in the Americas from the very beginnings of European exploration. Between 1493 and 1820 almost 8,500 Spanish Franciscansmost members of the Regular Observanceset out for the New World. In what is now the United States, the first permanent Franciscan missions among Native Americans date to the late 16th century. Friars arrived in Florida in 1573, gradually establishing a chain of 36 missions, but the native population was soon depleted due to disease, desertion, and incursions by English raiders. By the early 18th century, only a few Christian Indians remained in the vicinity of St. Augustine. Franciscans also accompanied the Spanish colonizing expedition to New Mexico in 1598, quickly establishing missions among the Pueblo nation. Later efforts extended the evangelizing efforts

of Spanish friars to Texas in 1716, Arizona in 1767, and California in 1769. The Franciscan presence in the Southwest began to unravel in the late 18th century, as Spanish and then Mexican policies of secularization gradually forced the withdrawal of the friars from these areas. Franciscans were also active in the French colonies. Recollect friars labored along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes beginning in 1615; the Capuchins in Acadia from 1632, and in Louisiana from 1722. This presence was dramatically curtailed when New France was ceded to England in 1763.

Although a few missionaries and refugee friars continued to minister in the United States in the early 19th century, Franciscans were able to establish a stable and enduring presence only with the great waves of European immigrants that arrived between 1840 and 1920. The oldest Franciscan jurisdictions presently in the United States trace their origins to friars who came to labor among German-speaking immigrants. Observant friars arrived in Cincinnati in 1844, Conventuals in Texas in 1852, and Capuchins in Wisconsin in 1857. As Italian and Eastern European immigrants began arriving later in the century, friars from those nations arrived to serve them, forming new jurisdictions. The needs of this immigrant population greatly shaped Franciscan life and ministry in the United States, establishing it in patterns quite different from the experience of most friars in Europe. In America, the predominant ministries were parishes and schools; the demands of these institutions forced the modification of the more monastic style of Franciscan life characteristic in Europe, especially in the many smaller houses. But America proved to be fertile soil for Franciscans; by 1960, the Observant friars, generally called simply Franciscans in the United States, were organized into six provinces and several smaller units, with 3,600 friars; the Capuchins into five jurisdictions with 1,100 friars, and the Conventuals into four provinces with 1,000 friars.

New Developments. Meanwhile, in the late 19th century the Order in Europe began experiencing both a numerical and a spiritual rebirth. All three branches of the Order attempted to reestablish Franciscan life by fostering a return to traditional observances and the Order's intellectual tradition. In terms of Franciscan institutional history, the great event of this period was the Leonine Union of 1897, whereby the Recollect, Discalced, and Reformed families were merged back into the Regular Observance to create one Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.). Participating in the neo-Scholastic revival of the period, the three Franciscan congregations established general study houses in Rome and attempted to recover the distinctive insights of Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus. The period of historical retrieval culminated in the late 1960s with new critical attention on the writings of Francis himself.

This coincided with the massive efforts to renew the Order's life and mission in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The consequent attempts over the next 30 years to redefine the Franciscan charism and refound the Order on that basis resulted in both liberating and creative ventures and wrenching internal dislocations. Franciscans of all three of the major branches have been part of the general phenomenon of the decline of vocations to religious life, especially in the industrialized nations where the Order had been most strongly established in recent centuries. At the dawn of third Christian millennium, the Friars Minor (O.F.M.) worldwide numbered 17,000, with 1,800 in the United States; the Capuchins numbered 11,300, with 730 in the U.S.; and the Conventuals numbered 4,500, with 620 in the U.S. At the same time, the perennial tendency of Franciscans to form new splinter movements again emerged. Two of these have experienced rapid growth: the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, which was recognized as an institute of papal right in 1998, and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an American congregation established in New York in 1987.

Bibliography: m. alberzoni, et. al., Francesco d'Assisi e il primo secolo di storia francescana (Turin 1997). r. armstrong, j. hellmann, and w. short, eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, 3 vols. (New York 19992001). l. iriarte, Franciscan History (Chicago 1982). d. nimmo, Reform and Division in the Medieval Franciscan Order: From Saint Francis to the Foundation of the Capuchins (Rome 1987).

[d. v. monti]

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