The friars were an instinctive ecclesiastical response to the increasing need for ministry in the emerging cities and towns. This was a time when materialism and trade with coinage was replacing the barter system. The words of Jesus about "carrying no purse or spare tunic," of "having nowhere to rest the head," and of being "a labourer worthy of his hire" were seen as an effective attack on the increasing commercial focus and economic inequity among the population.
The friars could, however, be regarded as - and sometimes in fact were - loose cannon by other clerics. This was especially true when the first Franciscan friars (founded in the year 1209) reacted against the wealth of the Church. The friars' witness to and their speaking about a far less lavish style of life for ministers of the church made bishops blush and even become angry. The friars were not appreciated in all quarters of the Church.
As early as the year 1215 (i.e., forty years before the Augustinian Order was founded) Pope Innocent III began attempting to bring more order into the movement towards mendicant friars that had then begun spreading throughout Europe. Innocent ordered the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 to take a decisive stand against false doctrine and the proliferation of religious associations, orders, and congregations. It became unlawful to create new orders or, more accurately, to invent new forms of association. He succeeded in having an administrative relationship in place with the new orders of Franciscan and Dominican friars (the latter order, incidentally, followed the Rule of St Augustine).
Different Mendicant Orders
The new religious orders of the thirteenth century became mendicant orders - and four mendicant orders have now survived the test of time - via different routes. The Dominicans changed from being a group or community of diocesan preachers into the Order of Preachers. At first the Dominicans were not mendicants. The Franciscans began more as a penitential movement, initially calling themselves "penitents of the city of Assisi." Their purpose, like the Dominicans, was to be wandering preachers but, whereas the Dominicans focused on preaching Christian doctrine, the Franciscans spoke about practical Christian living.
The members of all four main mendicant orders had the desire to spend their lives living the Gospel and promoting it to others. The Dominicans differed in all being priests, and in not having the roots of their Order in the pursuit of solitude and the hermit lifestyle. The Carmelites were from a contemplative background, more so than the other three congregations in question. Of the four orders, the Franciscans were the first to live on donations, and therefore the first to be mendicants in fact.
The Augustinian Order was officially confirmed as a mendicant order by the papal bull, Licet Ecclesiae Catholicae, of 9th April 1256, at the Grand Union of the Order. Their active apostolic dimension, however, began long before 1256. One obvious instance was their taking pastoral responsibility of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome and the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence as early as 1250.
The impact of the mendicant friars upon the history of the Christian Church in the West must be measured against the challenges that caused them to begin. They were a revolutionary answer to a potentially revolutionary social change. For the spiritual and intellectual turbulence of the twelfth century, which had accompanied the growth of towns, a monetary society and the beginnings of a bourgeoisie or noveaux riche middle class, had not only given birth to new forms of monastic life but also had awakened religious aspirations of a more articulate laity.
The traditional monastic theology and the existing church structures seemed unable to address satisfactorily the change in the laity. It was the achievement of the friars (which the Popes if not the local bishops saw as a solution if appropriately contained within traditional Church authority), through their teaching and example, to satisfy the new quest for spiritual growth within the laity, and to direct it into orthodox channels. At the same time, the schools and universities they staffed and nurtured succeeded in reconciling the dogmas of faith with the new sciences.
It cannot be doubted that the success of their ministry checked the spread of false doctrine (heresy) and averted the hostility against church structures and against its domination of all areas of public and private life. This hostility finally burst forth with violence in the sixteenth century, by which time the mendicant orders themselves - like the rest of the Church around them - were in serious need of reform. At the heart of the message of the friars was a belief that the Christian life was not a monopoly of a professional church elite, but was available to all; that the interior life of the Spirit, even the highest experiences of the contemplative life, could be pursued in the secular field through common tasks and the performance of the duties of one's daily routine for the praise of God.
It was more usually persons from poor families who joined the mendicant orders. The sons of the hereditary ruling class joined the local church structure with the hope of receiving an income (a benefice) that would allow them to live in comfort, and offer them the hope of receiving a mitre i.e., of becoming a bishop.
Usually coming from poorer family circumstances, the friars tended to take care of the poor people without counting the financial cost, and it was from this extensive talent pool of friars that great theological teachers emerged. The church of wealth and privilege tended to be conservative, and the friars tended to be more evangelical and open to the reform of the Church.
It was the wisdom and innovative spirit in most of the Popes that saw a church, ever in need of reform, being the patrons and protectors of the early mendicant orders. They regarded the friars as more than needing to be channelled but needing to be encouraged and coaxed in their sense that the church structures needed reform - structures that gave the bishops and local clergy their guaranteed livelihood, which meant that they were generally less inclined than the friars to bring changes to the Church.
A most perceptive church leader like Pope Innocent III (1160 - 1216), one of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages, welcomed the coming of the mendicant orders as a providential response to the new challenges of the day. The challenge was a crisis between the traditional assumptions about the nature of Christian life and the religious needs of an emerging urban and secular-tending culture. There were many differences in the original intentions of the founders of the four great mendicant orders but, within a century, they had grown more similar. For example, the Augustinians followed the desire of the Popes that they migrate from isolated rural monasteries to the urban life adopted by the other orders of friars.
The Franciscans came to lay aside the injunction of Francis of Assisi to renounce human learning and, along with the Dominicans, developed advanced schools for the study of theology and allied arts. Moreover, all the mendicant orders sought to instruct people in the basic Christian beliefs and maintained parallel world views that were pro-papal and pan-national. Finally, despite the Great Western Schism and the attempts to secular authorities to entice their support for nationalistic and political goals, they all remained essentially committed to the authority of Rome. Among them, Augustinian theologians, e.g., Giles of Rome, provided the chief arguments for the pope’s authority and dominion over kings and princes.
Nothing would be further from the truth than any sweeping generalization that the orders of mendicant friars, taken as a whole, were intrinsically corrupt or decayed. The short answer can be put as follows: between the year 1492 (the year North America was reached by Columbus) and 1524 (when Martin Luther made his final break with Rome), there were three dynamic religious movements at work — one in Italy, led by Girolamo Savonarola; another in Spain, led by Francisco Ximdnes (or Ximénes) de Cisneros (1436-1517); a third in Germany, led by Martin Luther.
But note the feature common to them — Savonarola in Italy was a Dominican, Ximenes in Spain was a Franciscan, Luther in Germany was an Augustinian. All three were friars — members of the supposedly decayed mendicant orders. The outcome in each case was different — Savonarola remained within the Church, but became involved in anti-papal politics, was hanged in the square of Florence in 1498 and his remains burned publicly. Ximdnes became confessor to Queen Isabella of Castille, a grand inquisitor, Archbishop of Toledo and in 1507 a cardinal, prime minister of Spain and, at the time of his death in 1517, had all political power in his hands as regent of the country, and was almost the de facto pope in his own right for Spanish religious affairs. Luther led a religious and political revolt, and died outside the Catholic Church.
Although each of these three men became involved in politics at the highest level, this was accidental to their main purpose which was religion. What is significant is that each of the three was a member of the reform, the Observant movement (as it was called) within his order. More important still — for a general view of the Church and these religious orders — these three men, Savonarola, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros O.F.M. (1436 - 1517), and Martin Luther, were not the founders of the reform movement within their respective religious orders. They were part and products of a movement which had already been active for more than a century within the Church and the mendicant orders in question.(Continued on the next page.)