It might be opportune to add here a comment about Luther and the misconception that he was an instinctive rebel who went from rebellion within his own Augustinian Order to rebellion against the Church itself. This is a misrepresentation of what happened. Luther, as a university student, joined the Augustinians because he saw them to be members of a reform movement whose primary aim was service of God. He became prominent among those agitating for even stricter observance and, when this brought friction with other German Augustinians and with the authorities in Rome, he was one of two delegates who went to discuss the problems with Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., the Prior General at Rome.
Luther returned from Rome a convinced supporter of the Prior General and his policy. Due to later circumstances which are not relevant in this brief explanation, he came out in public protest against indulgences in 1517, and by 1524 had made the break with the Church and with his order; but he never denounced the Augustinians — and he was a man quick to denounce — but spoke gratefully of the treatment he had received in the order and of his fellow-friars who had helped him, or tried to, when he was going through his spiritual crises.
It should always be kept in mind that, in trying to understand Luther, one should distinguish between his personal religious crisis and the religious revolt he led within, and eventually against, the Church; that particular personal aspect is a separate study and not one to consider here. What is relevant is the extent to which his mentality about reform was derived from the Augustinians.
However, the spiritual state and moral authority of the mendicant orders weakened. They became subject to worldliness as they fell away from absolute poverty, and medieval sources point to a general decline in their intellectual activity as well (although, of course, the disruption caused to them by extrinsic factors such as the Black Death (14th-15th centuries), the Avignon Papacy (1307 - 1377) and the Western Schism (1382 – 1417) exacerbated the internal problems of these mendicant orders). Yes, the mendicant orders were weakened on the eve of the Protestant Reformation in the opening decades of the sixteenth century.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: Girolamo Savonarola. Picture 2: Cardinal Ximdnes. Picture 3: Martin Luther.This event – in which the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, was a major catalyst - caused the mendicant orders to lose many friars (and, in some nations, entire Provinces), yet these orders continued to exist – albeit with reduced numbers. The mendicant orders never regained their earlier influence and ecclesiastical dominance, as new Post-Reformation religious orders arose, fresh with new initiatives. The mendicant orders continued to minister, but in a church where there were then a far greater number of religious orders. In this changed milieu the friars provided a considerably smaller percentage of the total number of priests available to the church. Notwithstanding the numerical losses sustained by the mendicant orders during the Black Death (14th century), the Reformation (16th century), the increased number of new religious orders in the Counter-Reformation (16th-17th centuries), the philosophical Age of Enlightenment (eighteenth century), and the European nationalist and secularist movements (nineteenth century), the mendicants have nevertheless continued to make a considerable contribution to the life of the Catholic Church right to the present era.
The mendicant movement was a new life-giving force in the church to combat the possible religious confusion and false doctrines spread by itinerant preachers. The cities of Europe were growing quickly in the thirteenth century, and the religious care of these new urban dwellers was being neglected, and thus offered a fertile field for the sowers of religious unrest of doctrinal individualism.
Had it not been for the mendicant movement (buttressed by a process of amalgamation and the supervisory role of the popes), the Church of the thirteenth century might have suffered a debacle as great as it did in the sixteenth century. The work of the mendicants in the pulpit, in the confessional, in the service of the sick and the socially weak, in the foreign missions, had no parallel in the Middle Ages.
The appearance of these mendicant orders was without question one of the most momentous events of the Middle Ages. The mendicant orders helped to revive the religious energies and religious organization of the Western Church. They embodied Christian philanthropy with a novel aspect. They were the sociological reformers of their age. They supplied the universities and scholastic theology with some of their most brilliant scholars.
The role of the Popes upon mendicant orders
Undoubtedly the most remarkable phenomenon in the creation of the mendicant orders of the thirteenth century was the decisive part taken by the Papacy (Popes) throughout the century. In this very formal sense the popes were the true "institutors," with few exceptions, of the orders of the thirteenth century, in a way in which they were not for the orders founded during the preceding period. Before the thirteenth century the role of the popes consisted mainly in supporting religious orders by granting them favours and exemptions, and by making requests for the use of their members in numerous projects of the universal church.
The popes had approved of their enterprises, and had fostered them. But never before had they actually called religious orders into being. Admittedly, the popes did not create the spiritual current of lay piety and the apostolic life which kindled the initial spark in all the orders of the thirteenth century. But at least they recognised these phenomena and took initiatives to give these movements a structural and legal permanence in Catholic life. The design of the popes directed the progressive amalgamation of fraternities of spontaneous origin into stable and legislated forms of community (conventual) life and clerical life, and ultimately into the "mixed" or apostolic mode of life (i.e., both conventual and clerical).
It was in this "mixed" mode that the new mendicant orders of the thirteenth century found their equilibrium and their very essence. Sensing the tempo of the times, the popes encouraged the tendencies which were infused into the heart of these fraternities by their respective leaders. Where they did not find these tendencies to ministry, the popes challenged them to come forth.
A careful study of the origin of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), the Order of Friars Minors (Franciscans), the Servites, the Carmelite Friars, the Sack Friars and the Augustinians, to name only the principal ones, leaves no doubt on this point. From this intervention on the part of the popes arose some of the very elemental features in the history of the new religious orders of the thirteenth century. First of all, this included the almost absolute role that was played in their creation by a cardinal or papal legate appointed by the pope – in the case of the Augustinians, the person appointed was Cardinal Richard Annibaldi.
Papal control was strongly present (1) in the role of the cardinal protector, to whose government, protection, and correction the new order was bound by direct obedience; (2) in the profession made by all the members of each order to a single head, who was himself required to take an oath to the Pope and obtain from the Pope an official confirmation of his appointment, and (3) in the establishment of a major house near the Curia of the Church in Rome (and later also at Avignon, France). Unprecedented as they were, such elements would in themselves testify to the authoritative intervention of the popes in the foundations of the thirteenth century and their intention to keep a directing hand in the formation and development of these new religious orders.
The election of a Prior General, for example, was not valid until approved by the pope. (This procedure was expected of the Order of Saint Augustine until 1398, although by Canon Law the pope still retains the right to intervene in such an election at his discretion.) This decisive role of the papacy in the thirteenth century in the promotion and direction of the mendicant orders was exemplified by Pope Boniface VIII (pope from 1294 to 1303), who was one of the greatest canonists to assume the papacy. In mediating between the overlapping rights of the mendicant orders and those of the diocesan bishop and his local clergy, the bull by Boniface entitled Super cathedram of 18th February 1300 he gave the friars full liberty to preach in their own churches (except at certain times) but in parochial churches only upon the invitation of the pastor or by command of the bishop.
The friars should choose from their members suitable persons to hear confessions and present them to the bishop for faculties. The number of confessors was to be regulated by the needs of the populace. The friars should have the right to bury in their churches those who desired it but would have to give the parish priest a quarter of all offerings and legacies. Subsequently, Pope Clement V incorporated the contents of this bull into Canon Law, and it proved to be a fair and statesman-like compromise which enabled the rival parties to live together for the next two centuries.
History of the Mendicant Friars. A brief summary, plus links to more specific aspects of the topic. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=aa90
The Franciscan, Friars Minor, Grey Friars, OFM. An overview of the branches of the Franciscan Order. http://mb-soft.com/believe/txn/francisc.htm