National Catholic Register


Mendicant Marvels

Dominicans and Franciscans Contributed Greatly to Church Renewal

BY The Editors

January 31-February 13, 2010 Issue | Posted 1/25/10 at 1:59 AM


Weekly General Audience January 13, 2010

During his general audience on Jan. 13, Pope Benedict XVI devoted his catechesis to the mendicant orders that were founded in the 13th century, focusing on the two most famous orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we begin the new year, let us take a look at the history of Christianity in order to see how history has developed and how it can be renewed. By doing so, we can see that it is the saints, guided by God’s light, who have truly reformed the life of the Church and society.

Teachers by their words and witnesses by their example, saints are able to promote renewal within the Church that is deep and stable because they themselves have been deeply renewed. They are in touch with the true newness: God’s presence in the world. It is a comforting fact that in every generation saints are born who bear within them the creativity of renewal that has accompanied the history of the Church amid the sorrows and the negative aspects of her journey through time.

Indeed, century after century we see the birth of forces of reform and renewal because God’s newness is unstoppable, always giving new strength to move forward.

The Mendicant Orders

This is what happened in the 13th century with the birth and the extraordinary development of the mendicant orders — a model for widespread renewal in a new historical era.

These religious orders were called mendicant orders because of their characteristic feature of “begging” — that is, humbly relying on the economic assistance of the people to live out their vow of poverty and carry out their mission of evangelization.

Of the mendicant orders that emerged at that time, the best known and most important are the Friars Minor and the Friar Preachers, better known as Franciscans and Dominicans respectively. They are named for their founders, Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman.

With great insight, these two great saints were able to read the “signs of the times” and perceive the challenges that the Church had to face in their time.

The first challenge was the growth of various groups and movements among the faithful who, though inspired by a legitimate desire for authentic Christian life, often drifted away from communion with the Church. They vigorously opposed a Church that was rich and beautiful, a situation that had developed as monasticism flourished.

In recent catecheses, I have spoken about the monastic community of Cluny, which continued to increase in its attractiveness to young people and its vital force, as well as in material goods and wealth. What developed logically at first was a Church that was rich in properties and real estate.

The idea that Christ came to earth as a poor man and that the true Church should be the Church of the poor stood in opposition to this Church. In other words, the desire for a truly authentic Christianity stood in opposition to the existing reality of the Church.

This is the origin of the so-called pauper movements of the Middle Ages. They harshly criticized the lifestyle of the priests and monks of that time, accusing them of having betrayed the Gospel and failing to practice poverty as the early Christians had.

These movements set up their own “parallel hierarchy” in opposition to the bishops. In order to justify their decisions, they also disseminated doctrines that were incompatible with the Catholic faith.

For example, the Cathar or Albigensian movement revived ancient heresies such as disdain and contempt for the material world — opposition to wealth quickly became opposition to material reality itself — the denial of free will and finally dualism: the existence of a principle of evil on the same level as God.

These movements were successful — especially in France and Italy — not only because they were well-organized, but also because they denounced an abuse that really did exist in the Church as a result of the unexemplary behavior of various members of the clergy.


The Franciscans and the Dominicans, however, following in the footsteps of their founders, showed that it was possible to live the poverty of the Gospel — the truth of the Gospel as such — without leaving the Church.

They showed that the Church remains the true and authentic locus of the Gospel and of Scripture. Indeed, Francis and Dominic found the strength for their witness to the Gospel in their intimate communion with the Church and with the papacy.

By a decision that was completely new at this point in the history of consecrated life, the members of these orders not only renounced personal possessions as monks had done from the earliest times, but they did not wish their communities to own land and real estate.

It was their intent to give witness to an extremely simple lifestyle in order to remain close to the poor and to place their trust in God’s providence alone, living day to day out of God’s providence with the trust that comes from putting oneself in God’s hands.

The individual and community lifestyle of the mendicant orders, together with their complete loyalty to the teaching of the Church and its authority, was deeply appreciated by the popes of the time, like Innocent III and Honorius III, who offered their full support to these new ecclesial ventures, recognizing in them the voice of the Spirit.

The fruit was quick to appear: The pauperist groups that had left the Church came back into communion with the Church, or slowly faded until they died out.

Even today, though we live in a society where “having” often prevails over “being,” people are still receptive to the examples of poverty and solidarity with the poor that believers give through their courageous choices.

Even today, similar initiatives abound: the movements which are truly based on the newness of the Gospel and live it out day by day in a radical way, placing themselves in God’s hands in order to serve their neighbors.

The world, as Paul VI reminds us in Evangelii Nuntiandi, is willing to listen to teachers when they are also witnesses. This is a lesson that must never be forgotten in the work of spreading the Gospel: We ourselves must be the first to live what we proclaim; we have to be a reflection of God’s love.

Teachers and Preachers

The Franciscans and the Dominicans were witnesses, but they were also teachers. Indeed, another need that was widespread at that time was the need for religious instruction. Many of the laypeople who lived in the rapidly growing cities of that time had a desire to practice a spiritually intense Christian life.

Therefore, they sought a deeper knowledge of the faith and guidance along the arduous but fascinating path of holiness.

The mendicant orders succeeded in meeting this need very well. The proclamation of the Gospel in all its simplicity, and also in all its profundity and grandeur, was one objective, perhaps even the principal objective of this movement. Indeed, they dedicated themselves with great zeal to preaching.

Numerous faithful — often in great crowds — gathered to listen to these preachers, both in churches and in open spaces. St. Anthony [of Padua] is but one example.

The preachers dealt with subjects relevant to the life of the people, especially the practice of the theological and moral virtues, and used concrete examples that could be easily understood. They also taught ways to nourish a life of prayer and devotion.

For example, the Franciscans spread devotion to Christ’s humanity far and wide, with the ideal of imitating the Lord.

It is not surprising, then, that there were numerous men and women who chose to be guided in the Christian life by Franciscan and Dominican friars, who were sought out and appreciated as spiritual directors and confessors. This gave birth to associations adapted to the state of life of laypeople who were inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis and St. Dominic.

These are the Third Order Franciscans and Dominicans.

Thus, many people were won over to this concept of “holiness for laypeople.” As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, the call to holiness is not reserved for a few but is universal (see Lumen Gentium, 40).

It is possible to live out the Gospel in every state of life, according to the requirements of each one of them. Today, too, every Christian should aim for “the high standard of Christian life,” whatever his or her state in life.

Urban Apostolate

The importance of the mendicant orders grew to such an extent during the Middle Ages that lay institutions, such as the labor organizations, the ancient guilds, and even the civil authorities, often sought out the members of these orders for spiritual counsel and for guidance in drafting their own rules and sometimes in solving their own internal and external disputes.

The Franciscans and Dominicans became the spiritual inspiration for medieval cities. With great insight, they set into motion a pastoral strategy that was adapted to the transformations in society.

Since many people were moving from the countryside to the cities, they no longer built their monasteries and convents in rural areas but in urban areas. Moreover, in order to carry out their work as shepherds of souls, they felt a need to move about based on pastoral needs.

In another decision that was completely innovative, the mendicant orders abandoned the principle of stability that was characteristic of early monasticism for another style. The Franciscan friars and Dominican preachers traveled from one place to another with missionary zeal.

Consequently, this resulted in an organization that was different from that of most monastic orders. In place of the traditional autonomy that each monastery enjoyed, these institutions assigned greater importance to the order as such and to the superior general, as well as to the structure of their various provinces.

Thus the mendicant orders were much better prepared to meet the needs of the universal Church.

This flexibility made it possible to send friars who were better equipped to carry out specific missions, and the mendicant orders expanded to reach North Africa, the Middle East and northern Europe. This flexibility renewed missionary dynamism.

Scholastic Movement

Another widespread challenge of the age was the cultural transformation under way at that time. New issues gave rise to lively debates in the universities, which emerged at the end of the 12th century.

Franciscans and Dominicans did not hesitate to take on this challenge, and, as students and professors, they entered the most famous universities of that time, set up study centers, produced valuable texts, established schools of thought, were among the leaders of scholastic theology in its best period, and significantly influenced the development of thought.

The greatest thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, were mendicants, working through this dynamism of the new evangelization, which had renewed the courage to think and the dialogue between faith and reason.

Today, too, there is a “charity of and in truth,” an “intellectual charity,” that must be brought into play in order to illuminate minds and bring together faith and culture.

The deep commitment of the Franciscans and Dominicans to the medieval universities is an invitation to us, dear friends, to remain present in the places where knowledge is developed in order to throw — with respect and conviction — the light of the Gospel on the fundamental questions that concern man, his dignity and his eternal destiny.

Reflecting on the role of Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages, on the spiritual renewal they inspired, and on the breath of new life that they communicated to the world, one monk said: “At that time, the world was growing old. Two orders emerged within the Church, renewing its youth like that of an eagle” (Burchard d’Ursperg, Chronicon).

Dear brothers and sisters, at the start of this new year, let us call upon the Holy Spirit, the Church’s eternal youth.

May he make each of us sense the urgency of offering a consistent and courageous witness to the Gospel so that we may never experience a lack of saints who are beacons of the splendor of the Church as the ever pure and beautiful spouse without spot or blemish and who are capable of drawing the world irresistibly towards Christ and towards its salvation.

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