… there was a man from Assisi that renounced his wealth and status, trading all he had for poverty and started a brotherhood. The small band of brothers merrily traveled from town to town, joyfully singing to the animals and preaching of God’s greatness. When new, intelligent and healthy young men wanted to join their way of life, they were given the formal training necessary and were sent on their way to spread the clearly understood teachings of their founder, who lived happily ever after. Today, there are still many followers of this man that live out the same rule he ordered from the very beginning. The end.
Like all fairy tales, this one starts with a bit of truth but ultimately provides little to no historical value. In reality, the Order of Friars Minor has been one of the most splintered, dynamic religious communities in the history of the Catholic Church, complete with reforms, schisms, papal impositions, and problems with civil governments. There has been so much change that Francis himself longed for the earlier days of the order before he died. Does this mean that from the time of Francis things have only gotten worse? No. It just means that the history of the Franciscans is very rich in its developments and has not resisted adaptation when it was necessary.
Because of this, we needed some help understanding the complex history of the order. Fr. Dominic Monti, OFM, the Vicar Provincial of Holy Name Province and widely known Franciscan historian, was more than willing to help. Besides giving us a fairly thorough background of the order to better understand the historical context of our own province, Dominic helped us to better grasp the inner struggles that have defined and shaped our order for 800 years. Rather than attempt to summarize all of Franciscan history, I’d like to share what he posed as the fundamental catalyst to Franciscan reform throughout history.
Unlike most other religious orders in the church, Franciscans are not defined by a specific apostolate. Though they can educate, preach, evangelize, and care for the sick, none of these things are fundamental to its identity; drop any one of them and replace it with another and the Franciscan identity is unaffected. Francis is thus, best defined by how he approached God and community, not what he did. In this way, friars have isolated three fundamental characteristics to Franciscan identity: 1) prayer, 2) being “lesser”, and 3) brotherhood. From a well-informed sense of these principles, the mission of the friars is defined.
Problems have arisen throughout history when this process has been reversed: out of a strong sense for a specific mission, friars made concessions to maintain a specific ministry, ultimately reshaping the order. Sometimes it was a lessening of prayers so as to work more; a downsize of community as to evangelize in a greater number of places; an acceptance of power and education as to become greater scholars. Of all these concessions, however, none was more divisive than the issue of money. Driven by a desire to run parishes, and pressured by outside forces, some communities of friars began owning property and collecting money, two things expressly condemned by Francis. By 1517, concessions such as these had worked enough changes into the order that the pope saw the differences in prayer, poverty and brotherhood to be irreconcilable, and split the order into two autonomous entities.
Like many “once upon a time” stories, the Franciscan story is filled with triumph and failure, success and struggles, growth and decline, all while seeking to grasp its identity. Some have sought to “recapture” the past by living their lives as if they were in the 13th century, literally following every word of Francis; others have sought to extrapolate the spirit of Francis into the modern world, updating the Rule for the modern ages.
For me, I think it’s important to remember Francis’ famous words: “I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours to do.” His intention was never to create an order of homogenous men carrying out a strict order to the letter; he wanted men that shared his love for Christ and a charism of penitence who would ultimately live a life that was authentic to them, individually and communally. When we take this quote to heart, it’s a wonder if “Franciscan uniformity” is a bit of an oxymoron, and things such as reforms and divisions are simply part of the charism. That’s not to say that the fluidity of this rich tradition in any way calls into question its authenticity or truthfulness; it simply means that the holy spirit is working very hard, and that people are inspired in different ways. As I grow within the order, I will have to remind myself and my brothers to be constantly discerning Christ’s call, and to adjust our vision likewise.
For a more detailed history of the Franciscans, the Catholic Encyclopedia is a great resource.