Easily the most recognisable of the mendicant orders (both in name and appearance), the Franciscan Order was founded by the renowned Saint Francis of Assisi. Although he never originally set out to establish a new religious community, he attracted a number of followers to his way of life simply by his personal example and holiness.
The origins of the Franciscans date back to 1208, the year when its first members joined Saint Francis in his life of poverty, chastity, and prayer. In the following year, when their number grew to twelve, Francis was inspired to travel to Rome to ask Pope Innocent III (reigned from 1198-1216) for his approval. The pope consented, and each of the brothers subsequently took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. April 16, 1209, marked the official beginning of the Order of Friars Minor.
With a very strong dedication to poverty, the early Franciscans would travel throughout the region preaching and evangelizing. Before long, a number of women, led by Saint Clare of Assisi, expressed the desire to imitate Francis and his followers. Hence, in 1212, a women’s order, named the Poor Ladies (later to be called the Poor Clares, or the Second Order of Saint Francis), was established. Almost ten years later, a group of laypeople wanting to imitate the principles of the Franciscans adopted their own rule. Saint Francis actually wrote the rule himself, but it was then rewritten by Cardinal Ugolino, and eventually approved by Pope Honorius III. These laypeople are commonly referred to as the Third Order of Franciscans.
As the order continued to expand at a rapid rate, further clarification and explanation of the rule was needed. While the “long rule” containing twenty-three chapters was issued in 1221, the pope accepted a shortened version (twelve chapters) in 1223. The rule mandated both corporate and individual poverty, as well as both an active and contemplative life (a rather revolutionary idea for the time).
Since the Church had always strongly encouraged foreign missionary work, Francis made certain that the rule included this aspect of evangelization. It was the first such declaration for any religious order. Serving as an example for others, Francis set out on several missionary trips. Within a few short centuries, the Franciscans would find themselves in such diverse and distant places as China and Africa. During the sixteenth century, the Franciscans would play a major role in the evangelization of the New World.
With the continuing rapid expansion of the order, the Franciscans soon experienced growing pains. Members differed in their opinions about whether the original rule was too severe and impractical. This would becomethe central crisis facing the order: it was even present before Francis’s death in 1226. One of the two differing groups of Friars called themselves the Spirituals; they wanted a precise adherence to the letter of the rule (and the spirit of their saintly founder), but the majority of friars favored a more moderate interpretation. Neither side would temper their position.
In 1310, under the leadership of Saint Bonaventure, who had been superior general of the order from 1257-1274, the Franciscans brought the matter before the Holy See. After many years of discussion and prayer, Pope John XXII decided against the Spirituals. Subsequent to this decision, in 1322, he reversed the rule concerning corporate poverty. Not happy with the decision, many Spirituals left to establish the schismatic body known as the Fraticelli. Within the order, the elimination of the law against personal ownership caused some problems because some members began accumulating wealth, becoming lukewarm in their practice of the rule.
As more reforms were introduced, the internal divisions increased. Eventually, a split occurred among the Franciscans. This was formally recognized in 1415 and accepted by the Council of Constance. The two new groups consisted of the Observants, those who preferred the rules of poverty, and the Conventuals, those who wanted the pope’s decision to stay as it was. In 1517, the two groups became permanently separated. The Observants became officially known as the Order of Friars Minor of the Regular Observance, while the Conventuals became known as the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.
In the years that followed, the Observants gave birth to new Franciscan groups including the Capuchins, the Discalced, the Reformati, and the Recollects. The Friars Minor (Observants) continued to thrive during the 1500s, but the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars provided them with great challenges, as well as destruction. Today, with more than eighteen thousand members, they rank as the second largest religious order in the Church. The Capuchins are listed as the fourth largest with more than eleven thousand members, while the Conventuals number around four thousand members.
Throughout the centuries, the Franciscans and Poor Clares have produced some of the Church’s greatest and most famous saints, notably Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Bernardine of Siena, Saint Joseph Cupertino, Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Sixtus V, Pope Clement XIV, and countless others.