Franciscan monks

The Franciscans are named after St. Francis (See St. Francis). The Franciscans have traditionally worn robes with knotted cord belts. In St. Francis’s time they wore grey robes. Then for many centuries they wore brown and sometimes black robes. Now there is a movement to switch back to grey robes.

Traditionally close to the people, the Franciscans are involved in caring for the poor, providing education and other good works They also help maintain the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and other religious shrines in Israel. They are also involved in archaeological work in the Holy Land.

The Franciscans friars refer to each other as brother. At one time they numbered more than 100,000. Differences over rules brought about divisions in the orders, which today include the Conventauli, Cappucini and Frati Minori orders.

Many famous missionaries were Franciscans. Portuguese Franciscans such as St. Xavier brought Christianity to Asia. Spanish Franciscans were instrumental in establishing missions throughout the New World and making Catholicism the dominate religion of the Americas.

David Burr a translator of St Francis texts, wrote: “Francis left behind not only a legend but a religious order. Popularly known today as the Franciscan order, its real name is the ordo fratrum minorum , "the order of lesser brothers.'. The Franciscans proved enormously popular because, like Francis himself, they fulfilled a desperate need, in fact a whole series of them. Unlike the older monastic orders, they were not bound to a cloistered life within the confines of a monastery. Thus They and the other great mendicant order created at that time, the Dominicans, constituted a mobile striking force which the church could utilize wherever it seemed necessary.

“At that very moment there was a need for pastoral care in the cities, which had grown so rapidly that the old ecclesiastical structures were no longer adequate. The mendicants settled in the cities and developed a program of preaching and pastoral guidance so effective that the regular clergy were soon extremely jealous. At that moment the universities were growing and the translation of Aristotle into Latin was challenging Christian scholars. The mendicants took up the challenge with gusto, and by the end of the thirteenth century most of the lead the scholars in the major universities were either Dominicans or Franciscans. At that moment the church was engaged in an all-out assault on heresy. In fact, it had created a new institution to deal with it, the inquisition. The mendicants were widely used as inquisitors, and by the turn of the fourteenth century most inquisitors were either Franciscans or Dominicans.”

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St. Francis

20120508-Francisco_de_asissi _y_el_herman.jpg
St. Francis of Assisi,
founder of the Franciscan order of monks
St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was one of the greatest figures of Christianity and founder of the Franciscan order of monks. He lived an ascetic life of poverty, was famous for his love of all creatures and preached compassion and love for the poor, dispossessed and outcasts.

Canonized in 1228, only two years after his death, St. Francis kissed lepers, gave away all his possessions and preached poverty was holy. He once said, "Your God is of your flesh. He lives in your nearest neighbor, in every man." He and the Franciscans had a lot a to do with making Christianity palatable for the mainstream. His name was attached to many churches and the city of San Francisco.

St. Francis is honored in his hometown of Assisi with the superb Byzantine basilica of San Francesco, the home of a famous series of frescoes by Giotto that depict 28 different episodes of St. Francis’s life. St. Francis was not handsome. He had a long face, eyebrows that went clear across his forehead and large ears. But his eyes were sparkling and he had a sweet voice and gentle manner, if paintings and descriptions of him are to be believed.

David Burr a translator of St Francis texts, wrote: “Francesco Bernardone was born in Assisi in 1181. His father Pietro was a successful merchant and hoped his son would succeed him in that role. Things turned out differently. Francis seems to have been a winsome and somewhat feckless young man who threw himself into the social life of his city as enthusiastically as he engaged in its military projects. While taking part in the latter he was captured by the Perugians in 1202 and spent a year in prison.

““Of the various sources dealing with Francis' life, the earliest biography is the First Life of Saint Francis written by Thomas of Celano. It was commissioned by pope Gregory IX and was completed by 1230, just four years after Francis' death and two years after his canonization. Later, in 1244, the minister general of the Franciscan order asked all the brothers to submit any additional information about Francis they might have. Using this material, Celano produced another work which, although usually called his Second Life of Saint Francis. is really more of a supplement to the first. It was completed by the middle of 1247.

“Celano's work has the advantage of having been written by an early member of the Franciscan order who could rely on personal experience and the testimony of Francis' dose companions. Its major disadvantage is that it is the official biography of a saint. Thus much of what it says, although not necessarily false, is probably something less than the whole truth.

St. Francis and the Franciscans

Saint Francis and his followers

Not surprisingly St. Francis’s actions won him some notoriety. Soon he began to attract a large number of followers, including “begging brothers” who dressed in gray robes and went barefoot and without money as St. Francis did. Within a few years he had roughly 5,000 brothers following him (by comparisons the Dominicans which began at roughly the same time attracted only 50 followers in about the same time). St. Francis formally founded the Franciscans with these followers in 1209. When an 18-year-old girl named Claire left here home to be with the Franciscans, St. Francis formed a new order women called the Franciscan Nuns or the Poor Clares.

St. Francis’s expected a lot from his followers. They were not allowed to read and they were expected to be ascetic as their leader. They aimed to live without possessions and beg for food. It was only after some time that they even rented a house for they did not want to think ahead even to the next day. But St. Francis was not without compassion. One of his followers once woke up in the middle of the night crying of hunger. Instead of scolding him. St. Francis woke up the others and prepared a feast that lasted the rest of the night.

St. Francis once dreamed he was fighting under the flag of the risen Christ and interpreting that as a sign to assemble a spiritual army. In twos and threes the Franciscans went out into the world to spread the word of Christian asceticism and to help the poor. They went to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and England. Along the way they preached repentance, begged for food and offered their help to anyone who asked. Every year the friars met during the feast of the Pentecost and organized their activities and addressed problems.

St. Francis made other journeys. He went to Rome, where visited the Pope and sought his approval of his religious community. On a journey East he preached to the sultan and was asked to prove his faith. He reportedly walked through a blazing fire and took some of the sultans’ men with him to make the point, according to the story one of the sultan’s men fled before entering the fire.

St. Francis and His Early Followers in Rome

Saint Francis's habit
Gradually a small group of followers joined Francis. In 1209, when it numbered twelve including Francis, the Franciscan order was born. Thomas of Celano wrote: “Seeing that the Lord God daily increased their number, Francis wrote simply and in a few words a form of life and rule for himself and his brothers bath present and to come. It mainly used the words of the gospel, for the perfection of which alone he yearned. Nevertheless, he did insert a few other things necessary for the pursuit of a holy life. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“He came to Rome with all his brothers, hoping that Pope Innocent I II would confirm what he had writ ten. At that time the venerable bishop of Assisi, Guido, who honored Francis and the brothers and prized them with a special love, also happened to be in Rome. When he saw Francis and his brothers there and did not know the cause, he was very upset, since he feared they were planning to desert their native city, in which God was now doing great things through his servants. He was pleased to have such men in his diocese and relied greatly on their life and manners. Having heard the cause of their visit and understood their plan, he was relieved and promised to give them advice and aid.

“Saint Francis also went to the bishop of Sabina, John of Saint Paul, one of the great members of the Roman court who seemed to despise earthly things and love heavenly ones. Receiving Francis with kindness and love, the bishop praised him highly for his request and intention.

Since he was a prudent and discreet man, the bishop began to question Francis about many things and tried to convince him that he should try the life of a monk or hermit. Saint Francis humbly refused his advice as well as he could, not because he despised what the bishop suggested but because, impelled by a higher desire, he devoutly wished for something else. The lord bishop marveled at his fervor and, fearing that he might eventually slip back from such high intentions, tried to show him a path that would be easier to follow . Finally, won over by Francis' constancy, the bishop agreed to his petition and attempted to further his plan before the pope.

“At that time the church was led by Innocent III, who was famous, very learned, gifted in speech, and burning with zeal for what ever would further the cause of the Christian faith. When he had discovered what these men of God wanted and thought the matter over, he assented to their request and did what had to be done. Exhorting and admonishing them about m any things, he blessed Saint Francis and his brothers, saying to them, "Go with the Lord, brothers, and preach penance to all as the Lord will inspire you. Then, when the Lord increases you in number and in grace, return joyously to me. At that time I will concede more to you and commit greater things to you more confidently."

“Like other holy men of the time, Francis and his followers practiced mortification of the flesh, not because the body was considered evil -it, too, was created by God - but because in a fallen world it could distract one from higher pursuits. In Francis' case, such mortification was related not only to the cultivation of spiritual experience, or what was known as the contemplative life, but also to the Franciscan emphasis on humility and the equally Franciscan desire to imitate Christ

“The virtue of patience so enfolded them that they sought to be where they could suffer bodily persecution rather than where, their sanctity being known and praised, they might be exalted by the world. Many times when they were insulted, ridiculed, stripped naked, beaten, bound or imprisoned, they trusted in no one's patronage but rather bore all so manfully that only praise and thanksgiving echoed in their mouths. Scarcely or never did they cease their prayers and praise of God. Instead, continually discussing what they had done, they thanked God for what they had done well and shed tears over what they had neglected to do or done carelessly. They thought themselves abandoned by God if in their worship they did not find themselves constantly visited by their accustomed fervor. When they wanted to throw themselves into prayer, they developed certain techniques to keep from being snatched off by sleep. Some held themselves up by suspended ropes in order to make sure their worship would not be disturbed by sleep creeping up on them. Others encased their bodies in iron instrument s. Still others encased themselves in wooden girdles. If, as usually occurs, their sobriety was disturbed by abundance of food or drink, or if they exceeded the limits of necessity by even a little because they were tired from a journey, they harshly tormented themselves by abstinence for many days. They tried to repress the promptings of the flesh by such great mortification that they did not hesitate to strip naked in the coldest ice or inundate their bodies with a flow of blood by piercing themselves all over with thorns.”

Rules of the Franciscan Order

Saint Francis founded three orders and gave each of them a special rule. Here, only the rule of the first order — that of the Order of Friars Minor — is given. As there are with many topics related to St. Francis, there is some doubt and controversy about the Rule of St. Francis: 1) whether he wrote several rules or one rule only, with several versions; 2) whether he received it directly from heaven through revelations, or created it from his experiences; 3) whether he wrote the exact words himself or others contributed to it. In any case the first set of rules dates to the year 1209, the second to 1221, and the third to 1223.The Rule of 1209 is the rule St. Francis presented to Innocent III for approval in the year 1209; its real text is not known. [Source: Wikipedia]

David Burr a translator of St Francis texts wrote: “A religious order is based on a rule. The first rule of the Franciscan order, submitted to the pope in 1209, has long since disappeared from history. It was the rule of 1223, the third produced by Francis, which became the definitive one. It is still in use today.”

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order” of 1223: “I. In the name of the Lord, the life of the lesser brothers begins: The rule and life of the lesser brothers is this: To observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own, and in chastity. Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Honorius and his canonically elected successors, and to the Roman Church; and the rest of the brothers are obliged to obey Francis and his successors. [Source: Translation by David Burr []. Another out of copyright version definitely exists - in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, Paschal Robinson, trans, (Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1906,]

Message to Those Wishing to Become Franciscan Monks

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order”: II. Concerning those who wish to adopt this life: “If someone should wish to adopt this life and should come to our brothers, they must send them to their provincial ministers to whom alone is granted the right to receive brothers. The ministers should examine them carefully regarding the Catholic faith and sacraments of the church. If they believe all these things, wishing to confess them faithfully and observe them diligently until the end; and if they have no wives, or their wives have entered a convent, or permission has been given to them by authority of their bishop, a vow of chastity having been taken and their wives being of such an age as to avoid suspicion; then let them go, sell all they have, and attempt to give it to the poor. If they cannot do so, their good intention will suffice. Let the brothers and their ministers beware of becoming concerned about the new brothers' temporal possessions, for they should freely dispose of their belongings as God inspires them. If they ask advice, the ministers may refer them to some God-fearing brothers through whose counsel their possessions may be distributed to the poor. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

Franciscan procession

“Later, let them concede clothing of probation to the new brothers: Two tunics with hoods, belt and trousers, and a chaperon reaching down to the belt, unless the minister decides according to God that something else should be done. When the year of probation is over, let them be received into obedience, promising to observe this life and rule always; and, according to the command of the lord pope, it will be absolutely forbidden to them to leave the order, for according the holy gospel "no one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

“And let those who have promised obedience take one tunic with a hood, and let those who wish it have another without a hood. And those who must may wear shoes. All the brothers are to wear inexpensive clothing, and they can use sackcloth and other material to mend it with God's blessing.”

Rules for Franciscan Monks on Fasting and Traveling

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order”: “III. Concerning the divine office and fasting; and how the brothers ought to travel through the world: Clerics are to perform the divine office according to the rite of the Roman Church, except for the Psalter, and they can have breviaries for that purpose. Laymen are to say twenty-four "Our Fathers" at matins; five at lauds; seven each at prime, terce, sext and none; twelve at vespers; and seven at compline. They should also pray for the dead. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“They should fast from the feast of all saints until Christmas. Those who voluntarily fast at Quadragessima, those forty days after Epiphany which the Lord consecrated with his own holy fasting, will themselves be blessed by the Lord; yet they are not required to do so if they do not want to. They must fast during Lent, but they are not required to do so at other times except on Fridays. In case of obvious necessity, however, they are excused from bodily fasting.

“I counsel, admonish and beg my brothers that, when they travel about the world, they should not be quarrelsome, dispute with words, or criticize others, but rather should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble, speaking respectfully to all as is fitting. They must not ride on horseback unless forced to so by obvious necessity or illness. Whatever house they enter, they are first to say, "Peace to this house" (Lk. 10:5). According to the holy gospel they can eat whatever food is set before them.

Rules for Franciscan Monks on Working, Begging and Money

two monks working as blacksmiths

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order”: “IV. That the brothers should not accept money. “I strictly forbid the brothers to receive money in any form either directly or through an intermediary. Nevertheless, the ministers and custodians can work through spiritual friends to care for the sick and clothe the brothers, according to place, season and climate, as necessity may seem to demand. This must be done, however, in such a way that they do not receive money. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“V. On their manner of working: Those brothers whom the Lord favors with the gift of working should do so faithfully and devotedly, so that idleness, the enemy of the soul, is excluded yet the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, which all other temporal things should serve, is not extinguished. As payment for their labor let them receive that which is necessary for themselves and their brothers, but not money. Let them receive it humbly as befits those who serve God and seek after the holiest poverty.

“VI. That the brothers should appropriate nothing for themselves; and on how alms should be begged; and concerning sick brothers: The brothers should appropriate neither house, nor place, nor anything for themselves; and they should go confidently after alms, serving God in poverty and humility, as pilgrims and strangers in this world. Nor should they feel ashamed, for God made himself poor in this world for us. This is that peak of the highest poverty which has made you, my dearest brothers, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, poor in things but rich in virtues. Let this be your portion. It leads into the land of the living and, adhering totally to it, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ wish never to have anything else in this world, beloved brothers.

“And wherever brothers meet one another, let them act like members of a common family. And let them securely make their needs known to one another, for if a mother loves and cares for her carnal son, how much more should one love and care for his spiritual son? And if one of them should become ill, let the other brothers serve him as they themselves would like to be served.”

Franciscan Rules on Preaching and Penances

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order”: “VII. On the penances to be imposed on sinning brothers: If any of the brothers should sin mortally at the instigation of the enemy, they should recur to their provincial ministers without delay if the sin is one of those for which such recourse is required. The ministers, if they are priests, should mercifully prescribe a penance for them. If they are not priests, they should see that it is prescribed by others in the order who are such, as seems best to them according to God. They should be careful not to become angry and upset over someone's sin, for anger and perturbation in oneself or others impedes love. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“VIII. On the election of the general minister of this brotherhood; and on the chapter at Pentecost: “The brothers are always bound to have a brother of the order as general minister and servant of the entire brotherhood, and they are strictly bound to obey him. When he dies, his successor is to be elected by the provincial ministers and custodians during the Pentecost chapter, at which provincial ministers are always to assemble in the place designated by the minister general. The general chapter should meet every three years, or sooner or later if the minister general should so ordain. If at some point it should appear to the provincial ministers and custodians that the minister general is incapable of serving the brothers properly, the aforesaid brothers to whom election is entrusted should, in the name of God, choose someone else. After the Pentecost chapter, the ministers and custodians may call their brothers to a chapter in their own custody's once in the same year, if they wish and it seems worthwhile.

“IX. On preachers: The friars must not preach in the diocese of any bishop if they have been forbidden to do so by him. And no brother should dare preach to the people unless he has been examined and approved by the minister general of his brotherhood and the office of preaching has been conceded to him. I also admonish and exhort the brothers that in their preaching their words be studied and chaste, useful and edifying to the people, telling them about vices and virtues, punishment and glory; and they ought to be brief, because the Lord kept his words brief when he was on earth.

“X. On the admonition and correction of brothers: Brothers who are ministers and servants of other brothers must visit and admonish their brothers, and they should correct them humbly and lovingly, prescribing nothing against their soul or our rule. Brothers who are subject to authority must remember that they have surrendered their own wills for the sake of God. Thus I strictly order them to obey their ministers in all those things which they have promised the Lord to observe and which are not contrary to the soul and to our rule. And wherever there are brothers who know they cannot observe the rule spiritually, those brothers should and may recur to their ministers. The ministers should receive them lovingly and generously and treat them so intimately that the brothers can speak and act as lords do with their servants. For that is the way it ought to be. The ministers should be servants of all the brothers.

“I admonish and exhort the brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ to beware of all pride, vainglory, envy, avarice, worldly care and concern, criticism and complaint. And I admonish the illiterate not to worry about studying but to realize instead that above all they should wish to have the spirit of the Lord working within them, and that they should pray to him constantly with a pure heart, be humble, be patient in persecution and infirmity, and love those who persecute, blame or accuse us, for the Lord says, "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute and accuse you" (Mtt. 5:44). "Blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mtt. 5:10). "He who has persevered until the end, however, will be saved" (Mtt. 10:22).”

Franciscan Rules on Dealing with Nuns and Muslims

Franciscan nun in Israel

According to “The Rule of the Franciscan Order”: “XI. That the brothers should not enter the convents of nuns: I strictly order all the brothers to avoid suspicious meetings or conversations with women and to stay out of the convents of nuns except in cases where special permission has been granted by the Holy See. Nor should they be godfathers of men or women, lest it lead to scandal among or concerning the brothers. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“XII. Concerning those who go among the Saracens and other infidels: Whoever should, by divine inspiration, wish to go among the Saracens and other infidels must ask permission from their provincial ministers. The ministers should grant permission only to those whom they consider qualified to be sent.

“I enjoin the ministers by obedience to ask the Lord Pope for a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church to serve as governor, protector and corrector of their brotherhood so that we servants and subjects at the feet of holy church, firm in faith, will always observe the poverty, humility and holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ which we firmly promised.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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