Franciscans, members of several Roman Catholic religious orders following the rule of St. Francis (approved by Honorius III, 1223). There are now three organizations of Franciscan friars: the Friars Minor [Lat. abbr., O.F.M.] (the second largest order in the Roman Catholic Church; only the Jesuit order is larger), formerly called the Observants; the Friars Minor Capuchin (see Capuchins), the fourth largest of the great religious orders; and the Friars Minor Conventual [Lat. abbr., O.M.C.]. Within 50 years of St. Francis's foundation, the order had a very strong wing of zealots—the Spirituals, who advocated absolute poverty, thus deploring the convents or any settled life. They allied themselves with the anarchical monks who were preaching the teachings of Joachim of Fiore. St. Bonaventure tried to reconcile the factions of the order, but the Spirituals grew stronger and saw one of their heroes made pope as St. Celestine V. His abdication made their agitation one of the major social and religious problems of Italy. So far as the order was concerned, John XXII settled (1322) the matter by putting the Franciscans on a level with every other order with respect to owning property corporately. He also put a stop (1323) to a Franciscan boast that their way was more nearly perfect than any other. However, within the order there still remained a desire for reform, and in the following years a movement developed toward restoring primitive practice. The friars of this tendency (Observants) gained recognition within the order and eventually were made independent (1517) by Leo X. Soon afterward a movement among the Observants established the Capuchins (1525) as a still stricter adherence to the rule. All the Franciscan orders have shared in home and foreign missions; the Franciscans were in many parts of America the dominant missionaries. They have had a continuous role in education and were leaders in medieval university life. They have had a major place in preaching among Catholics: from them come the Stations of the Cross and the Christmas Crib. Since the 15th cent. the Observants have been charged with the care of Roman Catholic interests in the Holy Places in Palestine. Besides the friars, the Franciscans include the Poor Clares, the order of nuns founded by St. Clare, and countless members of the third order (see tertiary), an order consisting of both men and women, some of whom live in communities and many of whom live in the world. There are scores of religious communities of sisters of every sort of charitable mission who are regular Franciscan tertiaries. Of canonized and beatified saints, far more have been Franciscans than members of any other order. The best-known of them is perhaps St. Anthony of Padua. The Franciscans were called Gray Friars. Their habit is now typically brown. For the place of Franciscans among orders, see monasticism.

See studies by J. Moorman (1968), K. Esser (tr. 1970), and T. MacVicar (1986).

Member of a Christian religious order dedicated to the apostolic life of poverty and preaching founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans actually consist of three orders. The First Order comprises priests and lay brothers who have sworn to a life of prayer, preaching, and penance. The Second Order (founded 1212) consists of cloistered nuns known as the Poor Clares. The Third Order consists of religious members and laypersons who observe Franciscan principles in teaching, charity, and social service. The Rule of St. Francis stipulated that Franciscan friars could own no property of any kind, either individually or communally. The friars wandered and preached among the people, helping the poor and sick. Their impact was immense; within 10 years they numbered 5,000. A milder version of the rule was approved in 1223, and after the death of St. Francis in 1226 the order was divided by conflicts over the vow of poverty. A moderate interpretation of the rule was established while St. Bonaventure was minister general of the order (1257–74), and the friars spread throughout Europe, their missionaries penetrating as far as Syria and Africa. Though continuing controversy over the definition of poverty led to the intervention of the Pope John XXII, who persecuted the advocates of strict poverty, and to divisions of the order that lasted into the 19th century, the Franciscans flourished. They remain the largest Roman Catholic religious order.

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