From the earliest days of the medieval period, bishops were expected to preach regularly as they visited congregations throughout their dioceses, and in their absence, there was broad support for ordained presbyters (elders) to fill the vacancy. As in our own day, however, there was unevenness in the quality and commitment to preaching such that the success of training pastors and keeping them accountable to a high standard had mixed results. What was needed in Europe by the thirteenth century was a fresh infusion of vigor to the preaching of the Word both inside and outside of the walls of the church.
Even as this breath of fresh air was called for, thirteenth-century Europe was changing in a way that made new forms of religious expression and experimentation possible. Urban centers were growing quickly and, consonant with this development, the once-powerful feudal manorial estates that formed the economic foundation of Western Europe were being challenged by newer mercantile initiatives. Begging was not a road to riches and financial well-being, but these changes in demographics and economics enabled groups of determined men and women to take vows of poverty seriously as they sought to rid themselves of the constraints of workaday cares so that they might be free to proclaim and defend the gospel.
NEW ORDERS ARISE
The term mendicant comes from the Latin for “beg,” and begging is what an ever-increasing number of men and women did throughout the thirteenth century as they formed groups for mutual support and encouragement in the pursuit of common goals. During this period, two groups began that would outshine and outlast almost all the others: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. This is doubtless due to the fact that these two orders were founded by men whose character and actions were so compelling that both were canonized as saints. Before considering the two great mendicant orders, let’s look for a moment at the less appreciated orders.
The Augustinian and Carmelite orders were vibrant orders in their own right. Like the Dominican and Franciscan orders, they addressed themselves to the emerging urban context to good effect in their preaching and pastoral care, and they were significant contributors to scholarly life through the universities that were arising at this time. On the negative side, they received their fair share of opposition from secular clergy (priests and bishops) who believed these new preachers and pastors were acting outside of due authority, to say nothing of living lives that debased the reputation of the pastoral office.
The Carmelites may be distinguished from the other mendicant orders by their geographic location. Although shrouded in mystery, it appears that the Carmelites began as a disparate group of Western Europeans in the twelfth century who left their wealth and homes for the harsh environment of Mount Carmel. These men lived under no direct ecclesiastical authority until the early thirteenth century, when they organized themselves and began living under a rule. In the mid-thirteenth century, escalating tensions in Palestine led the Carmelites to move west, and they eventually became closely associated with many of the major population centers of the time. They set about the work of church planting, evangelization, and serving the population in a way that epitomized neighborly love.
The Augustinians’ beginning is unique in that this group was an amalgamation of many smaller groups that began hundreds of years before their official recognition as a single entity in 1256. Under Pope Alexander IV, the Tuscan hermits, Williamites, Bonites, Brettini, and Montefavale hermits were united as part of a larger effort of reform in this sector of the church. The idea was that such a union would bring about greater uniformity among these men, which would in turn make their ministry more effective. The shift from hermit to preacher and pastor was not welcomed by all, but over time this order became known for the activities of church planting, evangelization, and service, which were in ever increasing demand as society continued to transform.
Turning to one of the two most famous thirteenth-century mendicant orders, the Dominicans, we see that their story begins with Dominic, a young Spaniard who, though of noble birth, displayed concern and compassion towards the poor and oppressed.
Dominic was not only concerned for society’s marginalized but also for the truth. Sent by Pope Innocent III, Dominic and his bishop travelled to Languedoc in the southeast of France to help deal with an outbreak of heresy. Heresy had broken out in that region of France, in part because pastors there had ceased to be properly educated and trained in theology and apologetics. The heretics (called Albigenses) were much better educated and used this to their advantage by challenging pastors and monks to public debates. In these public forums, the ignorance of the pastors was made plain to all, and the worldly, pompous living of the monks in the region only added grist to the mill.
Upon Dominic’s arrival, he immediately charged the Cistercian monks to clean up their act, and then he turned his considerable intellect and well-trained mind to debating the heretics. Over time and through many difficult circumstances, including death threats, Dominic pressed on, gained converts, and eventually formed a group that was approved as an order by the bishop of Toulouse in 1215 and recognized by the pope in 1216.
Throughout history there has been a temptation to look at Christians like Dominic and think they are specially called and anointed by God for his service. Yet Dominic does not embody extraordinary blessing but simple obedience. Peter tells us to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us to anyone who asks (1 Peter 3:15). That’s what Dominic did. How often does Jesus tell us to ask of the Father and it will be given to us? (John 15:16). The context of such statements is doing the work of the kingdom in spreading and living the gospel in a hostile world. That’s what Dominic did. The writer of Hebrews tells us not to shrink back, but to live by faith (Heb. 10:39). That’s what Dominic did, and this is what God calls all his children to do.
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Equal in renown to the Dominicans, though very different, are the Franciscans. A distinctive feature of this group is that none of the other orders had founders who have captured the popular imagination like Francis of Assisi has.
Francis’ early days were not at all saintly. During his first twenty years, he was a joker, troublemaker, and one who lacked moral integrity in his relationships. Even so, by all accounts he was generous to a fault, had a streak of kindness in him, and was affable. Together, these traits made Francis a magnet for the type of friends that make most parents cringe. To this dangerous mix of character traits, we should add that Francis longed for riches and glory. Consequently, he became a knight at the age of twenty and entered his first battle against the army of a neighboring city. Yet these first steps did not lead to glory and riches but defeat and imprisonment. It was a year before Francis was released, and another year before his health returned.
Once back to something resembling vitality, Francis plucked up his courage again and joined a group headed south to fight on behalf of Pope Innocent III. At the outset of this new adventure, Francis had a dream in which he was shown a great castle full of armor and the accoutrements belonging to a magnificent group of knights. To whom did all this belong? To Francis, who was understandably thrilled at the prospect of what now seemed a sure future of fame and fortune. Only days later, Francis fell ill and had to be left behind. While in his weakened state, he had the same dream again, only now he was told that he had misunderstood the interpretation the first time and that he should return home and wait. Embarrassed and ashamed, Francis returned home with neither glory nor riches.
As the years passed, Francis underwent what might be described as the slowest conversion in history. Over the course of three years, Francis became less enamored with the world, more enamored with Christ, and appeared ever stranger to his family and friends. Amid the myriad details of this period, the most significant by Francis’ own estimation was his encounter with lepers. When he saw them, he realized that they were, in effect, a mirror of his own sinful soul. Before long, working among the lepers as well as society’s rejected became a joy for Francis as he realized that tending to them was itself a kind of mirror of the ministry he had received from Christ through the gospel. For Francis, Christians do not attain heights of glory through seclusion or attending to our own needs; rather, we meet God in the fullness of his glory as we attend to others in their need.
At a time when the papacy was, arguably, at its most corrupt and godless under the reign of Innocent III, Francis was a necessary corrective to what it meant to not only proclaim Christ, but to display Him before a world consumed by sin and self-righteousness. Sadly, though, not long after Francis died, the Franciscans began fighting over possessions and position, turning their attention away from what Francis had begun, and thereby forgetting that the last shall be first and the first, last.