In the 12th and 13th centuries Italy was a loose collection of cities, each with its own government and rules. Society was divided sharply between people with money and power (the majores) and those who lived as indentured servants (the minores). Cities fought against each other for domination.
It was an era when knights (wealthy young men) would destroy an entire city to conquer it for further economic gain. The church had recovered from the invasions of the barbarians but was in ruins internally. Clergy were not as concerned for the spirit of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth as they were about amassing their own fortunes.
They were seen as licentious drunkards. The papacy was fighting the emperor for control over various city-states. Ordinary people were not given an education in the Gospel or their faith. Heretical and sectarian groups were springing up as an antidote to this dangerous situation.
Many sectarian groups originated as a reaction to the abuses of the clergy at the time. Rather than demand payment for religious services, these groups depended on the generosity of others, claiming the Gospel imperative to “take nothing on the journey,” and “the worker is worth his keep.” Some of these (such as the heretical Catharists) had a dualistic view of the world.
Only things that were spiritual were deemed good. Anything involving the body or the Earth was corrupt. These groups encouraged people to lead a life of perfection that involved abstention from much food and any sexual activity. They disapproved of the church and any authority coming from the church.
Also in response to the times were the mendicant orders. They were groups of unmarried Christian men who were organized by a spiritual rule and, as their name suggests, were beggars. In contrast to the aforementioned groups, the followers of St. Francis and St. Dominic sought the approval of the popes. They received papal permission to preach in every church when the local bishop gave consent.
Both founders encouraged obedience to the Roman Church, even when they could easily see its abuses. They believed that Jesus had established the “universal church” on the weak shoulders of the early apostles and their successors, the popes, and church leaders.
Both orders, as mendicants, begged only for what they needed to eat for that day. They trusted that God would provide for their needs. Unlike the earlier monastic orders, the mendicants were itinerant; they did not live in the restricted environment of a monastery.
Rather they lived in loose groups on the road, open to the needs of the people whom they encountered. They agreed to live together in a common life, under a common constitution (the “rule”), with common possessions and clothing (the “habit”), and offering common prayer (the “Divine Office”).
Their aim was to spread the message of Jesus to all who would listen. Their lifestyle was part of that message, namely, that God would care for all real needs.
A common, democratic meeting, called a Chapter, held their obedience to each other together. Unlike the monks, who had one father abbot, the friars called their official religious superior their “minister” or “servant.”
Dominic Guzman in 1203 was an ordained priest for the cathedral of Osma, Spain. One day while accompanying his bishop, he found lodging at an inn where the innkeeper was an adherent to the beliefs of the Cathari. Being a simple man, the innkeeper was not rejecting the Catholic faith, as he had never been taught it. Dominic opened this man’s mind to the goodness of God found in the simple creed of the Catholic faith.
Dominic later discovered that the people who were charged by the church to spread the ideas of Christianity to the public were failing. Upon examination the reasons seemed apparent. These church delegates were traveling with great expense and were uninspiring in their preaching.
Dominic received the papal approval to preach to the Cathari. He founded a new kind of religious order based on the missionary pattern of the apostles. His followers would be well trained. They would preach with charity the “fruits of their (prayerful) contemplation.”
Dominic and Francis differed in their reasons for choosing poverty. For Dominicans poverty was not their romantic ideal, but a necessary state to allow mobility and credibility. Dominic made the communication of Christianity a priority.
From their prayerful study they would preach a convincing word that would be matched with an equally persuasive simple lifestyle. His followers would not preach the Gospel out of greed.
The followers of Francis of Assisi gathered almost by accident. Francis had a profound conversion that pulled him out of his middle-class background to align himself-with the minores, those simple people living in grinding poverty. His joy at following Jesus in his original poverty influenced Francis’s peers among the majores to leave all they had and follow Christ.
Francis called his group the Order of Friars Minor (Fratres Minores, or Lesser Brothers). His conversion happened in stages but was marked by key personal events, culminating in a powerful religious experience of embracing a man who was leprous.
This community of men held values that were contrary to their families and their world. They sought humble stations in life, allowed their personal relationship with Jesus to be their primary joy, and held creation dear.
Instead of marriage they idealized poverty as their spiritual “bride.” The humility of Jesus, being born in a stable, dying on a cross, and by faith coming back in the bread and wine of Communion, inspired them to pour out their own lives in the same poverty.
The Franciscans and Dominicans (orders of Friars Minor and Preachers, respectively) were a convincing alternative in the Middle Ages to a corrupt clergy, divided social class, violent culture. These simple beggars helped to beckon the worldly church to its original spiritual calling.
Their members included the learned Franciscans St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure and the very famous Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas. It was a new and controversial form of religious community that was highly persuasive among Christians of the late Middle Ages.