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Western Christianity


Doctrines Franciscan belief and practice are based on the life and teaching of St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Francis was inspired by Christ's instruction to his disciples recorded in Matthew 10:7-9 "Preach as you go saying 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' . . . Take no gold or silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for the journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff, for the labourer is worthy of his food." In this prescription of absolute poverty Francis saw the means to imitate the life of Christ. Francis and his followers - known as the friars minor or little friars to distinguish them from the monastic orders - adopted a rule which required them to reject all property, whether personal or communal, and to be entirely dependent on the charity of others. However, as the movement grew in size the original rule came to be regarded as too arduous. In 1221 and 1223 St Francis produced two new rules which, while prescribing poverty, allowed the friars some personal possessions.

History The Franciscans are a religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1207, and given papal approval in 1209. In 1212 an order of Franciscan nuns was established at Assisi by St Clare, an early convert of St Francis. Dedicating themselves to a life of poverty, St Francis and his followers travelled and preached through Italy, winning some 5000 converts in their first ten years. The order continued to grow under the influence of the mystic Italian theologian St Bonaventura (1221-1274). During this period Franciscan missionaries spread throughout Europe and established theological schools in Paris and Oxford.
The 14th century witnessed a decline in religious zeal which produced a number of reformist parties. These reformist known as the Observants separated themselves from the main body of friars (called the Conventuals) with the intention of adopting a more austere lifestyle. In 1517 they established themselves as a completely independent branch of the order with the name Friars Minor of the Observance. Within this group another stricter group, the Capuchins, was founded in 1525. In 1619 they became independent, forming a third branch of the Franciscan order. in 1897 the Observants were given the official title Order of Friars Minor and a new constitution. The Friars Minor, the Friars Conventual and the Friars Minor Capuchin continue today as three distinct orders.

Symbols All three orders wear a rope cord around the waist. The cord symbolises the bridle of a subdued animal, for this is how St Francis considered the body in relation to the mind. There are many images of St Francis and St Clare. Paintings of St Francis almost always represent him bearing the marks of the crucifixion on his body. Sometimes he is depicted as a lamb and lily, symbols of meekness and purity. At other times he is portrayed encountering three ladies who represent obedience, poverty and chastity. St Clare is sometimes portrayed holding a palm which characterises her victory over suffering, persecution and temptation.

Adherents There are now some 25,000 Franciscan friars and priests living in most countries of the world (Harris et al. 1994, 81).

Main Centre
 The Vatican.