15 Awesome Facts About the Franciscan Order

Jeannie Ewing

15 Awesome Facts About the Franciscan Order

Tomorrow, October 4, is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order. Here are fifteen facts you didn't know about the devout and venerable Franciscan order.

Founding

St. Francis of Assisi was so moved by a homily on Matthew 10:9 in 1209 that he decided to take it literally and sell all that he had, and from then on he lived in poverty.  This radical transformation led Francis to beg, wear no shoes and only a tattered brown garment.  After he started preaching repentance, others joined him, including Bernard of Quintavalle (a prominent citizen of Assisi).  Francis’ earliest rule included only rough manuscripts about the Scriptural references to adhering to evangelical poverty.

Reforms

Pope Leo X brought about stringent regulations on the original Franciscan order, the Order of Friars Minor (or Observants) during his papacy in the fifteenth century.  Because of this, many branches of Franciscans emerged, mainly in response to his demands, but also due to the cause of the Counter-Reformation, which rivaled the Jesuits.  The Franciscans of this era suffered martyrdom and dealt with socio-political issues regarding the French Revolution and German secularizations.

Branches

There are three orders of Franciscans that include subdivisions, as well as specific affiliations.  The First Order includes three branches: the earliest branch, dating back to Francis himself, and are known as “Franciscans” or “Observants,” who are a religious order of men; the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, or simply “Capuchins;” and the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, or simply “Conventuals.”

The Second Order is the Order of St. Clare, or the Poor Clares, which is a group of religious women.

The Third Order includes two branches: the Secular Franciscans and the Third Order Franciscans.  Secular Franciscans live out the Franciscan charisms within their vocations, and these people are not consecrated as religious brothers, sisters, or ordained as priests.  Third Order Franciscans live in religious communities and live under traditional religious vows.

History of orders and organizations

Around 1525, a group of Franciscans wanted to live a stricter rule than the original Order of Friars Minor that St. Francis of Assisi founded.  They believed it was actually Francis’ intention for them to live more austere vows of poverty and prayer than what was recorded at the time.  The Capuchins received their name because of their long brown hoods that has become their signature habit.

The Conventuals are a newer order, based on the life and spirituality of St. Maximilian Kolbe and have the largest concentration of friars in Poland (but are located worldwide).

St. Francis founded the Secular Franciscans in 1212 for those who do not live in a religious community, yet desired to follow the Franciscan way of life.

The Third Order Franciscans do take religious vows and live in a community, and they are challenged to live an integrated life through prayer, community, and their ministry to serve the poor, neglected and disadvantaged youth, the powerless, people in need, and the elderly.

Other associated groups include the Minims, who are a group of hermits that include mendicant friars, contemplative nuns, and lay tertiaries, founded by St. Francis of Paola.  Other tertiaries include the Society of the Atonement, Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Franciscans International, and Franciscan Friars of the Eternal Word – famously founded by Mother Angelica.

Saints

Anthony of Padua

Like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua was born to wealthy parents in Portugal and was a contemporary of St. Francis himself.  His most notable virtues and charisms included zealous preaching, exemplary knowledge of Scripture, and an unwavering devotion to caring for the poor and sick.  He has become the patron of lost articles and is often called upon in the jingle, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around.  Something’s been lost and must be found.”  His devotees attest to his unfailing help, even in unlikely and impossible circumstances.  He is a Doctor of the Church.

Bonaventure

Known as the “Seraphic Doctor,” St. Bonaventure was also one of St. Francis’ earliest followers.  A brilliant philosopher and theologian, he eventually became a Cardinal and was named Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor during the Italian medieval era.  A prolific writer, St. Bonaventure was named a Doctor of the Church and is most noted for his virtues of temperance and humility, as well as his spiritual gifts of writing and theology.

Padre Pio

One of the most beloved modern saints, St. Padre Pio – or St. Pius of Pietrelcina – was a mystic, stigmatist, and faithful Capuchin who spent most of his time at San Giovanni Rotondo.  St. Padre Pio was a well-sought priest during his lifetime, as thousands upon thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics flocked to spend even a fleeting moment with him, or perhaps stand in line for hours in order for him to hear their confessions.  He was well known for his ability to levitate, bilocate, and read souls.  He also had the gifts of healing and prophecy.  As is the case for many saints, he endured a period of his priesthood where he was unable to say Mass and was persecuted by naysayers.  Eventually he was both beatified and canonized by St. John Paul II.

Joseph Cupertino

Interestingly, St. Joseph of Cupertino was not particularly intelligent, yet he experienced spiritual ecstasies and levitations during mystical revelations from God.  He was a Conventual Franciscan.  Naturally, he had many skeptics due to the mystical nature of his charisms.  He is the patron saint of air travelers, aviators, astronauts, people with mental illnesses, test takers, and poor students.

Maximilian Kolbe

St. Maximilian exhibited heroic charity when he volunteered to take the place of a married man in Auschwitz who was selected to die of starvation.  He promoted devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and started the Militia of the Immaculata, or Blue Army of Mary.  Because of this, he is known today as a promoter of Marian consecration and is known by several titles: “Martyr of Charity,” “Patron Saint of our Difficult Century,” and “Apostle of Consecration to Mary.”

Angela of Foligno

The “Mistress of Theologians,” St. Angela was an Italian Franciscan tertiary who is well known for her mystical spiritual writings of revelations she received from God.  She founded a religious order that was based on refusal to accept becoming an enclosed religious order, which remains active today.  She is the patroness of those affected by sexual temptations and widows.

Agnes of Assisi

St. Agnes was the younger sister of St. Clare and served as the abbess of the Order of Poor Ladies, which eventually became the Poor Clares.  She and St. Clare left their home together in secret in order to pursue a life of austerity with St. Francis.  Drawn by a life of poverty and penance, she faithfully devoted her life as a religious sister to the Franciscan way until her death in 1253.

Vows

Conventual Franciscans are in disagreement with the cloistered tertiary about living in community versus proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  They take traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience with an emphasis on serving the poor and marginalized in their communities.

In addition to these traditional vows – which most Franciscan orders and affiliates adhere to – the Capuchins have adopted a more eremitical way of life, espousing extreme austerity, simplicity, and poverty, including begging and the refusal to even touch money, let alone accept it.

Charisms

Naturally, the standout charism of the Franciscans is poverty.  Not only do they live a life of poverty in varying forms – from the traditional vows to the more extreme eremitical adoption of begging and refusal to manage money or own anything other than their clothing – but they also work steadfastly for the cause of the poor and disenfranchised.  Franciscans often work in hospitals, schools, communities, soup kitchens, parishes, and a variety of other locations, but their heart is always with those who suffer from situational or generational poverty. 

Most Franciscans, whether vowed or affiliated, also live out St. Francis’ desire to preach the Gospel to everyone, proclaiming God’s mercy and love.  This is out of love for God and others, as well as zeal to make known who God is and the truth for all people to be drawn to.

Many also spend an abundance of time doing acts of penance and praying in solitude as intercessors for those whom God sends them along the journey of life.

Works

In addition to very visible works of mercy for the poor, Franciscans live a life of penance that includes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Most of their work centers around living among the homeless and poor, often working at homeless shelters or soup kitchens.  Some do street evangelization in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and others focus on organizing renewal retreats or even public preaching.  They are often very attuned to creation and promote stewardship of our natural resources, as well as plant and animal life.

Garments

Franciscans vary in the garments they wear, but there is consistency in certain accessories.  The habit is generally brown in color, though some are gray or white.  It is a full-length robe designed to imitate the look of a cross.  Mostly made of unbleached wool, it is tied at the waist by a white cord.  Three knots on the cord signify the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As noted earlier, the Capuchins also have a hood on their garment, but it is otherwise the same as what is described above.

Franciscans are one of the most popular and beloved orders among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Because of his calling to care for creation and do works of mercy for the poor and sick, people are fascinated by the history of St. Francis and his original vision—as well as the movements that have since developed in order to promote a lifestyle of holiness and evangelization.

What else should we know about the Franciscans? Leave a comment below!