|Friars' lives of poverty make their preaching
At the General Audience
on Wednesday, 13 [January 2010], in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the Holy
Father continued his Catecheses on medieval Christian culture,
commenting on the movement of ecclesial reform promoted by the two great
the Franciscans and the Dominicans. ....
The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
At the beginning of the New
Year let us look at the history of Christianity, to see how history
develops and how it can be renewed.
It shows that saints,
guided by God's light, are the authentic reformers of the life of the
Church and of society. As teachers with their words and witnesses with
their example, they can encourage a stable and profound ecclesial
renewal because they themselves are profoundly renewed, they are in
touch with the real newness: God's presence in the world.
This comforting reality
namely, that in every generation saints are born and bring the
creativity of renewal
constantly accompanies the Church's history in the midst of the sorrows
and negative aspects she encounters on her path.
Indeed, century after
century, we also see the birth of forces of reform and renewal, because
God's newness is inexhaustible and provides ever new strength to forge
This also happened in the
13th century with the birth and the extraordinary development of the
Mendicant Orders: an important model of renewal in a new historical
epoch. They were given this name because of their characteristic feature
of "begging", in other words humbly turning to the people for financial
support in order to live their vow of poverty and carry out their
The best known and most
important of the Mendicant Orders that came into being in this period
are the Friars Minor and the Friars Preachers, known as Franciscans and
Dominicans. Thus they are called by the names of their Founders,
respectively Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán.
These two great saints were
able to read "the signs of the times" intelligently, perceiving the
challenges that the Church of their time would be obliged to face.
A first challenge was the
expansion of various groups and movements of the faithful who, in spite
of being inspired by a legitimate desire for authentic Christian life,
often set themselves outside ecclesial communion.
They were profoundly
adverse to the rich and beautiful Church which had developed precisely
with the flourishing of monasticism. In recent Catecheses I have
reflected on the monastic community of Cluny, which had always attracted
young people, therefore vital forces, as well as property and riches.
Thus, at the first stage,
logically, a Church developed whose wealth was in property and also in
buildings. The idea that Christ came down to earth poor and that the
true Church must be the very Church of the poor clashed with this
Church. The desire for true Christian authenticity was thus in contrast
to the reality of the empirical Church.
These were the so-called
paupers' movements of the Middle Ages. They fiercely contested the way
of life of the priests and monks of the time, accused of betraying the
Gospel and of not practising poverty like the early Christians, and
these movements countered the Bishops' ministry with their own "parallel
Furthermore, to justify
their decisions, they disseminated doctrine incompatible with the
Catholic faith. For example, the Cathars' or Albigensians' movement
reproposed ancient heresies
such as the debasement of and contempt for the material world
the opposition to wealth soon became opposition to material reality as
such, the denial of free will and, subsequently, dualism, the existence
of a second principle of evil equivalent to God.
These movements gained
ground, especially in France and Italy, not only because of their solid
organization but also because they were denouncing a real disorder in
the Church, caused by the far from exemplary behaviour of some members
of the clergy.
Both Franciscans and
Dominicans, following in their Founders' footsteps, showed on the
contrary that it was possible to live evangelical poverty, the truth of
the Gospel as such, without being separated from the Church. They showed
that the Church remains the true, authentic home of the Gospel and of
Indeed, Dominic and Francis
drew the power of their witness precisely from close communion with the
Church and the Papacy. With an entirely original decision in the history
of consecrated life the Members of these Orders not only gave up their
personal possessions, as monks had done since antiquity, but even did
not want their land or goods to be made over to their communities.
By so doing they meant to
bear witness to an extremely modest life, to show solidarity to the poor
and to trust in Providence alone, to live by Providence every day,
trustingly placing themselves in God's hands.
This personal and community
style of the Mendicant Orders, together with total adherence to the
teaching and authority of the Church, was deeply appreciated by the
Pontiffs of the time, such as Innocent III and Honorious III, who gave
their full support to the new ecclesial experiences, recognizing in them
the voice of the Spirit.
And results were not
lacking: the groups of paupers that had separated from the Church
returned to ecclesial communion or were gradually reduced until they
disappeared. Today too, although we live in a society in which "having"
often prevails over "being", we are very sensitive to the examples of
poverty and solidarity that believers offer by their courageous
decisions. Today too, similar projects are not lacking: the movements,
which truly stem from the newness of the Gospel and live it with
radicalism in this day and age, placing themselves in God's hands to
serve their neighbour.
As Paul VI recalled in
Evangelii Nuntiandi, the world listens willingly to teachers
when they are also witnesses. This is a lesson never to be forgotten in
the task of spreading the Gospel: to be a mirror reflecting divine love,
one must first live what one proclaims.
The Franciscans and
Dominicans were not only witnesses but also teachers. In fact, another
widespread need in their time was for religious instruction. Many of the
lay faithful who dwelled in the rapidly expanding cities, wanted to live
an intensely spiritual Christian life. They therefore sought to deepen
their knowledge of the faith and to be guided in the demanding but
exciting path of holiness.
The Mendicant Orders were
felicitously able to meet this need too: the proclamation of the Gospel
in simplicity and with its depth and grandeur was an aim, perhaps the
principal aim, of this movement. Indeed, they devoted themselves with
great zeal to preaching. Great throngs of the faithful, often true and
proper crowds, would gather to listen to the preachers in the churches
and in the open air; let us think, for example, of St Anthony.
The preachers addressed
topics close to people's lives, especially the practice of the
theological and moral virtues, with practical examples that were easy to
understand. They also taught ways to cultivate a life of prayer and
For example, the
Franciscans spread far and wide the devotion to the humanity of Christ,
with the commitment to imitate the Lord. Thus it is hardly surprising
that many of the faithful, men and women, chose to be accompanied on
their Christian journey by Franciscan or Dominican Friars, who were much
sought after and esteemed spiritual directors and confessors. In this
way associations of lay faithful came into being, which drew inspiration
from the spirituality of St Francis and St Dominic as it was adapted to
their way of living.
In other words, the
proposal of a "lay holiness" won many people over. As the Second
Ecumenical Vatican Council recalled, the call to holiness is not
reserved to the few but is universal (cf. Lumen Gentium,
In all the states of life,
in accordance with the demands of each one of them a possibility of
living the Gospel may be found. In our day too, each and every Christian
must strive for the "high standard of Christian living", whatever the
class to which he or she belongs!
The importance of the
Mendicant Orders thus grew so vigorously in the Middle Ages that secular
institutions, such as the labour organizations, the ancient gilds and
the civil authorities themselves, often had recourse to the spiritual
counselling of Members of these Orders in order to draw up their
regulations and, at times, to settle both internal and external
The Franciscans and
Dominicans became the spiritual animators of the medieval city. With
deep insight they put into practice a pastoral strategy suited to the
social changes. Since many people were moving from the countryside to
the cities, they no longer built their convents in rural districts but
rather in urban zones.
Furthermore, to carry out
their activities for the benefit of souls they had to keep abreast of
pastoral needs. With another entirely innovative decision, the Mendicant
Orders relinquished their principle of stability, a classical principle
of ancient monasticism, opting for a different approach. Friars Minor
and Preachers travelled with missionary zeal from one place to another.
Consequently they organized themselves differently in comparison with
the majority of monastic Orders.
Instead of the traditional
autonomy that every monastery enjoyed, they gave greater importance to
the Order as such and to the Superior General, as well as to the
structure of the Provinces. Thus the Mendicants were more available to
the needs of the universal Church. Their flexibility enabled them to
send out the most suitable friars on specific missions and the Mendicant
Orders reached North Africa, the Middle East and Northern Europe. With
this adaptability, their missionary dynamism was renewed.
transformations taking place in that period constituted another great
challenge. New issues enlivened the discussion in the universities that
came into being at the end of the 12th century. Minors and Preachers did
not hesitate to take on this commitment. As students and professors they
entered the most famous universities of the time, set up study centres,
produced texts of great value, gave life to true and proper schools of
thought, were protagonists of scholastic theology in its best period and
had an important effect on the development of thought.
The greatest thinkers, St
Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, were Mendicants who worked precisely
with this dynamism of the new evangelization which also renewed the
courage of thought, of the dialogue between reason and faith.
Today too a "charity of and
in the truth" exists, an "intellectual charity" that must be exercised
to enlighten minds and to combine faith with culture.
The dedication of the
Franciscans and Dominicans in the medieval universities is an
invitation, dear faithful, to make ourselves present in the places where
knowledge is tempered so as to focus the light of the Gospel, with
respect and conviction, on the fundamental questions that concern Man,
his dignity and his eternal destiny.
Thinking of the role of the
Franciscans and the Dominicans in the Middle Ages, of the spiritual
renewal they inspired and of the breath of new life they communicated in
the world, a monk said: "At that time the world was ageing. Two Orders
were born in the Church whose youth they renewed like that of an eagle"
(Burchard of Ursperg, Chronicon).
Dear brothers and sisters, at the very beginning of this
year let us invoke the Holy Spirit, the eternal youth of the Church: may
he make each one aware of the urgent need to offer a consistent and
courageous Gospel witness so that there may always be saints who make
the Church resplendent, like a bride, ever pure and beautiful, without
spot or wrinkle, who can attract the world irresistibly to Christ and to