Seeking to permeate the new urban social order with the ideals of Saint Francis, some friars settled in the urban slums, the suburbs. For the medievals, the suburbs were those neighbourhoods where the huts and shacks of the poorest were built outside the safety of the city walls. In London, the first settlement of the friars was on "Stinking Lane," clearly not named for a fashionable quarter.
Since the suburbs were also the place where hospitals were set up, the friars were often commissioned by the city government to facilitate the care of the sick. The friars eventually replaced huts with more solid buildings and constructed churches. From the time of Anthony of Padua, friars preached not only on Sundays and holidays - preaching was not common practice at the time - but also during the rainy seasons. Robert Grosseteste, then Bishop of Lincoln, marvelled that the people "run to the friars for instruction as well as for confession and direction. They are transforming the world."
But even with its positive developments, this movement into the cities was controversial and split the Order into two factions: those who desired a life of solitary meditation in rural areas, and those who desired to live together in friaries and work among the urban poor. This latter group was first known as the "Friars of the Community." By 1250 they were also referred to as Fratres Conventuales ("Conventual Friars") - a generic designation for those religious who lived in a stable house (conventus in Latin). However, the official title remained Fratres Minores until the division of 1517, when these followers of Saint Francis became definitively known as Fratres Minores Conventuales - "Friars Minor Conventual".
With the major exception of the Portiuncula, generally the Conventuals did not remain at the sites associated with Francis' actual presence. The caves where he prayed, the hermitages built near the well water that turned into wine, the trees where he preached to birds, all became smaller sanctuaries that attracted the temporary structures of the eremetical friars. The Friars of the Community sought to take Francis' spirit beyond the confinement of the time and space that he had occupied on earth, and bring it into the far reaches of a universal Church. As with the apostles after the Ascension of Christ, the Friars of the Community could not stand gazing heavenward. After the founder's death, they began the task of transforming Francis' earthly existence into something that would endure the passing elements of history, creating anew for each generation a message as fresh as when they stood so close beside him.
Therefore, at a time when vast tracts of land were understood as power, the minority of the Conventuals led them to nestle their large houses into small plots where "Lady Poverty" could dwell with her handmaid, Community. There, the concentration of talented men living a regularized life steeped in prayer, study and work, became like a well-armed garrison that fought against the power of darkness and despondency on the battleground of urban and suburban life. The friary acted as a fortress of faith where disciplined austerity, focused generosity, and harmonized prayer grounded the friars in stability, while their itinerant hearts were missioned into the farthest corners of earthly possibilities.
Due to their international sharing of vocations and talent, the friars had news to tell from different lands, and various perspectives to propagate. As church attendance among the laity continued to increase, the friars were pumping new faith, sentiment and poetry into the heart of an invigorated Church.
The medieval university was the pinnacle of human dignity; it sought to glorify God by participating in Creation. Faith always preceded science; it fixed its boundaries and prescribed its traditions. The seven liberal arts - the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy - were the sacred categorizing of God's universe and the channelling of knowledge which was always directed toward theology, the "Queen of the Sciences."
Initially afraid that learning would distance the friars from the ordinary people, Francis became more concerned about what the lack of learning was producing - a distancing from authentic Catholic teaching. Before Francis' death in 1226, not only were great numbers of intellectuals joining the Order, but a house of studies was established at the University of Paris (1219). Francis had first resisted and then accepted the pope's encouragement to build a house of studies at the University of Bologna (l220), where Anthony of Padua opened the first school of theology. When commissioning Anthony to teach, Francis only stipulated that in pursuing academic endeavours the spirit of prayer and devotion should not be extinguished.
Bonaventure himself confessed that he was drawn to Saint Francis because, just as the Church had made scholars and doctors out of lowly fishermen, so likewise in the sacred reversal of things, the Friars Minor were transforming men of culture and science into simple men of humility. Even though the Zelanti and Spirituals complained that learning was against the ideals of Saint Francis ("Ok, Paris, you have ruined Assisi!"), the Minister General John of Parma (1247-1257), a Spiritual himself, asserted that the structure of the Order rested on two pillars: virtue and learning.
The Franciscans soon came to agree with the Dominicans that study was a form of prayer. To further maintain this precept, at the initiative of Pope Innocent IV, the people of Bologna built the friars another house near the university, strictly for the purpose of contemplation. Earlier, the papal decree Quia Populares Tumultus (1224), also encouraged religious to remember the importance of a retired life amidst the activity.
And there was plenty of activity. These large academic friaries were also centres of charity that ministered to all classes of society. The nursing of common ailments and serious diseases involved the friars in studying and developing the medical sciences. They practiced what was known as observed science, an observation of behavioural patterns that led to a scientific discovery. At a time when germs were unknown, the friars significantly improved basic hygiene by teaching people to wash their clothing in one fountain and to drink out of another fountain. In fact, the friars' concern about clean water prompted them to build aqueducts and conduits that transported water over long distances into the towns and into their friaries.
Although among the most learned men of their day, the friars always strove for simplicity in their lifestyle and clarity in their presentation. They became well known for compiling, condensing and simplifying a great many books which came to be used as resources for an active clergy. The mostly uneducated population also depended on the graces of the educated to help them improve their lot and to negotiate the dilemmas of daily life. Like other religious, the friars taught the peasantry basic logic of cause and effect regarding agricultural and celestial cycles for the planting of crops and the pruning of vines. They also acted as arbitrators for endless quarrels which could arise from any minor or major injury or dispute and lead to a volatile confrontation. Similarly, the ruling classes depended on the religious professors of the universities to debate and resolve curia1 and courtly litigations.
After 1250, the number of friars studying at the University of Paris had increased to such an extent that their friary became the largest house in the university. The Franciscan theological faculty enjoyed the highest respect of the university itself, and Paris remained the academic centre for the whole Order until the French Revolution. Oxford came after Paris in importance, and soon became its rival. It was pre-eminently the friars of Oxford who shed lustre over the whole Order, and who in turn made Oxford famous throughout the entire Christian world. By 1450, beyond Paris and Oxford, the Franciscan faculties had expanded to major academic centres throughout Europe. To list but a few: Bologna, Cambridge, Cologne, Cracow, Dublin, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Lund, Naples, Parma, Pisa, Prague, Rome, Salamanca, Siena, Toulouse and Vienna.
Interestingly enough, the association of the Conventuals with the universities also influenced the cut of their habit. Because the external garment was such an important sign of identity, the shoulder cape eventually lengthened in the tradition of the other teaching friars - Augustinians, Carmelites and Dominicans, distinguishing them as academic and orthodox authorities. In an age of rampant heresy, the friars were sent as true apostles against false prophets. Centuries later, the friars of the various Reform movements would shorten their cape as a sign of their renunciation of learning.
- Ordo Fratrum Minorum Conventualium - Conventual Franciscans
- Conventual Franciscan Friars in the United States
- Order of Friars Minor Conventuals Article from the Catholic Encyclopedia
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