Posted by: liturgicalyear | October 4, 2012

St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order

Today we celebrate the feast of one of the most beloved saints of the Church, St. Francis of Assisi.  Born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy, Francis responded to the Lord’s call to “rebuild my church”.  Begging for his sustenance, preaching purity and peace and serving the poor and the sick of the community, his radical living of the gospel inspired others to follow him.  Pope Innocent III approved his order in 1210.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I get really confused about the different flavors of the Franciscan order – Capuchins, Friars Minor, Discalced, etc.  So I thought I’d take the occasion of his feast day to sort out the orders… kind of order the orders, if you will!

I found a great article from which discusses the differences among religious orders.  (This site is a resource for anyone discerning a religious vocation.)  Any info that I quote below will be from this site.

Religious orders follow a rule, usually written by or based on the original writing of the founder.  The rule defines the charism of the order and gives structure to the daily life balancing prayer and work – “Ora et labora” as St. Benedict said – following a schedule for each.  I sometimes think this might get rather boring and monotonous – set times to pray and work and things being all regimented.  Saint Faustina powerfully and beautifully refutes this perspective in her diary:

“O life so dull and monotonous, how many treasures you contain! When I look at everything with the eyes of faith, no two hours are alike, and the dullness and monotony disappear. The grace which is given me in this hour will not be repeated in the next. It may be given me again, but it will not be the same grace. Time goes on, never to return again. Whatever is enclosed in it will never change; it seals with a seal for  eternity.” […] “My life is not drab or monotonous, but it varied like a garden of fragrant flowers, so that I don’t know which flower to pick first, the lily of suffering, or the rose of love of neighbor, or the violet of humility.”  (61)

There are basically two types of orders: contemplative orders and active orders.

“Contemplative orders” (such as Benedictines, Carmelites, Trappists, Carthusians, Cistercians, etc.) are those who primarily focus is inward conversion; to grow in union with Our Lord for the love of God and the salvation souls.  Such communities typically have little interaction with the world, so that they may devote themselves to prayer and penance for the sanctification of the world.”

Again St. Faustina writes:

“By prayer and mortification, we will make our way to the most uncivilized  countries, paving the way for the missionaries. We will bear in mind that a  soldier on the front line cannot hold out long without support from the rear  forces that do not actually take part in the fighting but provide for all his  needs; and that such is the role of prayer, and that therefore each one of us  is to be distinguished by an apostolic spirit.” (539)

“Active orders” (Franciscans, Dominicans, Missionaries of Charity, etc.) are those who tend to have more direct interaction with the world than contemplative orders. In addition to prayer, active orders may devote some of their “work” time to external apostolates (teaching, preaching, soup kitchens, missions, youth retreats, media apostolates, etc.) rather than to self-supportive ends (gardening, bee farming, candle making, etc.). In this sense, they tend to follow Scripture in a more literal way; to “feed the hungry”, “give drink to the thirsty”; to be in the world, but not of the world. Active orders tend to be less bound by the walls of a monastery, and may reassign its members to different locations abroad. They are generally called mendicant orders, meaning; they live off of the charity of others, rather than trying to be self-supportive (note; Carmelites and Poor Clares are technically mendicants as well).

So what about the Franciscans?

Franciscans are typically characterized by their lives of simplicity, penance, poverty, and love for the poor. In a testament written by Saint Francis, the very first sentence contains the following; “The Lord granted me, Br. Francis, to begin to do penance in this way”. It is thus fitting that the Franciscan order be regarded as the Order of Penitents. The Franciscan school teaches Marian maximalism, that is; it attributes the highest possible glory to the Blessed Virgin short of divinity. Being a mendicant order, the Franciscans live solely off of the generosity of others, entrusting all to the hands of God. The Franciscans underwent a number of reforms throughout history, but were consolidated in 1897 into three main bodies;

1.  The Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.) were the result of a large consolidation of various branches (Observants, Discalced, Recollects, Riformati, etc.) by Pope Leo XII in 1897. Today the Friars Minor compose the largest body of the Franciscan order.

2.  The Conventual Franciscans were one of the first reforms of the Franciscan order. They desired to apply the Franciscan spirit to new applications (such as urban city apostolates, rather than remaining in rural areas). As such, the Conventuals were granted various dispensations to relax certain rules in order to carry out specific apostolates. The conventuals tended to take on a more academic spirit than, say, Capuchins for instance. There have been great fruits that originated from Conventual communities, such as St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Bonaventure, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe, known for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The most notable Franciscans to grow out of this renewal are the Franciscans of the Immaculate, who take a fourth vow of total consecration to Our Lady.

3.  The Capuchin reform (O.F.M. Cap.) dates from 1525, and not unlike the first Observants, they also desired a return to a stricter observance of the Franciscan rule–though, like most reforms, certain elements of its initial fervor declined with time. The Capuchins are more likely to be seen feeding the poor or street evangelizing, rather than writing a book on liturgics or studying mystical theology.

How can you tell them apart?  Friars Minor usually wear brown habits. Conventuals usually wear black habits. Capuchins usually wear grey habits. 

If you are interested in learning more about religious life, or if you or someone you know is discerning religious life, find out more at  Special thanks to them today for sourcing so much of this post.  Let us keep them and those they serve in prayer.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!  Anne



  1. I am not (yet?) Catholic, but am pleased my birthday (10/4/71) is St. Francis of Assisi Day.

    • Well, belated happy birthday, Mark! Saint Francis is an amazing role model for a Catholic man. Your “(yet?)” intrigues me. Are you in the process of coming into the Church or still discerning? Either way, ask St. Francis to pray with you as you do God’s will! I’ll do the same. God bless, Anne

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