The Franciscans are members of a religious order that follows the rule of Saint Francis of Assisi. The first Franciscans, called the Order of Friars Minor, followed an ideal of total poverty; they possessed nothing in common or individually. Forbidden to accept money, they lived from day to day by working and begging. When they began studying and living at universities, however, they had to modify their strict ideal of poverty. By the time Saint Francis died (1226), the order had spread from Italy to England, the Holy Land, and all of Europe. The friars were known as the people's preachers. They wore a gray tunic with a white cord at the waist; hence, their English name Grey Friars.

From the beginning, there were disagreements about the direction the order would take. The Franciscan minister general, Saint Bonaventure, sought a balance between the Conventuals, who wanted to adapt their poverty to the needs of the time, and the Spirituals, who wanted a strict poverty. The quarrel intensified during the 14th century when some of the Spiritual Franciscans, known as the Fraticelli, were condemned (1317–18) by Pope John XXII. Disagreements about the ideal of poverty brought a permanent division in the 15th century between the Friars Minor Conventual (O.F.M. Conv.) and the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.). In the 16th century, the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M. Cap.) established a stricter independent branch of Franciscans.

Preaching, teaching, foreign missions, and parish work remain the work of the Franciscans today. The Poor Clares, Franciscan nuns, are the second order. The Third Order comprises lay men and women who combine prayer and penance with everyday activity. Many sisters, brothers, and priests follow the Franciscan ideal in communities affiliated with the Third Order. There are Franciscan communities in the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican (or Episcopalian) churches.

The English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon was a Franciscan, as were the philosopher-theologians Duns Scotus and William of Occam. Other famous Franciscans include Saint Anthony of Padua; two Renaissance popes, Sixtus IV and Sixtus V; and Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions.

by Reverend Cyprian Davis, O.S.B

Bibliography: Lambert, M. D., I (1961); Lawrence, C. H., The Friars: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society (1994); Moorman, John R., A History of the Franciscan Order From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (1968; repr. 1988); Short, W., The Franciscans (1989).