Friars are not monks, and the Catholic Church includes many different sub-groups or orders. Does this matter?

Show Notes

It should not surprise you to know that I sometimes catch errors as I give a final proofread to my scripts. The most egregious of these was a pod in which I nearly said that the persecutions of Diocletian were in the early 5th century. This would have been not merely a technical mistake: it would have weakened my effort to highlight the 4th century as the one in which Christianity began as a persecuted religion but ended as the official religion of the Roman Empire. True enough, pockets of paganism remained, and Rome itself was such a pocket, but the entire Roman world had taken a dramatic turn, and it’s worth remembering that this occurred mostly in the fourth century after Constantine had reunited the Empire. It helps to cement this fact when, pounding the pavements of the Eternal City, you notice that there are no churches from the third century, for they were not legal, while from the fourth you encounter St. John Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Santa Susanna, San Marco, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santi Quattri Coronati, and about 25 others. That this wave of major church building followed hard on the heels of a great persecution represents a dramatic metamorphosis of Rome and its whole empire, and I’d hate to have obscured the point by saying that the persecutions of Diocletian were in the 5th century.

If it’s not surprising that I catch some errors, it’s no less surprising that others escape my best effort to avoid them, and I’m grateful to a friendly listener who pointed one out. He graciously apologized for his possible pedantry but informed me that, in speaking of Savonarola, I was wrong to refer to him as a monk: technically speaking, he was a friar. I may have made a similar error in a previous pod if I called Martin Luther a monk, for he was an Augustinian canon.

I don’t think it was pedantic to point out my mistake, for using “monk” as a generic term obscures the differences and, sometimes, the disagreements that distinguish monks from friars. I keep saying, “the Church did this,” or “the Church did that,” but at some point—and this point is now—I need to make it clear that the Church embraces many different orders or approaches to the life of the Christian faith. The distinction between monks and friars is one of these, but there are others.

The friars began with the great reform movement led by Saints Dominic and Francis, which brought us the Franciscan and the Dominican orders in the beginning of the 13th century. At this time there were monasteries all over Europe, lots of them, and the word “monastery,” which is based on the root “monos” or “alone,” can help us remember that these were populated by monks who wanted to live alone, apart from the hustle, bustle, and sinfulness of the world. But Francis and Dominic rejected this aspiration, at least for themselves, and the papacy allowed them to found new orders that vowed to serve society rather than live apart from it. The Franciscans and Dominicans were also mendicant orders, which is to say they subsisted exclusively on the charity of others, not on the work that monks usually did in their monasteries, where the general aspiration was often summarized by “Ora et Labora,” or “Work and Prayer.”

I find the emergence of friars as opposed to monks to be important because it reminds us of disagreements on the question of the kind of life that best fulfills the requirements Christ’s teaching. The many orders within the Catholic Church show how far it went to bring within it different approaches to the faith that lies at its core. Its split with Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism show that it would not tolerate every variation.

As far as future podcasts are concerned, I think the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits are the orders we will call most attention to. When discussing Bernini and the Baroque, we noted that Rome is especially a counterreformation city, and the Jesuit order was founded at this time and took the lead in responding to the Protestant assault. It has two great churches in Rome, the Gesù and Sant’ Ignazio (or “Saint Ignatius”). The Jesuits also had a large college, but the New Rome seized it as soon as they took control of Rome in 1870. We will visit these three main Jesuit sites in later pods.

We will also visit the two great Dominican churches in Rome and the two great Franciscan churches. The former are Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill, and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is adjacent to the Pantheon. The Franciscans have Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill, and San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere.

Technically speaking, the friars associated with these Dominican and Franciscan churches do not live in monasteries, which are for monks. The most generic name for a non-monastic residence is “convent,” which we wrongly use here in the USA to refer to monasteries for women. I gather it is more correct to speak of those living monastic or cloistered lives as being housed in monasteries, while those living as friars, live in a convent. If you seek finer distinctions, look into abbeys, priories, and friaries.

In the end, I don’t mention this because I’m a fanatic about the labeling itself, but behind some of the labels were important disagreements about the best way to serve God and His Church. In a still broader study, it would be good to see how the monastic movement—in spite of the chosen isolation of monks and nuns—helped to revitalize the Catholic Church and even influence the defining characteristics of Europe. It was led first by the Abbey of Monte Cassino and later by the Abbey at Cluny. Later, the Dominican and Franciscan Friars made their contribution by leaving monasteries and penetrating society. No less interesting and important, it became difficult to sustain the precise identity of these orders over time, and new groups arose to challenge them, both from within and without. Striking examples include the Spiritual Franciscans and the Capuchins, both of whom charged that the Franciscan Order had lapsed from the high calling to which St. Francis had summoned his followers. It is unfortunate that for most visitors to Rome, the only memory of the Capuchins is the bizarre crypt in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, “Saint Mary of the Conception,” generally nicknamed “the Bone Church.”  I suspect it is more important to remember the Capuchins as evidence of recurring efforts to reform the Franciscan Order from within.

It’s great to learn from one’s own mistakes, but you’ll learn more if you learn also from those of others. So learn from my recent failure to distinguish between monks and friars. Doing so will put you on the road to becoming attentive to the various orders that exist within the Catholic Church and to the several reform movements that have sprung up in it over its 1,500 years of prominence in Rome and the rest of Europe.

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