December 4, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Francis and Dominic found orders

John F. Fink(Seventeenth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about Pope Innocent III, probably the most powerful pope in the medieval Church when it came to secular politics. He considered himself “below God and above man,” and he acted like it. When it came to fighting heresy, he did it literally, calling a crusade against the Albigensians in southern France, as well as a crusade against the Muslims in Spain.

However, he also did a lot of good for the Catholic Church. As I wrote last week, he called the Fourth Lateran Council, the most important council in the Middle Ages, which defined the Eucharist, using the word “transubstantiation” for the first time, and issued 70 decrees to reform the Church.

It was also Pope Innocent III who approved the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans, which was founded by St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born in 1181 and died in 1226 at age 44. He has always been one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church because of the way he took the Gospel literally and followed all that Jesus taught. He is known for his joyfulness, love of nature and devotion to Christ crucified. Most Catholics are familiar with his life.

When Francis had only a few followers, they thought they had better go to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent to found a new religious order. This was important because it recognized the pope’s authority and prevented Francis and his followers from being accused of heresy.

After meeting with Francis and 11 followers, Pope Innocent at first had his doubts. However, he apparently had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome), so he gave verbal approval to the Franciscans on April 16, 1210.

Three years later, Francis and St. Clare founded the Second Order of Franciscans, the Poor Clares, and in 1221, Francis founded the Third Order of St. Francis for lay people. By that time, Pope Innocent had died and Pope Honorius III is the one who gave definitive approval to St. Francis’s orders.

St. Dominic lived roughly at the same time as St. Francis, but he lived in a different part of Europe. Dominic was born in Castile, Spain, in 1170, and died in 1221. On a trip to France with his bishop, he came face to face with the Albigensian heresy.

As I wrote last week, before sending that crusade into southern France, Pope Innocent sent preachers to try to combat the heresy, and Dominic was part of those missions. It is said that he was more successful than the others who were sent because he lived simply, unlike some of the others.

He continued this work for 10 years, during which time his band of preachers gradually became a community. Formal approval of a rule for the Order of Preachers—or Dominicans as they would come to be called—was given in 1216, also by Pope Honorius III since Pope Innocent III died earlier that year. †

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