THE INITIAL SUCCESS OF THE MENDICANTS (1)
The impact of the mendicant friars upon the history of the Christian Church in the West must be measured against the problems with which these religious orders began.
They were a revolutionary answer to a potentially revolutionary social change.
For the spiritual and intellectual turbulence of the twelfth century, which had accompanied the growth of towns, a monetary society and the beginnings of a bourgeoisie or noveaux riche middle class, had not only given birth to new forms of monastic life but also had awakened religious aspirations of a more articulate laity.
The traditional monastic theology and the existing church structures seemed unable to address satisfactorily the change in the laity.
It was the achievement of the friars (which the Popes if not the local bishops saw as a solution if appropriately contained within traditional Church authority), through their teaching and example, to satisfy the new quest for spiritual growth within the laity, and to direct it into orthodox channels.
At the same time, the schools and universities they staffed and nurtured succeeded in reconciling the dogmas of faith with the new sciences.
It cannot be doubted that the success of their ministry checked the spread of false doctrine (heresy) and averted the hostility against church structures and against its domination of all areas of public and private life.
This hostility finally burst forth with violence in the sixteenth century, by which time the mendicant orders themselves - like the rest of the Church around them - were in serious need of reform.
At the heart of the message of the friars was a belief that the Christian life was not a monopoly of a professional church elite, but was available to all; that the interior life of the Spirit, even the highest experiences of the contemplative life, could be pursued in the secular field through common tasks and the performance of the duties of one's daily routine for the praise of God.
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