Mendicant is a term of Latin origin that means “to beg.” This title was given to a type of religious order that came into existence in the Middle Ages, which consisted of a band of professed men who would go from town to town preaching the Gospel. Because they did not own any property and took strict vows of poverty, they begged for alms from the faithful. At the time, religion was reserved to monasteries. Diocesan clergy were in a very bad state, and many parishes went without priests. Due to their success, Christianity was revitalized. Through the mendicant orders, religion came to the people.
Two of the greatest mendicant orders are Dominicans and Franciscans. Both orders were founded roughly at the same time. Saint Dominic and Saint Francis were contemporaries, though they exercised their ministry in different areas.
Saint Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, into a burgeoning merchant class. After his conversion, he gave up all his worldly possessions to heed the call he heard from Christ to rebuild His Church. At first, Francis thought He meant a physical rebuilding of churches, but later, when he founded his order, he came to understand that it was much more. Francis and his little band of friars rejuvenated the Church by preaching missions, going from home to home and town to town bringing the Gospel.
Saint Dominic was originally from Spain. He founded the Order of Preachers more commonly known as Dominicans. A great heresy called Albigensianism flourished at this time. Its followers rejected the sacraments and Church authority, lived promiscuous lives, and rejected the state’s right to punish criminals. Before Saint Dominic went to preach against this heresy, he founded the Dominican Nuns to be a first line of defense and pray for the success of his mission. He also taught doctrine to the unlearned by way of the rosary. Soon this new order attracted many members and became known for its preaching and teaching.
Many of the early universities were staffed by the Dominicans or Franciscans. These orders came to the New World to establish parishes, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions for the Church. The great Juniper Serra, who is credited for being a pioneer in America, was a member of the Franciscan Order and a champion of the civil rights of the Native Americans. Christianity grew and was strengthened because of these great Orders.