This is one of the three separate bodies, forming with the Friars Minor and the Capuchins what is commonly called the First Order of St. Francis. All three bodies today follow the rule of the Friars Minor, but whereas the Friars Minor and the Capuchins profess this rule pure and simple, differing only accidentally in their particular constitutions, the Conventuals observe it with certain dispensations lawfully accorded.
There has been some difference of opinion as to the origin of the name "Conventual". Innocent IV decreed ( Bull "Cum tamquam veri", 5 April, 1250) that Franciscan churches where convents existed might be called Conventual churches, and some have maintained that the name "Conventual" was first given to the religious residing in such convents. Others, however, assert that the word Conventualis was used to distinguish the inmates of large convents from those who lived more after the manner of hermits. In any event it seems safe to assert that the term Conventual was not used to signify a distinct section of the Order of Friars Minor in any official document prior to 1431. Since that time, and more especially since 1517, this term has been employed to designate that branch of the Franciscan Order which has accepted dispensations from the substantial observance of the rule in regard to poverty. It may be noted, however, that the name "Conventual" has not been restricted to the Franciscan Order. Thus the statutes of the Camaldolese approved by Leo X distinguish between the Conventuals and the Observants in that order, and St. Pius V ( Bull "Superioribus mensibus", 16 April, 1567) says: "That which we have decreed for the Conventuals of the Order of St. Francis we decree likewise for the Conventuals of other orders".
Although all the religious professing the rule of the Friars Minor continued to form one body under the same head for over three hundred years (1209-10 to 1517), it is well known that even during the lifetime of St. Francis a division had shown itself in the ranks of the friars, some favouring a relaxation in the rigour of the rule, especially as regards the observance of poverty, and others desiring to adhere to its literal strictness. The tendency towards relaxation became more marked after the death of the Seraphic founder (1226), and was encouraged by his successor, Brother Elias. The latter, a man of great ability, but whose religious ideals differed vastly from those of St. Francis, even oppressed such as opposed his views. The long and deplorable controversy which followed–a controversy which called forth a mass of remarkable writings and even affected imperial politics–resulted in two parties being formed within the order, the Zelanti, who were zealous for the strict observance of the rule and who were afterwards named Observants, and the fratres de communitate who had adopted certain mitigations and who gradually came to be called Conventuals. In spite of the fact that a cleavage had been gradually developing between these two branches from at least the middle of the fourteenth century, it was only in 1415 at the Council of Constance that the Church authoritatively recognized this division in the order. Hence the Holy See decreed that all the friars who died before that council may not be termed either Observants or Conventuals, but simply Friars Minor (see Decrees of 25 Sept., 1723; 11 Dec., 1723; and 26 Feb., 1737). Notwithstanding this division of the order formally sanctioned in 1415 by the Council of Constance, both Observants and Conventuals continued to form one body under the same head until 1517.
In the latter year Leo X called a general chapter of the whole order at Rome, with a view to effecting a complete reunion between the Observants and Conventuals. The former acceded to the wish of the sovereign pontiff but requested permission to observe the rule without any dispensation ; the latter declared they did not wish for the union if it entailed their renouncing the dispensations they had received from the Holy See. Leo X thereupon incorporated with the Observants ( Bull "Ite et vos in vineam meam", 29 May, 1517) all the Franciscan friars who wished to observe the rule without dispensation, abolishing the different denominations of Clareni, Colletani, etc.; he decreed that the members of the great family thus united should be called simply Friars Minor of St. Francis, or Friars Minor of the Regular Observance, and should have precedence over the Conventuals; he moreover conferred upon them the right of electing the minister general, who was to bear the title of Minister General of the Whole Order of Friars Minor, and to have the exclusive use of the ancient seal of the order as the legitimate successor of St. Francis. On the other hand, those who continued to live under dispensations were constituted a separate body with the name of Conventuals ( Bulls "Omnipotens Deus", 12 June, 1517, and "Licet Alias", 6 Dec., 1517) and given the right to elect a master general of their own, whose election, however, had to be confirmed by the Minister General of the Friars Minor. The latter appears never to have availed himiself of this right, and the Conventuals may be regarded as an entirely independent order from 1517, but it was not until 1580 that they obtained a special cardinal protector of their own. Some years later the masters general of the order began to call themselves "Ministers General". Father Evangelist Pelleo, elected fifteenth master general in 1587, was the first to take this title, which has been generally accorded to his forty-nine successors even in Apostolic letters, though the ordinance of Leo X was neverally formally revoked. Under Sixtus V (1587) the Conventuals attempted to dispute the right of the Minister General of the Friars Minor to the title "Minister General of the Whole Order", but were unsuccessful. They renewed their efforts under Clement VIII (1593 and 1602) but with no greater success. In 1625 they again reopened the question, which was discussed for nearly six years. On 22 March, 1631, the right of the Minister General of the Friars Minor to the title in dispute was solemnly confirmed by the Sacred Congregation of Rules, and Benedict XIII by a Bull of 21 July, 1728, imposed perpetual silence upon the contestants.
In 1565 the Conventuals accepted the Tridentine indult allowing mendicant orders to own property corporately, and their chapter held at Florence in that year drew up statutes contining several important reforms which Pius IV subsequently approved ( Bull "Sedis Apostolicæ", 17 Sept., 1565). Three years later St. Pius V ( Bull "Ad Extirpandos", 8 June, 1568) sought to enforce a stricter observance of the vow of poverty and of the community life among the Conventuals, and the superiors of the order immediately enacted statutes conformable to his desires, which the pope approved " Bull "Illa nos cura", 23 July, 1568). In 1625 new constitutions were adopted by the Conventuals which superseded all preceding ones. These constitutions, which were subsequently promulgated by Urban VIII ( Bull "Militantes Ecclesiæ", 5 May, 1628), are known as the "Constitutiones Urbanæ" and are of primary importance, since at their profession the Conventuals vow to observe the Rule of St. Francis in accordance with them, that is to say, by admitting the duly authorized dispensations therein set forth (see "Constitutiones Urbanæ ordinis fratrum Minorum Sti. Francisci Conventualium", Assisi, 1803). It would therefore be no less false than unjust to regard the Conventuals as less observant of the obligations contracted by their profession than the Friars Minor and Capuchins, since they are not bound by all the obligations assumed by either of the latter. The institution of several communities and even provinces of Reformed Conventuals, more especially between 1562 and 1668 (see "Constituzioni generali de’ frati riformati de’ Minori Conventuali da osservarsi per tutta la riforma, fatte per ordine del Capitulo generale de’ Minori Conventuali celebrato in Orvieto Panno 1611"), affords interesting proof of the vitality of the order, which for the rest has possessed many men of eminent virtue and has rendered important services to the Church.
St. Joseph of Cupertino (d. 1663), one of the greatest saints of the seventeenth century, and Bl. Bonaventure of Potenza (d. 1711) were both Conventuals, and the beatification of several other members of the order is now under way. The Conventuals have, moreover, given three popes to the Church : Sixtus IV (1471-84), Sixtus V (1585-90), and Clement XIV (1769-74), besides a number of cardinals and other distinguished prelates. Among the eminent theologians and scholars the order has produced, the names of Mastrius, Pagi, Brancati, Papini, Sbaralea, and Eubel are perhaps most familiar. The Conventuals enjoy the privilege of guarding the tomb of St. Francis at Assisi and that of St. Anthony at Padua, and they furnish the penitantiaries to the Vatican Basilica and to the sanctuary at Loreto. At Rome they possess the famous church and convent of the Twelve Apostles, and it is here that their general resides. The habit of the Conventuals which was formerly gray is now black–whence they are sometimes called by the people the "Black Franciscans ", in contrast to the Friars Minor and Capuchins, whose habit is brown; it consists of a serge tunic fastened around the waist with a thin white cord with three knots; to the large cape, which is round in front and pointed behind, a small hood is attached. Unlike the Friars Minor and the Capuchins, the Conventuals wear birettas and shoes.
In 1517 the Conventuals formed only about a sixth part of the order. After their separation from the Friars Minor, the number of Conventuals diminished considerably. In Spain Cardinal Ximenes was instrumental in depriving them of their convents, which were given to the Friars Minor. Clement VII, 11 June, 1524, ordered the Provincial of the Friars Minor of Burgos to bring back to the Regular Observance all the Conventuals in the Kingdom of Navarre, and St. Pius V, 16 April, 1567, commanded all the Conventuals in Spain to embrace the Regular Observance. Like measures were adopted, 30 October, 1567, in regard to Portugal, where as in Flanders and in Denmark all the Conventuals gradually passed over to the Friars Minor. In France all their provinces save three joined the main branch of the order. Nevertheless the Conventuals continued to prosper in other countries. In Italy and Germany they suffered fewer losses than elsewhere. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they increased very much, for in 1770 they possessed some 31 provinces with 966 convents. In France alone they had 48 convents and numbered 330 religious. In 1771, 8 convents in France including the great convent in Paris, which had since 1517 been subject to the Minister General of the Friars Minor, passed over to the Conventuals, giving them a total of 2620 religious in France alone, but twenty years later their number there had fallen to 1544. Since the revolutionary epoch the order lost more than 1000 houses, principally in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. At present (1907) it is divided into 26 provinces. Of these 12 are in Italy, the others being those of Malta ; Gallicia, Russia and Lithuania ; Strasburg, comprising Bavaria and Switzerland ; Liège, comprising Belgium and Holland ; Austria and Styria ; Bohemia, with Moravia and Silesia ; Hungary and Transylvania ; Spain ; the United States ; Rumania, with the mission of Moldavia; and the Orient, with the mission of Constantinople. The mission of Moldavia, which is one of the oldest in the Seraphic Order, comprises 10 convents with parishes, in which there are 28 missionaries governed by an archbishop belonging to the order. There are also 10 convents and 28 missionaries connected with the mission at Constantinople, where the Apostolic delegate is a Conventual. The order has recently made new foundations in England and Denmark. According to the latest available official statistics (1899), the Conventuals numbered in all some 1500 religious.
At least two Conventual missionaries were labouring in the United States in the early forties, but the establishment of the order there may be said to date from 1850. In 1907 there were two flourishing provinces of the order in the United States the province of the Immaculate Conception which numbers thirteen convents and houses, those at Syracuse, Louisville, Trenton, Camden, Hoboken, Albany, and Terre Haute being the most important; and the province of St. Anthony of Padua , the members of which are Poles, and which has ten convents and houses in the Dioceses of Baltimore, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Detroit, Harrisburg, Hartford, and Springfield.
The Conventuals were not affected by the Apostolic Constitution "Felicitate quâdam" of Leo XIII (4 Oct., 1897) by which the different special reforms into which the Observants had become divided since 1517 were reunited under the name of Friars Minor, but like the Capuchins (who were constituted a separate body in 1619) they still remain an independent order. Leo XIII, however, expressly confirmed the right of precedence accorded to the Friars Minor by Leo X.
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