QUESTION: A visiting priest was at our parish and I noticed he was wearing a habit, so I asked him what kind of monk he was. He answered that he was not a monk but a friar, and the difference seemed very important to him. What is the difference between priests who are monks and those who are called friars?
ANSWER: This question is rooted in a common misunderstanding. For some, those in religious orders (consecrated life) are “all the same.” This is clearly not true, and the differences are important.
The specific answer to the question begins in the eastern deserts not long after the death of Christ. Some early Christians found that the world in which they lived was at best a distraction and at worst simply evil. They left that world and fled into the desert to find peace. They dwelled in caves, prayed and lived very simple lives. Although beginning as individuals living alone, they eventually came together in groups for prayer and common support. This was the beginning of monasticism.
In the West, St. Benedict, who knew of this early experience, adapted it to his culture and wrote a rule by which monks would live together in monasteries dedicating themselves to a common life, work and prayer.
The core of monastic life was the stability that the monastery offered. The work and prayer of the monks became not only a way of life for them, but for Christians who lived nearby. The monastery became a place of safety in time of trouble, a place where people came for spiritual direction, pastoral care and even for food and medicine. Groups of monks were sent from monasteries to bring the Gospel to those who had not heard it. They founded new monasteries that were centers of Christian life in places such as Britain, Ireland and Scotland.
The 13th century saw the emergence of new forms of religious life. Both St. Francis and St. Dominic established communities that based their lifestyle upon a vision of the Gospel that was applied to specific needs existing in their day. The followers of Francis and Dominic were called friars (an English word rooted in the Latin “frater,” meaning brother). These groups of brothers went about preaching, teaching and working with the poor. Their work began not in any way “against” monastic life, but certainly outside it. Their emphasis was not to live where people would come to them, but rather to go out to where people lived.
While both monks and friars are men in consecrated life, they are very different in the way in which they live out their essential Gospel vocation. They differ not only in the work that they perform, but also in the spirit that animates their communities.
Their differences are rooted in their varied histories. The Second Vatican Council challenged religious communities to reflect upon the reasons they were founded. It also asked them to consider the ideals and charisms (gifts) that characterized them. The fruit of that reflection motivates those communities today and is important to them and to us.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.