Why Did Friars Wear Robes?


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Gregg DesElms Profile
Gregg DesElms answered
First of all, it's not why did (past tense) they wear robes because they wear them still.
Second of all, just to be clear, there's a difference between friars and monks.  Monks are usually monastic, cloistered and ascetic; and friars are usually more out in the world and in service to a community... Either their own, or their own AND the secular community which surrounds it.
This distinction is relevant because the robes of monks versus friars are different.  Also, the robes of the different orders of both friars and monks also differ in both color and style.  Some have hoods, some don't; some are gray, some are black, some are white, some are brown, etc.
However, in all cases -- be they monks or friars, and regardless of the color and/or style of their robes -- they all tend to wear them, and the reason is really quite simple:  Because Jesus commanded it of the disciples whom the monks and -- particularly the friars -- emulate.
For around a hundred years during the last half of the 12th century, and the first half of the 13th, as the four great orders of friars (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians) were formed to meet the urgent challenge of spiritual decline, urban growth, and the rapid spread of heresy in Europe, they all wished to follow the instruction of Jesus as found in Matthew 10:8-10, wherein Christ commanded his disciples to go out and preach, carrying no money or provisions, and wearing no fancy clothes or shoes.  Christ said:  "[8]Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [9]Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, [10]no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food."
St. Francis of Assisi took these words most seriously in his formation of the  Franciscans, or Order of Friars Minor, in 1208; and approved a year later in 1209 by Pope Innocent III.  He dressed in a robe of rough or course gray wool... Something we know because one of his robes is preserved in the convent at Assisi.
Throughout the years, different orders -- including even different branches of Franciscans -- sought to either differentiate and distinguish themselves from other orders, or to symbolize something, by departing from St. Francis's gray colored robe.  However, in 2000, the leaders of the modern Franciscans worldwide announced a plan to return to the gray colored robe of St. Francis.
Father Enzo Fortunato, the spokesman for the head convent at Assisi, said the change was not an aesthetic decision, adding that it would reflect "a profound return to our roots and a strong message of unity".
However, some Franciscan orders will have nothing to do with it.   For example, though a small number of them have worn gray or black robes for centuries, most members of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (aka, simple, the Capuchin friars) throughout the world have worn coffee brown robes since their founding somewhere between 1525 and 1528; and virtually all of them have said, in no uncertain terms, that that won't be changing anytime soon.
There is, then, not-insignificant disagreement among the different orders in what color (and sometimes also what style) the robes should be; but they all agree that, pursuant to Christ's commandment, they should be wearing at least some kind of robe.
Gregg L. DesElms
Napa, California USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com

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