Mendicant Meaning?

Q. I saw a local news item about religious orders, and they described the order as mendicant, but didn’t explain what that means. Could you explain it for me?

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully describes the origin of religious life. “From the very beginning of the Church … men and women … set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels” (No. 918). These “counsels” are the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, which truly free an individual from many cares that occupy those who embrace marriage, family and economic life in the secular world. The forms of religious life are quite varied, and the Catechism continues, “They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many … became hermits or founded religious families” (No. 918).

Pope John Paul II described these institutes: “History witnesses to the outstanding service rendered by religious families … from the ancient monastic institutions to the medieval orders, all the way to the more recent congregations” (Catechism, No. 927). The important distinction to consider here is between monastic and mendicant communities. Monasteries are enclosed spaces, so men and women who enter them are, to some extent, separated from the outside world. This means monasteries must find internal means of support. Members of mendicant orders (the word means “to beg”) have traditionally had greater contact with society — preaching, teaching, providing services to the poor and the sick.