Bearers of the Gospel: Franciscan Evangelization

The Role of the Observant Reform


In view of the far-reaching effects for the future of Christian evangelization, the Reform movement which sprang up within the Franciscan Order at several locations in Europe toward the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries must surely be judged providential.


Friars who desired to observe the Rule in its primitive severity formed communities whose members pledged themselves to live a very austere form of Franciscan life. This new observant branch of the Franciscan order grew so rapidly that at the dawn of the Age of Discovery its membership totaled 22,400. Between 1493 and 1820, a total of 8,441 Observant friars dedicated themselves to the task of evangelizing the New World. Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros, who before becoming Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo and the most trusted counselor of Queen Isabel had been Provincial of the Observants in Castile, in 1502 dispatched a group of seventeen chosen Observants to begin the systematic evangelization of Espanola.44

It was in the same spirit that the famous "Twelve Apostles of Mexico" were sent in 1524 at the request of Cortes. Their mission has been credited with inaugurating one of the most exciting and challenging periods in the history of Christianity's growth.45It was organized by Fray Francisco de los Angeles Quinones (1480-1540), who himself desired to join the group but was prevented from doing so by his election as Minister General in the preceding year; he had to remain in Europe to govern the activities of the Observant Reform throughout the expanding world.

To the members of that distinguished band of missionaries who introduced Franciscanism to Mexico, Quinones issued two documents which had a profound effect on the Franciscan evangelizing enterprise throughout the Americas. These two documents restated and revivified the basic principles of evangelization enunciated by St. Francis, explicated by the Franciscan theologians and doctors, and exemplified by the phalanx of Franciscan missionaries during the previous three centuries. The two documents are the "Obedience" and the "Instruction."46

The "Obedience" was addressed not only to the Twelve being sent to New Spain in 1524, but to all friars who subsequently would engage in the work of evangelizing the New World. They were all, Quinones insisted, commissioned to exalt the glory of God's name and to build up His Church on earth; like Francis, they must thirst for the salvation of all peoples, both believers and unbelievers, for all had been redeemed at the price of Christ's Blood. Inflamed with love of Christ, they must glory in the Cross, subject themselves to every creature, be ready, desire and even seek to shed their blood for the conversion of those to whom they are sent. And since the day was far-spent, the eleventh hour at hand, and this aging world nearing its end, it was most urgent that they devote their very best efforts to preaching by word and example, never neglecting the contemplative aspect of their Franciscan life.

His second document to the departing friars, his "Instruction," Quinones began by reminding them that they had been deputed to maintain the continuity of the divine mission begun by the Eternal Father when He sent His Divine Son into the world to communicate divine life to all who would believe in Him. It was the same mission carried forward when the Incarnate Son empowered the Apostles to continue His life-giving work among men, the mission which the Apostles in turn passed on to their successors, to be continued until the end of time. By apostolic authority Francis and all his followers had been made participants in this divine mission. Those sons of Francis being sent to the New World had special reason to "act boldly in all things, "47 because they were being sent not only by the authority of the Minister General, but likewise by the apostolic mandate of Pope Adrian VI, whose bull Charissime in Christo had made the spiritual conquest of New Spain a mendicant enterprise.48 Finally the Minister General reminded the departing Twelve that the love of God and neighbor must be the controlling motive of this great adventure. On these two feet they must travel through the New World, urging its inhabitants to "worship the Father in Spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4.23). The Minister General gave no detailed directives regarding the departing missionaries' cultural and linguistic qualifications, or as to the methods of evangelization they were to employ. He was confident that experience, hard work, common sense and divine grace would enable them to find solutions to the problems they would meet in New Spain. And his confidence was not misplaced. The Twelve and their immediate successors were careful to pass on their knowledge of the indigenous languages to their successors, and to record for them the methods of evangelization which had proved effective.

During their first fifty years in New Spain the Franciscan missionaries produced a small library of authoritative writings on almost every aspect of that country's native cultures.49 This astounding achievement was crowned in 1574 by the appearance of Fray Juan Focher's ltinerarium Catholicum, the first manual of systematic missiology ever published. The Franciscans who, for the next two centuries, continued the work of evangelizing the native peoples of North America, inherited a spirituality which motivated no fewer than 115 of their number to accept martyrdom.50 They inherited likewise a missionary methodology which enabled them to draw thousands of souls into the Mystical Body of Christ.

Juan Fernandes Meseguer, "El arzobispo Cisneros y la Iglesia misionera en America (1500-1512)," Archivo lbero-Americano [AIA] 45 (1985): 451-86.

Edwin E. Sylvest, Motifs of Franciscan Mission Theory in Sixteenth Century New Spain: Province of the Holy Gospel (Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1975), 4.

See Meseguer, "Contenido misiológico de la Obedientia et Instrucción de Fray Francisco de los Angeles a los Doce Apóstoles de Mexico," The Americas 11 (1954-55): 473- 500. Texts of both the "Obedience" and the "Instruction" are included as appendices to this article.

Celano, First Life, ch. 15:36, in Omnibus, 258.

The text of this bull is given by Geronimo de Mendieta in Historia Eclesiastica Indiana, ed. Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta (Mexico: Antigua Libreria, 1870), 192-93.

See "Ethnographic and Linguistic Training of Missionaries," in Robert Richard, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain: 1523-1572, trans. Lesley B. Simpson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966) 39-60.

Marion A. Habig, "The Franciscan Martyrs of North America," in Franciscan History of North America, Franciscan Educational Conference, Report of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting, Santa Barbara, California, August 2-4, 1936 (Brookland, Washington, D.C.: Franc. Ed. Con[, Office of the Secretary, Capuchin College), 275.

CREDIT: REPORTATIO SUPER MARTYRIO SERVORUM DEi PETRI DE CORPA ET SOCIORUM EJUS ANNO DOMINI 1597 IN FLORIDA OCCISORUM (Editio Tertia "Positionis", 7 Maii 2002)
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REPORTATIO SUPER MARTYRIO SERVORUM DEi PETRI DE CORPA ET SOCIORUM EJUS ANNO DOMINI 1597 IN FLORIDA OCCISORUM (Editio Tertia "Positionis", 7 Maii 2002)
The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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