In his Rule for the Friars Minor St. Francis of Assisi incorporated a brief admonition and instruction for those who would want to go to the mission lands to work among non-Christian peoples.
In the Rule of 1223 he wrote: "If any of the friars is inspired by God to go among the Saracens or other unbelievers, he must ask permission from his provincial minister. The ministers, for their part, are to give permission only to those whom they see as fit to be sent."1
This apparently simple instruction contains some profound principles which became the inspiration for the missionary organization and effort of the Franciscan Order. The text embodies no instructions as to how the friars are to carry out their apostolate. Seemingly the Founder expected that, above all else, his friars would put the witness of their totally Christian and evangelical lives at the service of the Kingdom of God. But the Saint demanded of those desiring to undertake this ministry of evangelization a special calling from Almighty God, as well as approval and a commission from the competent superiors.2
Over and above these mandates of the sainted Founder, the oldest legislation of the Order made no further stipulation. Of the few references to missionary activity that appear in the earliest General Constitutions of the Order, some recommend simply, and in a very general way, the need to obtain faculties from the Holy See for administering the Sacraments in those lands to which the friars are sent.3 It is interesting, however, to note that even the legislation current at the time of the earliest Franciscan activity in the Americas, namely the General Constitutions of Barcelona (Spain) of 1451, which continued to be the basic law through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, made no reference whatever to any form of missionary organization in the Order.4
It would seem therefore that the single factor which gave the strongest impulse to the Order's missionary activity was the large number of friars who, after the discovery of America, sensed a divine inspiration moving them to come to these new lands. This movement coincided with one of the most important reform efforts in the Order, namely that which culminated in 1517 with the papal recognition of the Observant group as the inheritors of the Order's spiritual tradition.5
"The Rule of 1223," ch. 12, in Omnibus, 64.
Cf. Cajetan Esser, The Rule and Testament of St. Francis (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977) 49.
The General Constitutions of Perpignan, 1331, refer briefly to the faculties given by Gregory IX to those who go among the Saracens and unbelievers. See Saturninus Mancherini, "Constitutiones Generales Ordinis Fratrum Minorum a Capitulo Perpiniani anno 1331 celebrato editae," Archivum Franciscanum Historicum [AFH] 2 (I 909): 596.
Cf Michael Bihl, ed. "Statuta Generalia Observantium Ultramontanorum anno 145 I Barcinonae condita," AFH38 (1945): 156.
Leo X, lte vos in vineam, ay 29, 1517, in Lucas Waddingus, Annales Minorum,3rd ed. Josephus Maria Fonseca (Ad Claras Aquas [Quaracchi] 1933), 49-55.