The rapid growth in the number of friars laboring in the Americas, the extensive territories in which they were serving, the enormous distance which separated them from the general superiors of the Order, and finally the clear intention of the Spanish Crown to control, as much as possible, all administrative, political and ecclesiastical affairs pertaining to the vast empire – all these factors came together to complicate even more the organization of the Franciscan provinces in the New World.
Shortly after the establishment of the second province in the New World – that of the Holy Gospel, in Mexico; a custody in 1524, a province in 1536 – and with the opening for missionary work of the vast territories of New Spain and Central America, the Franciscan Order found it necessary to establish a permanent representative of the Minister General in the Americas. This official, directly responsible to the Minister General in Rome, would deal with all matters relative to friars working in New Spain and Central America. His residence was in Mexico City. At the time of the establishment of the office, he was simply called the Commissary General in the Indies. Because the Franciscan presence did not go beyond the limits ofMexico, Central America and the Caribbean area, the jurisdiction of the office did not go beyond that somewhat restricted area. A few years later, however, between 1547 and 1548, after the conquest of Peru, with the Franciscan expansion to Hispanic South America, a second representative of the Minister General was instituted to cover those areas. He was called the Commissary General of the Provinces of Peru, and had residence in the convent of Lima. His jurisdiction extended to all the provinces of Hispanic South America, from Colombia to Chile and Argentina. From that time one, the commissary residing in Mexico City was called the Commissary General of the Provinces of New Spain; his authority was confined to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean area.
In view of the long distances and the difficulties of communicating with the General Curia, the idea of instituting representatives of the Minister General in the vast territories of the Americas was understandable. A different set of considerations was involved in the creation of another representative of the Minister General, this time at the Spanish court in Madrid. This was the office of the Commissary General for the Indies, established officially by the Order in 1585, though it had been in existence at least since 1571.
The office of the Commissary General for the Indies had as an antecedent the various services which some friars carried out at the Spanish Court for their brethren working in the New World. Because of the very ample privileges granted by the Holy See to the Kings of Spain for the expansion of the Church in the Americas, there were many matters in the mission field which demanded the Court's attention. For that reason, almost from the beginning of the Spanish missionary enterprise, we find members of the various religious orders at the Spanish Court discharging those services for their brethren.
With his administrative mind and his wide interpretation of the Patronato Real, Philip II in 1568 proposed to the various missionary Orders the creation of a permanent procurator, or commissary, in Spain. Through such a representative the Spanish Crown could treat all the administrative and ecclesiastical matters relative to the missions, as also details concerning the internal organization of the several Orders. It seems that the only religious community that accepted this new office was the Franciscans. By decree of Fray Francisco Gonzaga, the Minister General, approved by the chapter of the Ultramontane Family in 1583, the office of Commissary General for the Indies was instituted as a permanent office in the Order.
"Procurators at the Court" are often referred to, principally during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as representatives at the Spanish Court in dealings of important matters. Seemingly these procurators did not constitute a permanent office of the Order, despite the efforts of the Court to establish such an office.
Of all these offices undoubtedly the most important was that of Commissary General for the Indies. All matters and documents, both from the provinces to the Minister General or the Roman Curia, and from Rome to the provinces, had to be dispatched and approved by him. There was also the office of Family Commissary, who enjoyed almost no intervention in the missionary matters of the New World. It is unfortunate that the archives of this last-mentioned office disappeared in the last century when the Friary of San Francisco el Grande in Madrid was demolished. With that destruction many important documents relating to the American missions were lost, possibly for ever.11
The Commissaries General in the Indies, New Spain and Peru, played an important role as intermediaries between the various Ministers Provincial and the Commissary General for the Indies in Madrid. Most of the matters were in the direction from the Commissary General in Madrid to the Provinces in America. Only quite exceptionally did matters from the Provinces to the Commissary General for the Indies, in Madrid, pass through the office of the Commissary General in the Indies. The Commissary General in the Indies, that is, each one in his respective territory, whether New Spain or Peru, was charged with making the general visitation of each Province in his jurisdiction, and presiding over the provincial chapters. Should any problem arise in the visitation or in the chapter, the Commissary General in the Indies, that is, of New Spain or Peru, would inform the Commissary General in Madrid. The archives of their offices, both in Mexico and Lima, are to this day quite complete.l2
See Pedro Borges, "Entorno a los Comisarios Generales de Indias entre las Ordenes misioneras de América," AIA 23 (1963): 145-96; 24 (1964): 147-82; 25 (1965): 3-60, 147- 221.
The archives of the Commissary General of New Spain have been recently catalogued. There exist two general guides: Ignacio del Rio (ed.), A Guide to the Archivo Franciscano of the National Library of Mexico (Mexico: Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas and Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1975); and Francisco Morales (ed.), Inventario del Fondo Franciscano del Museo de Antropologia e Historia de México (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1978).