Franciscan Experience and Missionary Methods

Without denying the important experience which the Franciscans had in their missions among the Caribbean Indians, there is no doubt that the contact of the missionaries with the natives of central Mexico greatly influenced the methods which later spread all over the continent. Many studies have reflected on this topic from different angles.16 Here we should like to point out some of the more significant characteristics of these methods.

01 - Understanding the Indian Culture.

The chronicler of the early Franciscan missionary activities in New Spain, Fray Jerónimo de Mendieta, records a very significant story about the arrival in 1524 of the missionary group headed by Fray Martin de Valencia. A year before their arrival in Mexico, three Belgian Franciscans had obtained permission from Charles V to start the work of evangelization in the newly conquered lands of Mexico. Great was the surprise of Martin de Valencia and his group upon their arrival to find that the Indian ceremonial centers were still standing and very much frequented by the natives. "How have you spent your time?" Fray Martin asked of the three friars. "Learning the theology which St. Augustine never wrote: the Indian language," was the answer. 17 True or false, the story embodies a pastoral wisdom difficult to deny.

By 1531 the Franciscans had not only learned the most widely spoken Indian language of Mexico – Nahuatl – but also adapted it to the Latin grammar, making it one of the few aboriginal languages to have had a definite grammar. By the end of the sixteenth century the Franciscans had mastered the more important languages of Mexico – Tarascán, Mayan and Otomi, among others. Of the one hundred or so works published in Indian languages, more than eighty were written by Franciscans.18

An important part of this understanding of the Indian cultures was the attempt to establish a dialogue with those who possessed the ancient Indian wisdom. Notable among these efforts was the discussion which the group of Fray Martín de Valencia had with the Indian priests and wise men in Mexico in 1524. With the aid of interpreters the friars endeavored to convince the Aztec nobles of their religious errors, using a form of procedure which St. Francis had used with the Sultan of Egypt. The friars did not have success, any more than St. Francis had. The document used in these dialogues was rescued in the second half of the sixteenth century by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún; it was recently published from a copy discovered in the Vatican Library. 19

02 -Adaptation to Indian Culture.

Accustomed to live and work in the small villages and hamlets of Spain, the Reformati or Reformed friars who came to the New World did not have great difficulty in adapting themselves to Indian ways of living. In fact, more than one missionary confessed that the Indian style of life could serve them as an example in reference to the vow so greatly esteemed by the Reformati: that of poverty. 20

Adaptation, however, had a deeper meaning for the missionaries. One of their hardest tasks was to find the form of presenting Christian doctrine within a culture so radically different from the Western civilization which had shaped the modes of expressing important aspects of the Christian faith. In this regard, the friars took two somewhat complementary positions. On the one hand, they were extremely careful not to betray any of the official teachings of the Church in reference to either dogma or morals. That is why they had so many problems in reference to Indian idolatry and to marriage. On the other hand, however, they did not hesitate to employ Indian forms of expression, such as poetry, painting, song, dancing and even architecture. To these forms of expression, the friars would add or change a word or an image, giving these elements a Christian appearance and meaning. For the person knowledgeable in the prehistoric cultures, it is easy to discern and penetrate the Indian forms of many Christian works of the sixteenth century produced by the natives.21

03 - A Mind Open to Change.

With the expansion of the Spanish empire in northern Mexico, unforeseen problems arose complicating the work of the missionaries. Firstly, the friars soon discovered that the highly developed culture of central Mexico did not extend beyond the limits of the present States of Michoacán and Querétaro. Secondly, they also discovered that the unsettled peoples of this new area were completely hostile to any foreign person, whether Spanish or Indian. The readiness to accept Christianity which the friars had found among the Indians of central Mexico was totally absent.

Less zealous missionaries would probably have abandoned their optimism and decided to remain among those who offered greater promise of accepting the Christian Faith. But the friars did not abandon the task. Together with the Jesuits, who were to come somewhat later, they stayed. The Franciscans founded two provinces in northern New Spain – that of San Francisco de Zacatecas and that of Santa Elena de La Florida – plus a custody in New Mexico and three south of the Rio Grande. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had expanded the mission system into Texas; and three quarters of a century later they opened the mission in California. This ongoing mission movement indicates a mind open to change and an apostolic willingness to serve as heralds of the Faith in any part of the American Continent.

Fray Jerónimo de Mendieta, Historia Eclesiástica Indiana (México: Salvador Chavez Haihoe, 1945) Lib. V, cap. 17.

See Fray Román Zulaica, Los Franciscanos y la Imprenta en México en el siglo XVI (México: Editorial Robredo, 1939).

Miguel Leon-Portilla (ed.), Coloquios y Doctrina Cristiana con que los doce frailes de San Francisco, enviados por el Papa Adriano VI y por el Emperador Carlos V, convirtieron a los indios de la Nueva España: En lengua Mexicana y Española (México: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1986).

See particularly Toribio de Motolinía, History of the Indians of New Spain, trans. and ed. Francis Borgia Steck (Washington D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1961), Trat. II, cap. 2, and Trat. III, cap. 12. See also Mendieta, Trat. IV, cap. 22 y 23.

Only fragmentary studies of this very important topic exist: John B. Glass, "A Census of Middle American Testerian Manuscripts," in Handbook of Middle American Studies, 14 vols. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1975) 14: 281-96; Miguel Leon Portilla, Un Catecismo Náhuatl en Imágenes (México: Papel y Cartón de México, 1979), Miguel León Portilla and Librada Silva Galeana, ed. and trans., Libro de las Huehuehtlahtolli: Testimonios de la Ántiqua Palabra (México: Comision Nacional Conmemorativa del V Centenario del Encuentro de Dos Mundos, 1988); Francisco Morales, "En torno a la construcción de la primer Iglesia de Santiago Tlatelolco" in Tlatelolco en la Historia de México (México: Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, 1989).

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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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