The Franciscan missions in the New World grew rapidly because of two important factors: the movements of reform within the Order, and the opening to the Order of an immense and highly populated continent. Having dealt with the impact of this missionary growth on the organization of the Order, we now examine the reverse effect of this missionary upsurge on the spiritual life of the Order.
For the Franciscan friars in Spain the fifteenth century was a time notable for the effort to return to the original Franciscan ideal of a life of poverty, of contemplation, and of penance. Among the most important manifestations of this movement we note that which strove to introduce this ideal of life in the communities already existing. This was particularly the case in the northern provinces of Spain, from which came some distinguished missionaries to the Americas. The first Archbishop of Mexico, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, was one such. Cardinal Fray Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros was notable in promoting this movement in the Franciscan provinces of the Kingdom of Castile in central Spain. 13
A reference has already been made to another tendency in these reform movements in southern Spain: the preference for a simple and austere life, stressing the forming of small fraternities in small and secluded places. Carefully observed by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities because of their radicalism and occasional extravagances in the matter of their religious habit, by the second decade of the sixteenth century these Franciscans had the support of the highest authorities of the Order. By reason of their exemplary way of life, they were chosen to establish the first Franciscan province on the American continent, the Province of the Holy Gospel. That province had a considerable influence on the other provinces of the northern hemisphere, both as their mother-province and as a model for missionary activity and methods.14
The influence which the new lands and the native peoples of the American continent had on these friars with their interest in returning to the primitive evangelical ideals of the Order was both enduring and instructive. In the New World these idealistic friars had found the place which they had vainly looked for on the Old Continent: a place to put into practice their evangelical enthusiasm. It was untouched land, with an uncontaminated people who would listen to their preaching with unspoiled hearts – a situation rarely to be found in the nations of Europe. Soon, however, they would discover that the task was not so easy as in their idealism they had thought. The disillusionment came when the missionaries moved out of the highly developed areas of central Mexico to establish contact with the nomadic groups of northern Mexico. Then another ideal arose, to supplant and complete the earlier one: it was the ideal of martyrdom.15
On the history of the reform movements in Spain during the fifteenth century, see the comprehensive study: "Estudios sobre la Reforma Franciscana en España," AIA 17 (I 957). On the efforts of Cardinal Cisneros to promote the Franciscan reform in Castille, see José García Oro, La Reforma de los religiosos en tiempo de los Reyes Católicos (Valladolid, 1969).
See José García Oro, "La provincia Franciscana de Santiago y el origen de los descalzos," Liceo Franciscano, 2a Epoca, 15: 2-30.
Possibly the best insight into these ideas is the work of John L. Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).