January 2007

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

No examination of the spirituality of Saint Francis is well-grounded without an appreciation of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the first to carry the Gospel, though it’s often overlooked by many in our own age who are infatuated by the little poor man of Assisi, the poverello.

As awestruck as he was by the humility of Christ’s birth, that perfect incarnation of God’s love for us, the saint was probably even more deeply touched by the exemplary attitude of the one who would—with unfathomable and unconditional faith, hope and love—consent to deliver the life-giving Word into the shadow of our humanity. With Mary as his adoptive mother, Saint Francis too would eventually grow in wisdom and grace.

Significantly, he also grew in obedience. He was obedient to Mary, as Jesus had been. In particular, he was careful to heed her simple admonition to the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Cf. John 2: 5) The Blessed Mother drew the poverello’s keen attention to Jesus’ words, and also his deeds. Because of his fidelity to this mission, Saint Francis pursued a journey of discovering as authentically as he could the true meaning of Gospel teaching and its call to discipleship.

He embraced the Mother of our Lord Jesus with indescribable love because, as he said, it was she who made the Lord of majesty our brother, and through her we found mercy.

– Saint Bonaventure, Major Life of Saint Francis

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The poverello’s gratitude to Mary was enshrined in his dedication of the Franciscan order’s mother church, Our Lady of the Angels, fondly known as the Portiuncula (The Little Portion). Far from being a majestic church, this was a tiny stone chapel, nested in the woods. It survives to this day, though now adorned with frescos and enshrined in the magnificent basilica that bears the same name. I had the good fortune of visiting it a few years ago and stood inside its tiny space as long as I could, looking beyond the present surroundings to imagine the pain-wracked body of Saint Francis during his last days, resting as best he could in his favoured refuge. Surely he must have felt the warmth of Mary’s gentle maternal embrace—as a kind of Franciscan “Pieta.” He must have felt confidence in her promise to deliver him into the loving arms of her beloved Son.

This “little portion” recalled the humility of Mary giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem in a stable, which was for Saint Francis a royal palace: “Poverty is a royal virtue, because it shone so brightly in the King and Queen.” (Celano, The Life of Saint Francis) It also recalled the room in which the apostles stood with Mary to greet the Holy Spirit who would create a community of love.

In the words of the great Franciscan theologian, Saint Bonaventure, “The Portiuncula was an old church dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God which was abandoned. Francis had great devotion to the Queen of the world and when he saw that the church was deserted, he began to live there constantly in order to repair it. He heard that the Angels often visited it, so that it was called Saint Mary of the Angels, and he decided to stay there permanently out of reverence for the angels and love for the Mother of Christ.

“He loved this spot more than any other in the world. It was here he began his religious life in a very small way; it is here he came to a happy end. When he was dying, he commended this spot above all others to the friars, because it was most dear to the Blessed Virgin. This was the place where Saint Francis founded his Order by divine inspiration. It was divine providence which led him to repair three churches before he founded the Order and began to preach the Gospel. This meant that he progressed from material things to more spiritual achievements, from lesser to greater, in due order, and it gave a prophetic indication of what he would accomplish later.”

As he was living there by the church of Our Lady, Francis prayed to her who had conceived the Word, full of grace and truth, begging her insistently and with tears to become his advocate. Then he was granted the true spirit of the Gospel by the intercession of the Mother of mercy and he brought it to fruition. Bonaventure, Major Life

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The spiritual intuition of Saint Francis regarding the Holy Mother ran ahead of the conceptualizations of his day. In his devotion, he exalted not only the royalty of Mary but also her power of mediation. For this reason, he proclaimed her to be the advocate of the Franciscan order. He believed that she mediated not only on behalf of the brothers, but also between her Son and his brothers by modeling exemplary discipleship—poverty, humble faith, wisdom and courage to persevere in doing God’s will in the face of countless difficulties.

His devotion is also evidenced by his praise of her in prayer. Invocations to the Blessed Virgin are among the sweetest of the texts written by Saint Francis. Especially notable is his grand Salutation to the Virgin. He composed this litany of appellations to recall the mighty deeds that God had wrought through her: “Hail Lady, Holy Queen, Holy Mary, who are the Virgin made church and the one chosen by the Most Holy Father of Heaven, whom He consecrated with His Most Holy Beloved Son and with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good. Hail His Palace; Hail His Tabernacle; Hail His Home. Hail His Vestment; Hail His Handmaid; Hail His Mother and hail all you holy virtues, which through the grace and illumination of the Holy Spirit are infused into the hearts of the faithful, so that from those unfaithful you make them faithful to God.”

Also noteworthy is his Salutation to the Virtues, which refers both to Mary and to our calling to imitate her in the gospel life: “Hail, Queen Wisdom, the Lord salute thee with thy sister Holy-Pure Simplicity. Lady Holy Poverty, the Lord salute thee with thy sister Holy Humility. Lady Holy Charity, the Lord salute thee with thy sister Holy Obedience. Most holy virtues, the Lord salute all of you, He from whom you come and proceed. There is scarcely no man in the whole world, who can have one of you, before he dies. He, who has one and offends not the others, has all. And he, who offends one, has none and offends all (Cf. Jms 2:10). And any one whatever confounds vices and sins. Holy Wisdom confounds Satan and all his wickednesses. Pure Holy Simplicity confounds all the wisdom of this world (Cf. 1 Cor. 2:6) and the wisdom of the body (Cf. Rm 8:7). Holy Poverty confounds cupidity and avarice and the cares of this age. Holy Humility confounds pride and all the men, who are in the world, and likewise all the things, which are in the world. Holy Charity confounds all the diabolic and carnal temptations and all carnal fears. Holy Obedience confounds all things corporal, both carnal and one’s own willing and holds the body mortified in obedience of spirit and in obedience to one’s brother and is subject and submissive to all the men, who are in the world · and not to men alone, but even to all the beasts and wildlife, so that they may do with him, whatever they will, as much as has been given them from above by the Lord (Cf. Jn 19:11).”

One of the gems of his succinct corpus of writing is his Little Office of the Passion. In it, we find a reverent Marian antiphon to be used before and after each Office, which again recalls his frequent and intense solicitation of our Holy Mother’s potent intercession when praying.

Holy Virgin Mary, among women there is no one like you born into the world: you are the daughter and the servant of the most high and supreme King and Father of heaven. You are the mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, you are the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Pray for us with Saint Michael and the Archangel and all the powers of the heavens and all the saints to your most holy beloved Son, the Lord and Master.

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We associate with his order one of the most widespread non-liturgical devotions to Mary in Western tradition, the Angelus, which takes its name from the words of Luke’s Gospel. It originates with an order issued in 1269 by Saint Bonaventure, which exhorts the friars to imitate Saint Francis by reciting Hail Mary’s in response to the ringing of the evening bells. Use of the practice in the morning was added in the fourteenth century. Its adoption at noon was first noted at Prague in 1386. The popularity of this practice is attested by its inclusion in Puccini’s opera Tosca. (Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries)

(No reflection on the influence of our Holy Mother on Saint Francis is complete without consideration of the excesses exhibited by some Christians whose devotion to her effectively distracts from their focus on developing a closer relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The poverello, despite his enormous admiration for her, never allowed his attention to wander from the Creator, from Christ crucified yet raised in glory, and from their Spirit that continuously renews the face of the earth. Clearly, he would urge us to do likewise.)

Angelus Domini ad Mariam, ave gratia plena…

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May the handmaiden of the Lord lead us to the Father with whom she faithfully collaborated so that we might rejoice in knowing his Love incarnate. May the Queen of Peace lead us to him, our royal brother. May this most gracious Lady lead us to the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son who renews our hearts daily.

Fraternally,

richard

crib and cros Franciscan Ministries