In 1933, St. Maximilian wrote as follows to the clerics of the Order: “From the very cradle of our Order seven centuries ago, a golden thread of the cause of the Immaculate has, without interruption, been developed. It fought for the knowledge of the truth of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The battle ended with victory. This truth is universally acknowledged and has been proclaimed as a dogma of the faith.
“And now, is it the end of the matter? No one interested in building a house will rest satisfied merely in describing the plans for it. But is not the plan necessarily merely a preparation for the actual realization of the building?
“Now, then, a second page of our history is opening; namely, we must disseminate this truth in the hearts of all men; those who now live and all who will live unto the end of the world, and we must watch over the growth and fruitfulness that leads to sanctification. We must introduce the Immaculate into the hearts of men that there She may erect the throne of Her Son and lead all to knowledge of Him and inflame them to a love of His Most Sacred Heart.”
Given the assumption guiding our earlier reflections: that the founding and continued existence of our Order is a very special grace obtained for St. Francis by the Immaculate, this text of St. Maximilian provides clear insight into the nature, rhythms and goals of our history. Without in any way detracting from the other goals and achievements of the Order, especially those of its earlier years, this relation to the Immaculate stands at the center of all of these, and provides the “ratio” for that perdurance of the Order promised St. Francis quite independently of the needs of the 13th century Church, or of the level of perfection current at any time or place of the Order’s existence.
For us Conventuals, this text is particularly significant, for of all the distinct families within the orbit of the Order, ours is no doubt the earliest to emerge, and the one whose distinctive features are most closely related structurewise to the central purpose of the Immaculate in the first stage of our history. Almost simultaneously with the definitive accomplishment of this end in the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), our family came within a hairsbreath of disappearing as a distinct franciscan family: With the definitive loss between 1739 and 1873 of all the ancient studia generalia theologica that were so typical of our great friaries, and, with the exception of Padua and Assisi (where our presence was seriously imperiled for many years), the loss of most of the great friaries as well.
Why is this not the end of the matter for Conventual Franciscans? And why are our efforts to preserve and restore the traditions of the Order in continuity with our tradition of common life in relatively large friaries more than a mere repetition and preservation of the past? Because in the design of the Immaculate the first stage and the institutions typical of it are but the stepping stones to a second – final goal of the Order: the effective and full consecration of the Church and believers to the Immaculate so that the love of Her Son might be complete in the hearts of all. For this, the Order of Francis will again in a special way be her chosen means.
Between these two major periods of our history there exist certain parallels that enable us to perceive the “thread” drawing out the implications of the Immaculate’s “sacrum commercium” with St. Francis and gradually realizing the full import, intellectual and then spiritual, of that title “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” given Mary by Francis. And while that thread has many natural strands in its composition, its composition is preeminently a supernatural work guided by Mary and Francis.
Thus, in the first period now completed, one friar in a special way, namely Scotus, typifies as it were, the central goal of that period, the theological elaboration of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, and provides a clear and basic model about which the work and life of the community in that period gravitates. In our present stage, St. Maximilian enjoys the same role. So also in the first stage the institutional forms of the Order so developed with the blessing of St. Francis, and under the guidance of Br. Elias, St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure, so as to provide in the great friary the natural setting and support for this work. In this second period the emerging “Cities of the Immaculate” are the exact parallel.
Nor is this merely a question of parallels and similarities. The former theological-metaphysical tradition of our family with its great friaries is not lost or abandoned, but restored in being reassumed in this fuller setting, whose heart is total consecration to the Immaculate, the conscious and definitive realization in a communal and institutional form of the radical marian dimensions of our vows. The manner in which St. Maximilian sets forth the theological grounds of his spirituality in terms of the relation between Mary Immaculate and the procession and mission of the Holy Spirit is but a recapitulation of the theology of Scotus in terms of the unique insight of St. Francis: Mary is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. It is this recapitulation that enables us to build further on our inheritance.
Once we perceive clearly the marian principles and influences governing and justifying our continued existence as those called to a special conformity to Christ and support of the Church by way of union with the Immaculate, we can begin to understand how total consecration to the Immaculate and unconditional obedience to His wishes are the keys to any spiritual and apostolic renewal of our Order and of its members. Other aspects of our life and work will also have their place and cannot be neglected. But this is the indispensable center and starting point without which none of the rest will bear lasting fruit.
(All quotations from the writings of St. Maximilian are taken from the volume edited by Fr. George Domanski, OFM Conv.: Mary Was His Middle Name, available from Marytown, Libertyville, IL.)