For the reading “ever Virgin” in St. Francis Salute to the Virgin the recent critical edition of the Poverello’s writings gives “Virgin made Church.” Not only do the ancient sources support this reading as the original rendering of Francis himself, the phrase, novel perhaps to our ears, has the very definite advantage of placing Francis at the center of a very ancient tradition concerning Mary and the Church, reflected as we have seen in an earlier consideration drawn from the mariology of St. Bonaventure, reaffirmed in Chapter 8 of the Constitution “Lumen Gentium” of Vatican II, and synthesized by Pope Paul VI in the title “Mother of the Church” publicly accorded the Virgin Mother of God.
But what is perhaps most important for us as Franciscans is the manner in which Francis, under the influence of Mary, identifies the Virgin made Church as Spouse of the Holy Spirit, viz. the Immaculate, and forges an effective instrument for furthering the process by which the Church continues to be perfected as Mary already is: the immaculate bride of the King of kings.
It is a grievous error to regard the principal achievement of St. Francis merely as something strictly personal — however great that personal sanctity is, or as something confined to his influence in the so-called “golden age” of the Order — great though the works of that period undoubtedly are, and important as they remain as the basis for a later achievement. St. Maximilian writes: “Each generation must add its labor and fruit to that of previous generations. It is not otherwise in the life of a religious order, including our own. What can we add? It is said, the further away from the Founder, so much the weaker the religious community. This has been so many times. But it does not follow that it must be so. The spirit does not know the material laws of growing old, but should evolve itself without limit. It is not an effect of humility, for example, to ask our Holy Father St. Francis that he would implore for us a ‘part’ of his love or even an amount equal to God’s love. Our Holy Father will be happy only then when we ask of God for a love greater than his own, even infinitely greater. He wills to ‘evolve’ his spirit in his sons and not to establish his own holiness as a terminus or limit of our own perfection. The seed he planted in his Order can evolve “without limit.”
How holy each Franciscan becomes is in the first instance the Lord’s affair, but to the extent that our striving for holiness is involved, then what St. Maximilian writes above is profoundly true. As a founder of a religious Order in the Church the importance of St. Francis far transcends his own time, and indeed the entire late medieval period. This is not to deny the greatness of the achievements of the past; it is simply to point out that something greater is still to be achieved.
The reason for this is to be found in the relation of the Order to the Immaculate. It is her possession, her instrument, her militia, her “acies ordinata” for meeting certain specific needs of the Church in achieving that sanctity for which Christ died, and which can only be met to the extent that she is recognized for whom she is, the Immaculate, and she is loved for whom she is, the Immaculate.
In this context the relative failures and imperfections of the friars, the compromises with the Rule, the narrow pietism, the scandalous quarrels in the name of reform or adaptation, find a certain limit beyond which they were not allowed to impede in any definitive way the steady advancement toward the achievement of the first and central aim of Ma r y Immaculate, the acceptance of the truth of her Immaculate Conception, in forming the Order of Minors. Once defined, this became the practical basis for affirming and achieving in the Church a fuller realization of Christ’s absolute primacy in all things, just as once defined the divine maternity of Mary secured the confession of her Son’s divinity.
It is this also which constitutes as well the basis for the Order’s on-going contribution to the second and greater aim of t1ary in respect to the Order, viz. total consecration to her as Immaculate, as the way the triumph of her Son over His enemies. This is why Mary had someone with knightly ambitions chosen t o form her militia, for nothing short of heroic courage would suffice for this work. This is perfectly plain when we consider what is the principal obstacle to the triumph of Christ, to wit the secularism already apparent in the days of Francis when the world was growing cold. The true nature of this spirit o f t h e prince of this world and the extent of the violence those imbued with this are prepared to exercise in relation to the bride of Christ is all too apparent in our own day, both in the militant totalitarianism typified by marxism and in the alluring indifferentism typified in western free-masonry. The relevance of total consecration to the Immaculate, not only of individuals, but of the Order as such, so stressed St. Maximilian as indispensable to any renewal, in view of the character of our Order as a militia of Mary Immaculate, should be clear as well.
Hence, we cannot fail to grasp why St. Francis, called to “repair the Church of Christ,” to sustain and support the hierarchy, especially the successor of St. Peter, should have addressed Mary as the “Virgin made Church.” For Ma r y had shown herself to him as the Immaculate, i.e. the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. It is the Immaculate who is the Virgin made Church, the spotless bride of Christ. It was indeed appropriate — decuit — and a wonderful evidence of divine mercy that the Woman of Apoc. 12 should have so cared in this way for the rest of His brethren chased by the dragon into the desert. And herein we come to understand why our age variously is called “age of the Church,” “age of the Spirit,” “age of Ma r y Immaculate.” I t is the age of the Church, in so far as the body of Christ is more intensively conformed to its head; this is so because the gifts of the Spirit are being given in great abundance. The Spirit is so diffused in our hearts because of the prayers and help of Mary Immaculate, the Spouse of the Spirit and Mother of the Church. Thus, in “Lumen Gentium,” Chap. 8, Mary Immaculate is not downgraded in being declared a member of the Church. Rather she is declared the preeminent and first member of the Church by reason of her fullness of Grace. And only because she is this can the Church continue to grow in that holiness, whereby she will indeed be at His second coming what Mary already is: the immaculate bride of Christ.
Let us then with St. Francis, with St. Maximilian, continue to make and perfect that total consecration to Mary Immaculate, and to live more perfectly our way of life, seeking to die for love of His love who didst deign to die for love of our love.
Hail, holy Lady,/ Most holy Queen,/ Mary, Mother of God! Virgin made Church (formerly forever Virgin) Chosen by the most holy Father in Heaven/ Whom he consecrated,/ with his most holy beloved Son/ and the Paraclete Spirit!You in whom was and is/ all plenitude of grace/ and all good! Hail ~ his Palace!/ Hail, his Tabernacle!/ Hail, his Dwelling!/Hail, his Vesture!/ Hail, his Handmaid!/ Hail, his Mother — and all you holy Virtues/ that by the grace and light/ of the Holy Spirit/ are infused into/ the hearts of the faithful, that from faithless souls/ You may make them faithful to God!
(Salute to the Virgin)
“Be thou then, O thou dear Mother, my atmosphere; My happier world, wherein to wend and meet no sin; Above me, round me lie fronting my forward eye with sweet and scarless sky; Stir in my ears, speak there of God’s love, O live air, of patience, penance, prayer: World-mothering air, air wild, wound with thee, in thee is led, Fold home, fast fold thy child”
(Hopkins, The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe)
Queen of the Franciscan Order, pray for us.