The Franciscan Mariologist, Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, was not only an expert on the writings and teachings of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, but those of St. Maximilian Kolbe, as well; thus he was proficient in tracing the golden thread of “Mary’s presence and continuing influence” at the outset of the Franciscan order to the present day, as seen in the following:
In the early 1980s….Fr. Peter Damian undertook a study of the writings of the newly canonized Conventual Franciscan martyr of Auschwitz, Saint Maximilian Kolbe. The impact of this Kolbean study proved incalculable. For Fr. Peter Damian, St. Maximilian’s writings demonstrated the “golden thread” of Mary’s coherent presence and continuing influence in the Franciscan tradition. St. Maximilian asserted that in the earliest days of the Order’s foundation, in the intentions of St. Francis of Assisi himself, God was putting Mary Immaculate to work. Fr. Peter Damian grasped with a new clarity the coherent, consistent, unbroken line of Marian ideal inherent in the Franciscan tradition, beginning with Francis and continuing through Bonaventure, Scotus, the Franciscan School, all the way through Kolbe. The key to this new synthesis of insight for Fr. Peter Damian was the Divine Will and Plan that Mary qua Immaculate – and thereby “spouse” of the Holy Spirit and thereby “Virgin made Church” – would be God’s chosen instrument for gathering the Friars and their flock to implement God’s Plan for the Kingdom, building a Divine civilization of love. source
St. Francis, and the long line of his spiritual descendants, loved, and do love, the Virgin Mary, who is the “Virgin made Church.” Fr. Fehlner writes:
According to both Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure (11), St. Francis could not exalt Mary in praise or serve her too much, because it was she who brought our Lord and Savior into our midst and made possible for us direct access to Him. De Maria numquam satis (12). St. Francis is clearly a Marian maximalist, a position clearly bearing on his way of thinking about Mary. If we understand who Mary is, what she has done and continues to do, then we can never exalt her too much, because we cannot come close to matching, let alone exceeding, what the Blessed Trinity has done for her. Of course St. Bonaventure warns against attempting to maximize our Marian prayer and doctrine with stupidities which in fact do not exalt but demean the Virgin Mother of God. But the more we grasp of the mystery objectively, e.g., the Immaculate Conception, the greater must be our praise, devotion and service objectively. For St. Francis, just as the absolute primacy of Christ appears after the triumph of the Cross as Christ’s Kingship over all creation, so the mystery of the Spouse of the Holy Spirit or Immaculate Conception appears as the Queenship of Mary gloriously crowned as Mistress of heaven and earth. In the practical order this constitutes the doctrinal foundation for her universal mediation of grace in the Church and among the Angels, the indispensable basis for realizing the purpose of the Franciscan Order, the rebuilding of the Church: to be without stain or spot, viz., immaculate (13).
These themes converge on the sacrifice of Calvary, hence the importance of perfect conformity to the Crucified through the maternal mediation of Mary in order to accomplish the glorification of the Church. This consists precisely in the completion of the Body of Christ, formed by Mary, so that in and through Christ the Father sees in us what he sees in his Only-begotten Son. This entails on the part of Mary a dual relation: one to Christ as His Mother and so on Calvary Mother of the Church (Virgo Ecclesia facta) and to the Holy Spirit as his instrument in realizing the Incarnation and animating the Church as Body of Christ. Once we see this, we see why Mary is first born daughter of the Father, and how St. Francis’ Marian thought rests profoundly on Trinitarian insights, which underlie the Franciscan thesis on the absolute predestination of Christ and Mary. This Marianized Christology (in St. Maximilian M. Kolbe) will ultimately yield a key to a pneumatology-ecclesiology in the mystery of Mary’s person as Virgin Mother: in relation to the Holy Spirit and in relation to the Church as Virgin-Mother of the faithful (14).
Careful examination of the St. Francis’ Salute to the Virgin (15), whence comes the title Virgo Ecclesia facta, and whose composition is to be related not only to the Portiuncula, St. Mary of the Angels, effectively celebrating Mary’s Assumption and mediation of all graces in the Church, but also to Francis’ conversion experience under the tutelage of the Immaculate Co-redemptrix, particularly reveals how it stresses the joint centrality of the divine Maternity and Incarnation. Thus it reveals how thoroughly the Marian thought of St. Francis was permeated precisely by those three notes stressed by Paul VI in Marialis cultus: the Trinitarian, Christological-pneumatological, and ecclesial (16).
Similarly, the antiphon for the Office of the Passion (17), whence comes the title Sponsa Spiritus Sancti, or Immaculate Conception, whose composition was profoundly linked to the Poverello’s (St. Francis, added by SCF) conversation with the Crucified in San Damiano, the moment when Francis was stigmatized interiorly, reveals the same. This time, however, it does so in relation to the consummation of Christ’s mission on the Cross. The mystery of what is today called the coredemption, based on the “Franciscan thesis,” stands at the very center of this Office and unique antiphon. The identification and labeling of this mystery will be a contribution of the Franciscan Mariological school.
Two doctrinal themes, anchored in the conversion experience of the Poverello (again, St. Francis, added by SCF) in the Church of San Damiano as well demonstrated by Fr. Schneider (18): themes to become central to the Franciscan Mariological School, emerge from this unlimited devotion to Mary as Mother of God: a sense of her unique mediation, first as an active co-cause of the Incarnation and then as spiritual Mother of the Church and its members; and then, as a consequence, a sense of her person as one capable of being the Mother of God and our Mother. For she is Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin made Church, who is able to bring into this world the Son of God and Savior by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and by the operation of the same Spirit make of the Church virginal Mother of Christ in the minds and hearts of the faithful. Thus, in chapter 10 of his Regula bullata, St. Francis insists that all the friars are obliged to have in themselves “the Spirit of the Lord and his holy operation,” no where so fully realized as in the Mother of God and our Mother.
This sense of Marian mediation of all grace will be a prominent feature of the Christology and Mariology of St. Bonaventure. This sense of her person in St. Francis will later emerge in Duns Scotus’ formulation of the theology of the Immaculate Conception, metaphysical ground of Mary’s universal mediation, as the Incarnation is the ground of Christ’s.
We are not dealing here with two partial aspects of a single mediation, but with a single mediation entire in Christ, but with a Marian mode, for the same reason the mission of the Son involves the mission of the Spirit and divine Maternity. Or mediation in the supernatural order entails a divine and maternal aspect, prefigured in the formation of man as male and female (Gen 2: 18-25) (19): in Bonaventure a dual dimension to a single mediation consummated on Calvary, but ultimately grounded in the dual complementary missions of Word and Spirit (20); and in Scotus founded respectively in the Incarnation and Immaculate Conception. This noted, it is easy to see how the profound insight of St. Maximilian ascribing the same name to the Spirit and Mary (21) is a kind of synthesis of these two great Marian Doctors.
In the Franciscan school, and first of all in St. Francis himself, Christ and Mary are involved, apart from any consideration of sin, in a work of mediation for the rest of the elect. Although from the gnoseological point of view of our theology here and now, demonstration of the Immaculate Conception rests on the prior recognition of our redemption as perfect, ontologically a parte rei the perfection of that redemption derives in fact from the mediation of Christ and Mary: real, even had Adam not sinned (22).
Evidently, the Marian thought of St. Francis, like his profound theology in general, fountainhead of the famed Franciscan school of theology and philosophy (and some would add science), when described in terms of the three possible modes of “our theology” in a time of pilgrimage (23) , is contemplative. For St. Bonaventure, without this form of theology, it would be impossible to perfect or develop the other two, viz., symbolic and academic (or proper). On the other hand without a sound symbolic and academic presentation it would be impossible for the vast majority to grasp the mind of St. Francis and similar saints on the mysteries of faith. source
That quote was a bit long, but I think it is instructive as it details how St. Francis viewed Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin made Church, and how the golden thread of her presence and influence are weaved within (and the thread remains unbroken!) the very foundations of the Franciscan Order.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a book about St. Francis (Amazon link). In it, he said:
“You will not be able rationally to read the Gospel and regard the Crucifixion as an afterthought or an anti-climax or an accident in the life of Christ; it is obviously the point of the story like the point of a sword, the sword that pierced the heart of the Mother of God. And you will not be able rationally to read the story of a man presented as a Mirror of Christ without understanding his final phase as a Man of Sorrows…”
St. Francis was a living Mirror of Christ, he bore the stigmata, he was wedded to the Church. He is a saint that was radically united with Christ, hence with the Mother of Christ. His followers, as seen in the recently deceased, Fr. Fehlner, carry on his spirituality and work; they continue to work to bring about the civilization of Love in a fallen world; they keep the golden thread intact by their dependence on, and consecration to, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Virgin made Church.
St. Francis, pray for us, and pray for the Church.
Image: St. Francis of Assisi (b. 1182- d. 1226)