February 17 – Feast of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order

Gathered in the Name of Jesus the Lord; Inspired by Mary, Mother and Servant; Sent to be Men of Compassion

Bigatti Founders copy (1)The Times, They Are A-Changin’. The title of this popular song of the 1960s pretty well sums up what was going on during that decade. Throughout the world old barriers between races and ethnic groups were collapsing, dress codes were being stripped away, and traditional values about war and industry and education were stirring up riots and sit-ins. The future of everything seemed uncertain. Even the Church found itself in the midst of more change and upheaval than it had seen in centuries. The question was, “How do we live the message of Jesus in this strange new world?” Everybody in the Church seemed to have a different answer to this question.

The early thirteenth century was also a time of upheaval and change. Serfs were moving from the countryside into the growing cities; trade and exploration were booming; and new approaches to education and new ways of thinking abounded. The Church of that day also found itself struggling to catch up with the world. The Church which had long organized itself around farming villages and monastery schools suddenly found itself out of touch with the new city population and their problems. Crime and corruption, poverty and materialism, urban gangs and urban violence — all these found new expression in the thirteenth century. And with growing prosperity, war became possible on a much larger scale.

In the midst of this upheaval, many men and women of faith turned to prayer and penance, the recipe that Jesus recommends when nothing else seems to work against the power of evil. By refusing to take part in any money-grabbing or war-making, they hoped to turn people’s attention back to God. Among these groups who were trying to do something about the direction that civilization was taking were seven wool merchants living in Florence. They were members of a group of penitents dedicated to the service of Our Lady. Their leader was named Bonfilius. In addition to having a special devotion to Mary, they tried to recapture the simplicity of life that characterized the first Christian community.

By the year 1242 this group of seven had begun to live community in a more intense way. They had left their jobs and their families and moved into a dwelling at Cafaggio, just outside the walls of Florence. A few years later, under the spiritual guidance of St. Peter of Verona, the small group sought even greater solitude at nearby Monte Senario. Here these seven men had the space and the quiet needed to take in new members. St. Peter helped the new group to deepen their relationship with Mary and to adopt a Rule or way of living in community.

After this time of retreat, the Servants of Mary were ready to come down from the mountain and undertake an active ministry. Friars once again established a community at Florence, then opened one at Siena, and then, during the next seven hundred years, spread to every continent save Antarctica. As the Order expanded, the friars dedicated their churches to Mary and honored her in their liturgical service. They continued to witness to the importance of prayer and the importance of being unencumbered by the world’s goods. In time, groups of women who shared the vision of the Seven Founders, came to be Servants of Mary.

We know very few details about the lives of the first seven Servants of Mary. Some had been married before coming together in community, while some had not. Some eventually chose to become priests, but at least one did not. In a way, though, details of their individual lives are not that important. Servites who followed in the way of the Seven have preferred to honor them as a group, because their holiness grew out of the fraternal love they shared in community. In 1888 Pope Leo XIII chose to canonize them as a group (The Seven Holy Founders): the only time in history that the Church has canonized an entire founding community. (Fr. Joseph Chamblain, OSM)

Over seven centuries later, the Servites remain a creative, apostolic force that extend their community to people of all ages, races, nationalities, and social position. Faithful to the Spirit of their Founders, they seek to promote new forms of service when necessary, especially to the poorest and most needy, promoting justice among all men and women.

Prayer: God of mercy, you inspired the Seven Holy Founders with the will to follow Christ in radical poverty and humility. Through their intercession grant that we, too, walk always in your presence and remain faithful to the spirit of the Gospel and our Christian calling. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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