On February 17th, we celebrate the liturgical memorial of the Seven Founders of the Servite Order, whose story goes back to the thirteen century.
In medieval times one would encounter groups which were called guilds, which were essentially groupings of craftsmen of related skills and professions structured to learn, advocate and safeguard their trade.
Today’s liturgical memorial remembers seven young men who pertained to a merchant guild in Florence, Italy, in the 1200s’s, all of them dedicated Christians, nourishing a great loving respect towards both God as well as his Church. Not only safeguarding their commercial concerns by adhering to a guild, they more importantly looked after their souls, by associating to a local spiritual guild named the Confraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which they were spiritually conducted by a wise and erudite priest who tirelessly exhorted their devotion.
When the Confraternity members underwent mystical vision of the Virgin Mary, they were convinced that their way forward was to leave everything behind, all their possessions as well as their worldly concerns and espouse a solitary life away from the business of the city. The seven of them took with utmost seriousness the call which they felt, fasting, praying and leading lives of such intense austerity that a cardinal reprimanded them to cease living as dogs would. Slowly, slowly they came to embrace a rule, received new vocations, chose their leaders, and expanded all over Italy and beyond. Ultimately they adopted their name: the Order of Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also commonly known as the Servants of Mary or, simply, Servites.
As history tells us, the Seven Holy Founders were particularly devoted to the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and they were pivotal in introducing in the Church the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, which we celebrated on September 15th of each year. Mary’s sorrows, the piercing sword which pierced her heart, Mary’s tears which she shed as she accompanied Her Son’s passion and death, inspired the Seven Holy Founders to propagate the devotion to Mary under this widespread title. Notwithstanding the incredible cruelty with which Her Son was unjustly treated, Mary remained strong and determined in her faith, remaining by Jesus’ side at the foot of the cross. However, Mary was also a mother who deeply loved her son. Her heart was heavy since she kept pondering upon the meaning of Jesus’ suffering. At Christ’s resurrection we are called to joyfully unite with Mary after that we have accompanied her in her indescribable suffering days before. The emotions of the Bible are interiorised by those who read it and live it in the liturgy and Church devotions.
The Church celebrates the Seven Holy Founders as one group because in such a manner they started their spiritual journey to God through Mary. In communion with one another they managed to accomplish far more had they worked individually. Their confraternity merged into a great Order, still present up to this day for the benefit of the whole universal Church. Theirs is a theological guild which is holding its members to high standards of spiritual perfection. Servite priests and brothers are presently operative in different countries around the world, centuries after the Order’s founding. Such is a testament to the unshakable, rock solid, bedrock on which its Seven Holy Founders built their spiritual and theological home.
Let us not forget that the time frame in which the seven Servite founders lived can be easily related to our own times. Even today, all of us are faced with the urgent invitation to re-centre our lives on Christ. If we subscribe to this let us be nourished by the account regarding the origin of the Servite Order which we find as the second reading in the Office of Readings.
There were seven men worthy of all our praise and veneration, whom our Lady brought into one community to form this order of hers and of her servants. They were like seven stars joined together to form a constellation.
When I entered this order I found only one of the seven still alive, Brother Alexis, whom our Lady was pleased to preserve from death down to our own time so that we might listen to his account of the founding of the order. As I saw myself and observed at first hand, Brother Alexis led so good a life that all who met him were moved by the force of his example. Moreover, he was a living testimony to that special kind of religious perfection characteristic of that first community.
But where did these men stand before they formed their own community? Let us consider this in four respects.
First, as regards the Church. Some of them had never married, having vowed themselves to perpetual celibacy; some were married men at the time; some had lost their wives after marriage and now were widowers.
Second, regarding their status in the city of Florence. They belonged to the merchant class and engaged in buying and selling the goods of this world. But once they found the pearl of great price, our order, they not only gave all they had to the poor but cheerfully offered themselves to God and our Lady in true and loyal service.
Third, concerning their devotion and reverence to our Lady. In Florence there was an ancient guild dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Because of its age and the number and holiness of its members, both men and women, the guild had acquired a title of preeminence and was called the Major Guild of Our Blessed Lady. These seven men were devoted to our Lady and belonged to this guild before they established their own community.
Fourth, as for their spiritual perfection. They loved God above all things and dedicated their whole lives to him by honoring him in their every thought, word and deed.
But when by God’s inspiration and the special urging of our Lady they had firmly resolved to form a community together, they set in order everything that concerned their homes and families, left to their families what they needed and gave all the rest to the poor. Then they sought the advice of virtuous men of good judgment, and described their plans to them.
They climbed the heights of Monte Senario and built on its summit a little house that would suit their purpose, and there they lived in common. As time passed, they began to realize that they were called not simply to sanctify themselves but to receive others into their community, and so increase the membership of this new order our Lady had inspired them to found. They recruited new members; some they accepted, and thus established our present order. In the beginning our Lady was the chief architect of this new order which was founded on the humility of its members, built up by their mutual love, and preserved by their poverty.
On your feast day, our thoughts and prayers turn to you, the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order. Help us to find mutual support and assistance in loving God and Mary through a holy alliance with like-minded Christians. Through your intercession and example of group love of God, may our love for Him burn hotter and longer than a single flame.