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Seven founders of the Servites (February 17)

February 17, 2005

Early Religious Life was founded on the idea of withdrawal from the world. This meant that monasteries became little worlds unto themselves, self-sustaining, based on the properties they owned and farmed. Often monasteries acted as feudal lords, with lands worked by serfs whose labors supported the livelihood of the monks, who devoted themselves to more scholarly and devotional pursuits. The thirteenth century (1200s) saw the emergence of a new development in Religious life, one oriented more toward transforming the world than escaping it. This “style” of Religious Life is what we refer to as the mendicant (begging) orders because they didn’t even own property in common, but relied entirely on donations for day-to-day survival. In contrast with the older orders, these new Religious lived in or near cities, ministering to the common people, as dedicated to the salvation of the souls of the laity as to their own sanctification. Instead of being feudal lords over the people, these friars (the term “monk” properly only applies in the non-mendicant orders) became their servants and dependents.

These orders met a very specific need that had arisen late in the 1100s with the emergence and spread of the Albigensians (also known as the Cathari) and the Waldensians, both of which had developed in protest against the perceived wealth of the Church. The Albigensian heresy was a “warmed-over” version of Manichaeism, an early heresy that claimed there were two equal opposing “gods”, one evil and the other good. Matter and the use of material things, our bodies included, were considered to be allied with evil, and therefore enemies to be avoided or conquered. Even today, elements of this heresy are sometimes mistaken for the true Faith. For example, many mistakenly think of God as the opposite of the devil. Rather, St. Michael the archangel is the opposite of the devil–both are angels, both are creatures. God has no opposite. God is above them both and has power over both. He doesn’t fight or struggle with the devil. We do, and the angels do. But God has the devil on a leash. He only allows him to do things that will ultimately result in a greater good.

The Waldensians actually started out as a positive movement within the Church, embracing poverty much like St. Francis of Assisi. Unlike St. Francis, however, they rebelled against Church authority and set themselves up as their own authorities, claiming the Bible as their sole rule of faith (in other words, they were sola Scriptura Protestants before the “Reformation”).

The mendicant orders arose as an antidote to these heresies, as a means of reaching out to people who had been influenced by these errors and demonstrating to them that a life of simplicity and poverty could be lived in a full and holy way within the Church. St. Francis of Assisi developed the first of the mendicant orders in 1210, followed closely by St. Dominic and several others.

One of the other mendicant orders, which began to form in 1233 and gained final papal approval in 1304, was the Servites, or Servants of Mary. Today we honor the seven founders of this order, wealthy merchants of Florence, Italy, who were members of a pious society of laymen known as the Laudesi, or Praisers of Mary. Their names were: Buonfiglio dei Monaldi (Bonfilius), Giovanni di Buonagiunta (Bonajuncta), Bartolomeo degli Amidei (Amideus), Ricovero dei Lippi-Ugguccioni (Hugh), Benedetto dell’ Antella (Manettus), Gherardino di Sostegno (Sosteneus), and Alessio de’ Falconieri (Alexius). On the feast of the Assumption (August 15) in 1233, these seven experienced an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, who called them to form a new society dedicated to prayer and solitude. With the approval of the bishop of Florence, they made arrangements for their worldly affairs (two were married and two were widowed, so they had to make arrangements for their dependents). On the feast of the Birthday of Mary (September 8), they moved out to a small, run-down house at La Camarzia, in the countryside near Florence, to begin their new life together under obedience to the bishop. Not long after this, when the seven were begging alms from door to door in the streets of Florence, they heard children’s voices calling to them, “Servants of holy Mary”. This became the name by which they were known.

Ass their reputation for holiness spread, they soon found their life of prayer disturbed by a stream of visitors from Florence, so they withdrew further to Monte Senario. There they lived for seven years in prayer and penance, dissuading all would-be followers until their bishop related a vision he’d had of a vine that blossomed on a cold March day. He and they took this as a sign that they needed to begin “branching out”, so they began to accept new members. It was on Good Friday of this same year (1240) that they experienced another vision of the Blessed Virgin in which she showed them the black habit they were to wear (in memory of her sufferings) and told them to take the Rule of St. Augustine.

The order spread quickly, first in Italy, then throughout the world. In addition to a life of prayer, work and silence within their monastery, the friars also took on ministries of preaching and teaching outside their monastery, especially encouraging devotion to Mary’s sorrows.

The Rosary of the Seven Dolours is one of their devotions. Praying this today would be a fitting Lenten activity as well as a way to honor today’s saints.

The rosary of the Seven Dolours is prayed on a set of beads like the standard rosary except there are seven sets of seven beads (instead of five sets of ten) separated by larger “Our Father” beads. Since few people today own such a set of beads, you might consider improvising; counting on your fingers or tying seven knots in a piece of string. As with the standard rosary, the Our Father is prayed on the large beads and the Hail Mary on the small ones. For each set of seven beads, meditate on one of the seven sorrows of Mary:
1) The prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35)
2) The flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14)
3) The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple (Luke 3:41-52)
4) The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross
5) The Crucifixion (Matthew 27:35-54, Mark 15:25-39, Luke 23:33-40, John 19:18-30)
6) The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross (Matthew 27:57-59, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:31-40)
7) The burial of Jesus (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, John 19:40-42)
Three Hail Marys are added at the end in remembrance of the tears Mary shed
because of the suffering of her Divine Son. These are said to obtain
true sorrow for our sins. Following is the concluding prayer:

V. Pray for us, O most sorrowful Virgin
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ

Concluding Prayer:
Lord Jesus, we now implore, both for the present and for the hour of
our death, the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Thy
Mother, whose holy soul was pierced at the time of Thy Passion by a
sword of grief. Grant us this favor, O Saviour of the world, Who
livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and
ever. Amen.

Holy founders of the Servites, pray for us!

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