Genesis 11:1-9; Mark 8:34-9:1
In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III looked upon a world that seemed to fit Christ’s description in the gospel: A faithless and sinful generation. Germany mired in civil war; the king of England plotting rebellion against Rome; Spain in the grip of the Moors; Jerusalem still under Muslim control. Closer to home things were no better; Italy’s city-states warring with each other and families within cities fighting each other for power and political control.
As counterpoint to this, the Church tried to be a sanctuary of unity and peace. In Florence, a confraternity was formed known as the Society of Our Blessed Lady, composed of aristocrats, wealthy noblemen and merchants. By 1233, 50 years after its founding, the Society boasted 200 members.
That same year on the Feast of the Assumption, seven members of the Society, aged 27 to 34, lingered in church after Mass. Separately yet simultaneously each received a vision of the Blessed Mother, who asked them to “Leave the world, retire together into solitude, that you may fight against yourselves, and live wholly for God. You will thus experience heavenly consolations. My protection and assistance will never fail you.”
It couldn’t have been easy to just “leave the world.” These were businessmen with substantial fortunes and bright futures. Some had families; while three were celibate and two were widowed, two were still married. The call to leave everything might have seemed as difficult to them as it was to the disciples to hear Christ say that the only way to be raised to the glory of Heaven was to take up the cross on Earth.
The human will naturally resists this. We want the glory but we want it our way. In the first reading, the people tried it their way; they disobeyed God’s command to populate the world, choosing instead to gather in one place to build a tower that would reach the heavens. But as our Lord implied in the gospel, heaven cannot be reached by human will; it can only be reached by the cross. The seven men kneeling in church on that August day knew this. Mary had shown them their cross, so they did as she asked. Renouncing their wealth, they left family and friends and lived outside the city walls in devotion to Christ.
Finding solitude was no easier than leaving the world. As you might guess, such a radical change of life drew a lot of attention. The faithful, the doubters, and the merely curious all came to visit. Aware that this interfered with the Blessed Mother’s request, the men relocated to an isolated mountain north of Florence. There they took up the life of total devotion to God that Mary had requested. Thus energized to serve others, they began to teach against a popular heresy of the time and achieved great success. For this they were beloved by several popes and ultimately confirmed as the Order of the Servants of Mary, or the Servites.
In a sense, we are all Servites. Our mission is to witness the gospel, to be at the service of God and all people, inspired by Mary his Mother and most ideal Servant. We can only do this if we do as she did: Conform our wills to that of the Father and do whatever Christ tells us. Only He knows the cross that he has in mind for us. It may be to give up what we hold most dear, to separate from family or friends, and to devote ourselves totally to God. Whatever it is, let us pray for the grace to accept it, to bear it willingly, and to remember in the words of St. Rose of Lima that “apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”
Seven Founders of the Servite Order, pray for us.