The Virgin Made Church
Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Hail Lady, Holy Queen, Holy Mary, Mother of God, who are the Virgin made Church and the one chosen by the Most Holy Father of Heaven, whom He consecrated with His Most Holy Beloved Son and with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good. Hail His Palace; Hail His Tabernacle; Hail His Home. Hail His Vestment; Hail His Handmaid; Hail His Mother and hail all you holy virtues, which through the grace and illumination of the Holy Spirit are infused into the hearts of the faithful, so that from being unbelievers, you make them faithful to God. -- Saint Francis of Assisi
Writing in his Second Life of St. Francis of the Little Poor Man’s “inexpressible love” of the Blessed Virgin, Thomas of Celano says that Francis “sang special Praises to her, poured out prayers to her, offered her his affections, so many and so great that the tongue of man cannot recount them” (II Cel. 198, in Omnibus p. 135). One set of these “special Praises” has come down to us in nearly all the early manuscripts of his works, its authenticity unchallenged: St. Francis’ “Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
When I first heard the Salutation – spoken aloud, not read – I heard it as speaking of a “Virgin-made Church”. That made complete sense to me. The Church believes, as St. Augustine articulated, that the one Body of the Lord Jesus Christ is present in three forms: the Incarnate Body which hung upon the Cross and is now glorified in heaven, the Eucharistic Body which is present under forms of Bread and Wine, and the Mystical Body which is the Church. Since His Body is one, what is truly said of any one of these forms, must be true of all three. Thus, if Our Lady is the Mother of the Incarnate Body, she must be no less the Mother of the Eucharistic Body and the Mother of the Mystical Body. The Church is born of Mary: the Church is Virgin-made.
That is true. But when I read the text of the Salutation, I learned that St. Francis’ words teach a different truth. What he wrote was “che sei vergine fatta Chiesa” (in Latin, “quae es virgo ecclesia facta”): literally, “because you, Virgin, are made Church” – Virgin, made Church.
The Gospel records an interchange in which Jesus, told that His Mother wants to speak with Him, asks who His Mother is, and answers that His Mother is the person who does His Father’s will (Mt. 12.50 and parallels). Some take this as disparaging Our Lady: but who is it that said to the Father’s messenger, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk. 1.38)? And who is it who continued in prayer with the disciples in the Upper Room until the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.14)? Holy Mary does the Father’s will: from the day of the Annunciation she is a believer, a disciple of her Son. And from the day of the Annunciation she uniquely believes in Him, she uniquely follows Him. She not only gives birth to the Church: she – she alone until He calls His first disciples – is the Church. The Virgin is made Church.
The Virgin is made Church, the Virgin is everything the Church is, from the moment of her “yes” to God. But given His devotion to the Holy Cross, one cannot but hear in St. Francis’ image of the Virgin made Church something of that moment when from that Cross Our Lord gives His Mother to His Apostle John. The Church is a sheep-fold: under the one Shepherd, there are shepherds, and there are sheep. And here, in the dying that will issue in His return to His Father’s right hand, the one Shepherd places the foremost and first of