“Mary kept all these words,  pondering them in her heart.”

“Whatsoever he shall say to you,  do ye.”

Christus unus omnium Magister. De Maria numquam satis.


These passages from St. Luke, St. John, St. Bonaventure and St. Bernard express the heart of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner’s (1931-2018) metaphysical, theological, and spiritual vision. During his life, Fr. Peter was the greatest Mariologist and Franciscan theologian in the Church. His death last year opened a void and a sense of great loss in the minds and hearts of those who knew and loved him. No more can one turn to Fr. Peter for light and clarification on some question of theology, philosophy, or the spiritual life. Always ready to extend his deep Franciscan-Marian wisdom to all who asked, Fr. Peter was a living embodiment of the Franciscan commitment to study and learning for the sake of attaining to true wisdom, a wisdom embodied in works of evangelical charity. While Fr. Peter’s transitus to the house of his heavenly Father is indeed a profound loss for us, his death as faithful witness to the glories the Trinity in Christ and His Blessed Mother is an immeasurable increase in the glory of the triumphant blessed in heaven. For this is where, we are confident, Fr. Peter will quickly take his place in the company of his beloved Lord and Blessed Mary and the great choirs of angels and saints who continually sing the praises of the Father in the perfect unity of the Holy Spirit. What a joy it is to consider Fr. Peter now with his beloved St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Bonaventure, Blessed John Duns Scotus, Blessed John Henry Newman, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and all the lesser known saints and blessed souls who so profoundly shaped his theology and spirituality. What the pilgrim church loses in terms of Fr. Peter’s spiritual direction and theological writings, the universal church gains in an intercessor who now perfectly and blessedly understands the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, his own two deepest loves, and the same Hearts that the eternal Father most loves.

From this vantage point, Fr. Peter is no longer bound to space and time, and he is able to pray even more efficaciously that Christ’s prayer to the Father—that his “will be done” and that his “kingdom come”—will be realized in the lives of the faithful and of all mankind. Fr. Peter extends his Marian apostolate from the house of the Father, effecting and increasing the Father’s kingdom in his typical Marian manner. Fr. Peter can continue, as Mary did, to keep the word of God in his heart, pondering this word,[1] through his legacy of writings and saintly intercession, instructing and exhorting the world to follow Mary, by “doing whatever Christ tells you.”[2] As Fr. Peter well knew and always emphasized in his lectures and writings, it is only by obeying the Teacher of all as Mary did and by learning from her that Christ can reign.

An adept in the spiritual life, a consummate and gentle pastor and father of the faithful, Fr. Peter possessed an unparalleled breadth and intensity of knowledge and understanding of the Catholic and Franciscan theological and philosophical tradition.[3] Thankfully, and to the glory of God, Fr. Peter left a massive body of philosophical and theological writings that span almost sixty years of prayerful development and articulation of his theological wisdom.[4] Throughout this body of works Fr. Peter incorporated and synthesized the great biblical, Patristic, Scholastic, and magisterial teachings of the Christian faith. Ever faithful to the teachings of Christ as received and passed down in and through the Church throughout the centuries, Fr. Peter, through his unique spiritual and intellectual gifts, could present perennial Christian wisdom from and within the heart of the Church in ways that shed new light on age-old questions and provide solutions to longstanding difficulties.

Only time will tell or be able to give a more adequate measure of the extent and profundity of Fr. Peter’s contribution to the Church’s theology.[5] It is already clear, however, that Fr. Peter made profound contributions to Franciscan theology and thought in a great number of theological fields. In this tribute, we would like to highlight two areas where his work has advanced Catholic understanding and offers rich soil to be cultivated by theologians and philosophers. The first major contribution of Fr. Peter that we would like to note is his presentation of an integral and unified synthesis of the great Franciscan intellectual and theological tradition, rooted in St. Francis himself and developed in the writings of St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus, culminating in the Marian wisdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe and in the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who will be canonized later this year. A second field of study we can mention here is Fr. Peter’s outlining and development of an ecclesiological vision that integrates both charismatic and institutional components of the life and mission of the Church in his Marian articulation and reception of St. Bonaventure. Through his critical interaction, both pro and con, with modern theological and philosophical trends, he worked out and applied a hermeneutic of continuity and development even before this term was given magisterial weight by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.[6]

Point of Arrival-Synthesis and New Point of Departure in the Franciscan-Marian Theological Tradition[7]

Based upon the revelation of the Incarnation of the eternal Word of the Father through the ordered yet co-essential overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and fiat of Mary, Fr. Peter developed profound insights into the mystery of the Trinity, and the nature and purpose of creation for the sake of the Incarnation in an essentially Marian mode. This insight allowed Fr. Peter to understand the continuity and development that took place in the philosophical and theological syntheses of the two greatest Franciscan theologians, St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus. Key to his synthesis is the primacy of the Father in the Trinity, whose most perfect mode and motive of activity is charity as he communicates his infinite goodness eternally to his Son and through his Son to the Holy Spirit. Charity is ever directive in God according to Fr. Peter, not as a force that compels, but as the very life of the Trinity as such: perfect personal distinction in perfect communion of persons. Such a charity, Fr. Peter was always quick to insist, is essentially free and spontaneous. In God this charity is eternally and infinitely perfect (necessary and all good) and thereby a norm of God’s free (contingent) activity in creation. Fr. Peter explained that the perfect charity of the Trinity is most perfectly and fittingly revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ through the active and personal cooperation of Mary and the Holy Spirit. This is the most lovable, fitting, and the greatest work of God outside himself. As the best work of love which God could accomplish, the raising to divine personhood of the human nature of Christ through the perfectly divinized fiat of Mary unveils the perfect eternal purpose of the Father in willing creation, redemption, and salvation. Jesus through Mary is what the Father eternally intended first and for its own sake.

Applying St. Bonaventure’s insights on divine illumination in created personal judgments about the order and purpose of created reality in Christ through Mary, Fr. Peter was able to apply Scotistic insights into the mystery of predestination, the “Signs of the Divine Will,” and Scotus’ metaphysical categories of the univocal concept of being, the disjunctive transcendentals, and pure perfections to biblical typology that sees the perfections of the divine exemplars as mirrored and accomplished in the common work of the sacred persons of Jesus and Mary and extended in and through the Church and the world. The loving Father actually accomplished the greatest work he could possibly carry out in the most fitting and sublime manner in and through the Incarnation via the Divine Maternity of Mary Immaculate, both of Christ the Head and the Church His Body. Fr. Peter clearly understood that all creation bespeaks this Trinitarian purpose in Christ through His Immaculate Mother, as the love of the Father through the Spirit is manifested in the Incarnation of the Son who redeems us and saves us through the ever-active intercession and mediation of His Mother and our Mother. In this manner Fr. Peter accomplished a genuine synthesis of Bonaventure’s exemplarist theological metaphysics with the metaphysics of Scotus which was rooted in the biblical revelation that all creation somehow reflects the inner life of the Trinity, and that all creation is created in and for Jesus Christ, through Mary.

Fr. Peter’s theological synthesis reached a high point of clarity and consistency through his lengthy engagement with the theological and mystical insights of his Franciscan confrere, the Martyr of Charity, St. Maximilian Kolbe. Through St. Maximilian, Fr. Peter was able to resolve remaining questions about the nature of the union between the eternal Trinity and the order of the economy of creation and salvation in and through Christ. Basing himself upon the mystical intuitions of St. Maximilian into Mary’s special relation as Immaculate Conception to the three persons of the Trinity—Mary is firstborn Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit—Fr. Peter was able to develop a theological and metaphysical approach that supplied insight into the very possibility of creaturely cooperation in and with the work of Redemption and salvation. Mary is a quasi-part of the Trinity by means of her unique consecration as the Immaculate Conception, in order to become an active agent in the work of her Son in every phase of His earthly ministry. As firstborn Daughter, Mary is uniquely the eternally chosen handmade of the Lord who brings forth and accomplishes, through the power of the Spirit, the loving purposes of the Father in giving birth to the man-God, Jesus Christ. This, however, is predicated upon Mary as the created counterpart (or reaction) to divine love as Spouse of the Holy Spirit. She is the created Immaculate Conception, as the Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Immaculate Conception.

And it is through Mary—who is, in the words of Fr. Peter, following St. Maximilian, the Vertex of Love—that the entire economy of salvation is made possible and realized in Christ. This means that Mary, in giving Christ human flesh, not only consented to give birth to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, but also to spiritually continue her role as a Mother, by giving birth to the Body of Christ, both at the outset of the Incarnation through to its final eschatological consummation in heavenly glory. As Fr. Peter explains so often in his writings, Mary holds the pivotal role in the creation and re-creation in Christ, so she must be our Teacher and Advocate with Christ in both the objective ecclesial dimension as well as the subjective and charismatic dimension of our earthly sojourn. In the words of Fr. Peter: “The Virgin Mary pertains to the ‘order of the hypostatic union’ and so is uniquely associated with the theandric actions of her Son and Savior, she is uniquely the teacher of the Apostles and faithful.” Mary instructs all of us: “Do whatever he tells you!”

Charity and Unity in the Church

Another profound theological contribution of Fr. Peter’s goes back to his first major publication, The Role of Charity in the Ecclesiology of St. Bonaventure.[8] Fr. Peter develops, with scientific precision and sublime theological and spiritual clarity, his insights into the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation, with Mary as the created Immaculate Conception and “Great Sign” of the eternal fecundity of the Trinity, and as locus and pivot point of creation’s recapitulation and return to the Father in charity. His later works successfully coordinate and integrate institutional (hierarchical, juridical, and sacramental) and constitutional (the order of persons: Trinity and the Whole Christ, head and members) aspects of the Church, through his articulation of the dogmatic and charismatic loci of Christian existence.

The Role of Charity in the Ecclesiology of St. Bonaventure was originally his doctoral thesis at the Pontifical College of St. Bonaventure. Published in 1965, this work remains the standard treatment of Bonaventure’s understanding of the Church. In this early work, we already see the seeds being planted for Fr. Peter’s later synthesis of Franciscan and Catholic dogmatic theology. Fr. Peter explains: “The role of the Church as a sign and sacrament of everlasting life for her members tends to make of the Church an instrument, rather than the realization of salvation itself.”[9]

Fr. Peter writes: “Bonaventure affirms unequivocally that the bond of unity in the Church is charity,” and that “through… charity we are all united…”[10]
This sacramental role of the Church is determined by Christ in its very foundation as expressive of the love of the Father for humanity with a continuing distinctly Marian character. It is the very flesh that Mary gave Christ and the sacred humanity that she nurtured and protected which is made present and offered in every sacrifice of the Eucharistic Liturgy. It is Mary’s love for the Father and Christ that made the Church possible through the Incarnation, and it is this same love enfleshed that makes the Eucharistic Church. If the Church is the sacrament and instrument of salvation, it is the Eucharist offered that is our salvation through the Church. For the Eucharist is the effectual sign and reality of the loving communion between the Father and all humanity in the Marian-sourced flesh of her own and of our Savior and God, Jesus Christ.

If the sacrifice on Calvary of the flesh given to Christ from His Immaculate Mother and re-presented daily to the Father in every Catholic mass throughout time and space is the price that love pays for our reconciliation with the Father, it is Mary and the Holy Spirit, the created and uncreated Immaculate Conceptions, who cooperate with the High Priest in fecundating and fructifying this sacrifice of love in the Church and in the hearts of the all the faithful. As Fr. Peter explains regarding the mission of the Son: “in virtue of the Incarnation the flesh [the entire humanity of Christ] becomes the sign and instrument of the salvation of the Spirit, the visible of the invisible, the human of the divine; in turn the divine is manifested in and through the human, indeed the flesh and the body. For this reason, the sacraments by which the Church is founded and formed come forth from the side of Christ; they are the continuation of this mystery of mediation.”[11]

The mission of the Son finds its counterpart in the mission of the Holy Spirit having his visible primary term and manifestation in his Spouse, Mary, the Immaculate Mediatrix. Fr. Peter explains the unique coordination and relation between the Holy Spirit and Mary on the basis of her exclusive dedication to the work of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing the Incarnation and establishment of the Church, and effecting charity as the formal bond of union in Christ’s Body, the Church. Because the Blessed Virgin Mary is filled with the grace of the Spirit, she participates in a singular manner in the eternal fecundity of the Father. This participation is precisely signified through her Virginal Maternity in bringing forth the man-God, Jesus Christ. However, her union with the Spirit is so profound that she continues with the Holy Spirit, the second advocate with the Father after Christ, in accomplishing “the work of the Holy Spirit… fundamentally a union of charity.”[12] For, as Fr. Peter explains: “The role of charity in the Church is to unite her, to make of her a communion, because the nature of the charity is communicative; and because the nature of the Church is ultimately resolved into a participation in the life of the Trinity, her inner unity is above all one of charity.”[13]

In his final great study of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s theology,[14] Fr. Peter places the final capstone upon his ecclesiological vision, fully integrating Christo-typical and ecclesio-typical theological models of Mariology. He is able to accomplish this because of his Franciscan theological metaphysics that locates the primary agency and activity in the realm of persons. First, the Father eternally begets his Son and, through his Son, gives the Holy Spirit. Second, in creation this fecund charity is found in Mary, actively participating in every phase of her Son’s sacrificial and salvific mission.

Because Mary is the created Immaculate Conception, she is always actively, directly, and personally exercising a maternal and mediatory role. First, she gives birth to the Head of the Church, the true Son of the Father now really established in creation; and second, she is Mother of all those adopted as children of the Father and brothers and co-heirs with Christ. Because she is the Immaculate, divine Mother, assumed into heaven, Mary uniquely and perfectly is what the Church, the Body of Christ, is called to become in its full maturity. Because of her continued spiritual maternity, Mary, as the created Immaculate Conception, is the means by which the kingly promises to David fulfilled in Christ, come to full fruition in history through the Church. It is through the triumph of her Immaculate Heart that the kingship of Christ, a kingdom formally characterized by love, can be fully established.

In this way, Fr. Peter can show just how correct St. Maximilian’s call for total consecration to Mary, under the title of Immaculate Conception, was for the transubstantiation of souls into Mary, the created Immaculate Conception, so as to be perfectly conformed to and established in the Uncreated Immaculate Conception, the Holy Spirit, via the personal agency and advocacy of the Immaculate Mediatrix. In very practical terms, Fr. Peter provided the metaphysical and theological rationale for the total incorporation of the Immaculate Conception into the whole life of the Church and its members, whereby the Kingship of Christ would be fully accomplished and perfected through the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Church and in the world, for all eternity. 


[1]     Lk 2:19, 51.


[2]     Jn 2:5


[3]     Fr. Peter’s erudition comes through in his writings and lectures. He seemingly always had just the right passage from Scripture, the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and other theologians he could quote to support or illustrate his point, often quote verbatim in the original language. He not only had mastered and interiorized the writings of his beloved father, St. Francis, and the Franciscan greats like Bonaventure and Scotus, he had an excellent familiarity with the writings of the major, but now largely forgotten, Franciscan writers from the thirteenth century to the present day. Fr. Peter was well-acquainted with all the major philosophical trends throughout history and special insight into the alluring mis-directions found in the thought of Kant and Hegel. His breadth of culture was also often on display during his lectures. A great lover of G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Peter would often draw on the truly “wise cracks” and paradoxically phrased insights of the great English defender of the Catholic Faith. Fr. Peter’s knowledge and memory were truly astonishing. He was ready at all times with quotations and examples from the writings of Virgil, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Hopkins.


[4]     Cf. The Spirit and the Church: Peter Damian Fehlner’s Franciscan Development of Vatican II on the Themes of the Holy Spirit, Mary, and the Church: Festschrift, pp. xxix–xli, for a complete bibliography of Fr. Peter’s writings.


[5]     There is already effort underway to continue along the lines Fr. Peter has laid out, in the work of, among others, Fr. Edward Ondrako, Fr. Angelo Geiger, Fr. Christiaan Kappes, and J. Isaac Goff.


[6]     Cf. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia.


[7]     This theme took up Fr. Peter’s attention throughout the latter almost forty years of his theological research, teaching, writing. The fruits of this labor will soon be available in the first volume (eight in total) of his Collected Essays (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming, 2019) which contains Fr. Peter’s development of Franciscan Marian Metaphysics.


[8]     Peter Fehlner, The Role of Charity in the Ecclesiology of St. Bonaventure (Rome: Editrice “Miscellanea Francescana”, 1965).


[9]     Fehlner, The Role of Charity, p. 10.


[10]    Fehlner, The Role of Charity, p. 36.


[11]    Fehlner, The Role of Charity, pp. 53–4.


[12]    Fehlner, The Role of Charity, p. 78.


[13]    Fehlner, The Role of Charity, p. 160.


[14]    The Theologian of Auschwitz: St. Maximilian M. Kolbe on the Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church (forthcoming).