Weekly General Audience March 10, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last week, I spoke about the life and the person of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. This morning, I would like to continue my presentation by reflecting on a few of his literary works and teachings.
As I said before, among St. Bonaventure’s many achievements was his ability to interpret in an authentic and faithful way the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with great love.
During St. Bonaventure’s time, a small group of Friars Minor, known as the “spiritual” Friars Minor, maintained that St. Francis had inaugurated a totally new era of human history in which the “eternal Gospel,” to which the Book of Revelation refers, had replaced the New Testament.
This group declared that the Church had by that time exhausted its role in history and only to be replaced by a charismatic community of free men who were guided interiorly by the Spirit — hence the name “spiritual” Franciscans.
The ideas of this group were based on the writings of a Cistercian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202.
In his works, he described a Trinitarian rhythm in history. He considered the Old Testament the age of the Father. This was followed by the age of the Son — the age of the Church. The third age, the age of the Holy Spirit, was yet to come.
Thus, all of history was seen as a history of progress, progressing from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative freedom of the age of the Son, in the Church, towards the full freedom of the children of God in the age of the Holy Spirit, which would finally be a period of peace among men, of reconciliation among peoples and religions.
Joachim of Fiore had stirred up hope that the beginning of this new age would come from a new monasticism. Thus, it was understandable why a group of Franciscans would feel that St. Francis of Assisi had initiated this new age and that his order was the community of this new era — the community of the age of the Holy Spirit — which left behind the hierarchical Church to begin a new Church of the Spirit that was no longer tied to the structures of old.
There was, therefore, a risk of an extremely serious misunderstanding of St. Francis’ message and of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church. This misunderstanding implied an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole.
An Astute Theologian
When St. Bonaventure became the minister general of the Franciscan Order in 1257, he found himself facing serious tension within his own order, precisely due to those who espoused the thinking of these “spiritual Franciscans,” which could be traced back to Joachim of Fiore. In order to respond to this group and restore unity to the order, St. Bonaventure carefully studied both those writings of Joachim of Fiore that had been authenticated as well as those writings attributed to him. Realizing the need to present both the person and the message of his beloved St. Francis in the correct way, he sought to present an accurate vision of the theology of history.
St. Bonaventure confronted this problem in his last work, a collection of lectures to the monks at a school in Paris — a volume that remained unfinished and that has come down to us through the transcriptions by those who heard his lectures. It is called Hexaëmeron, that is, an allegorical explanation of the six days of creation. The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the creation narrative as a prophecy of the history of the world and of mankind.
For them, these seven days represented seven periods of history, later interpreted also as seven millennia. With Christ, we were to have entered the final, sixth historical period, which would be followed by God’s great Sabbath.
St. Bonaventure uses this historical representation of the days of creation as the basis for his argument, but in a very free and innovative way.
For him, two phenomena of his time made a new interpretation of the course of history necessary.
The first phenomenon was that of St. Francis, a man who was totally united to Christ to the point of communion with him through the stigmata, an alter Christus. Along with St. Francis was the new community that he had created, which was different from monasticism as it had been known until then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation since it was a new work of God that had appeared at that particular point in time.
The second phenomenon involved the position Joachim of Fiore had taken, which predicted a new monasticism and a totally new age in history, going well beyond New Testament revelation. This called for a response.
As minister general of the Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure immediately realized that, with the spiritualistic approach inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the order would not be governable and, logically, was heading towards anarchy. He foresaw two consequences.
First, the practical need for structures and for being inserted into the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, required a theological foundation, because those who followed the spiritualistic conception demonstrated an apparent theological foundation. Secondly, while taking into account the realistic approach that was needed, the newness of St. Francis’ vision could not be lost.
How did St. Bonaventure respond to this practical and theoretical need? Here I can give only a very schematic summary of his response that is incomplete on some points.
1. St. Bonaventure rejected the idea of a Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one throughout history and cannot be divided into three divinities. Consequently, history is one, even if it is a journey and — according to St. Bonaventure — a journey toward progress.
2. Jesus Christ is God’s last word. In him, God has said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot say or give. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: “He will remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26) and “he will take from what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15). Therefore, there in no higher Gospel and there is no other Church to be awaited. Consequently, even St. Francis’ order had to be inserted into the Church, into her faith, into her hierarchical order.
3. This does not mean that the Church is immobile and fixed in the past and that there is no room in her for anything new. Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt — Christ’s works do not regress or decline, but advance, says St. Bonaventure in his letter De Tribus Quaestionibus [Regarding Three Questions]. Thus St. Bonaventure explicitly formulates the idea of progress, which was a new idea in comparison to the Fathers of the Church as well as many of his contemporaries. For St. Bonaventure, Christ is no longer the end of history, as he was for the Fathers, but the center of history. History does not end with Christ, but rather begins a new era.
Newness and Renewal
There was also another consequence: Up to that point, the prevailing belief was that the Fathers of the Church represented the culmination of theology and that all successive generations could only be their disciples. Even though St. Bonaventure recognized the Church Fathers as masters forever, the phenomenon of St. Francis gave him the certainty that the richness of Christ’s word is inexhaustible and that new insights can appear in new generations. The uniqueness of Christ is also a guarantee of newness and renewal throughout all ages of history.
Of course, the Franciscan Order, as he himself emphasizes, belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on some utopian spiritualism. But, at the same time, the newness of the order is valid vis-à-vis classical monasticism and St. Bonaventure, as I pointed out in my last catechesis, defended its newness against the attacks of the secular clergy in Paris. The Franciscans did not have a fixed monastery; they could be present everywhere in order to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely this break with stability — a characteristic of monasticism — in favor of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.
At this point, perhaps it is useful to say that even today some people think that the history of the Church during the second millennium was one of constant decline. Some see the decline as having started right after the time of the New Testament.
But in reality, Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt — Christ’s work does not regress, but advances. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so forth? Today, too, it remains true: Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt — his works go forward.
St. Bonaventure teaches us the combination of discernment, sometimes rigorous discernment, clear realism and openness to the new charisms that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, gives to his Church.
Need for Discernment
Yet, just as this idea of decline is being repeated, another idea, that of a “spiritualistic utopianism,” is also being repeated. We know, in fact, that after the Second Vatican Council, some people were convinced that everything should be new, that another Church had been born, that the pre-conciliar Church had come to an end, and that we would have another Church, totally “other.” What anarchic utopianism!
Thanks be to God, there were wise men at the helm of Peter’s boat, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, who defended, on one hand, the newness of the council and, at the same time, the oneness and the continuity of the Church, which is always both a Church of sinners and a place of grace.
4. In this regard, St. Bonaventure, as minister general of the Franciscans, adopted a policy that made it quite clear that the new order could not, as a community, live at the same “eschatological height” as St. Francis, which he saw as an anticipation of the world to come. Guided by healthy realism and spiritual courage, it should try to do everything possible to make the Sermon on the Mount a reality, which was the rule for St. Francis, even after taking into account the limitations of man, marked by original sin.
Thus, we see that for St. Bonaventure governance was not merely doing something; above all, it was thinking and praying. At the basis of his way of governing we always find prayer and thought. All of his decisions were the result of reflection, of thought illuminated by prayer. His work as minister general was always accompanied by intimate contact with Christ. For this reason, he composed a series of theological and mystical writings that express the core of his governance and manifest his intention to guide the order interiorly, that is, not only through commands and structures, but by guiding and illuminating souls, directing them to Christ.
Of his writings, which are at the core of his way of governing and which describe the road to follow both for the individual and the community, I wish to mention just one, his masterpiece, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Mind to God), which is a “handbook” of mystical contemplation.
The concept for this book originated on Mount La Verna, a place of deep spirituality, where St. Francis had received the stigmata. In the introduction, St. Bonaventure describes the circumstances that gave rise to this particular manuscript: “As I was meditating on the possibilities of the soul ascending to God, one thing — among other things — occurred to me: the amazing event that blessed Francis had experienced there, namely, the vision of the Seraph with wings in the form of the crucified Christ. Meditating on this, I immediately realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and, at the same time, the path that leads to it” (Itinerario della mente in Dio, Prologo, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici /1, Roma 1993, p. 499).
Thus, the six wings of the Seraph becomes the symbol of the six stages that progressively lead man from the knowledge of God by observing the world and its creatures and by exploring the soul itself with its faculties, to full union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi.
The final words of St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium, in response to the question of how to achieve mystical communion with God, should penetrate to the depths of our hearts: “If you now yearn to know how this happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of words; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire that sets everything aflame and transports to God with powerful anointings and extremely ardent affections. ... Let us enter therefore into the darkness, silence our worries, passions and illusions; let us pass with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, having seen him, we can say with Phillip: This is all I need” (ibid., VII,6).
Dear friends, let us accept the invitation that St. Bonaventure, the seraphic doctor, gives us, and let us attend the school of the divine Teacher.
Let us listen to his word of life and truth that resounds in the depths of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and our actions, so that he can dwell in us and we can hear his divine voice, which beckons us to true happiness.