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St. Bonaventure: a Man of Action and Contemplation

BY The Editors

March 28-April 10, 2010 Issue | Posted 3/22/10 at 11:00 AM

 

Weekly General Audience March 3, 2010

During is March 3 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middles Ages. He spoke about St. Bonaventure, an early follower of St. Francis of Assisi, a distinguished theologian and a teacher at the University of Paris.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to talk about St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. I have to confess that I experience a certain nostalgia in doing so, because, as a young scholar, my research focused on this author, of whom I am particularly fond. Getting to know him made no little impact on my formation. It is with great joy that I made a pilgrimage a few months ago to Bagnoregio, a little city in Latium where he was born and where people continue to venerate his memory.

His Early Life

Bonaventure was probably born in the year 1217. He died in 1274. He lived during the 13th century, an era in which the Christian faith, after having deeply penetrated the culture and society of Europe, served as inspiration for immortal works in literature, the visual arts, philosophy and theology.

Bonaventure was one of the great Christian figures who contributed to the composition of this harmony between faith and culture and stands out as a man of action and contemplation, of profound piety and prudent governance.

He was born Giovanni da Fidanza. An event that occurred during his childhood made a deep impression on him, which he himself later described. He suffered a sudden and serious illness. His father, who was a physician, felt there was no hope of saving his life. His mother, therefore, prayed to St. Francis, who had been recently canonized, asking him to intercede on her son’s behalf. Giovanni was healed.

Giovanni became more familiar with St. Francis of Assisi — the Poverello — several years later while he was studying in Paris. He had obtained the degree of Master of Arts — comparable to a degree from a prestigious prep school today.

At that point, like so many young people in his day, as well as today, Giovanni asked himself a crucial question: “What should I do with my life?” He was fascinated by the fervent testimony and the radical commitment to the gospel of the Friars Minor, who had arrived in Paris in 1219.

Knocking at the door of the Franciscan friary in Paris, he asked to be admitted into the flourishing family of the disciples of St. Francis.

Many years later, he would explain the reason for his choice. He perceived Christ at work in St. Francis and in the movement he started. As he wrote in a letter to another friar: “I confess before God that the reason that most made me love the life of Blessed Francis is that it is similar to the origin and growth of the Church. The Church began with simple fishermen and was immediately enriched with very illustrious and wise teachers. The religion of Blessed Francis was not established by the prudence of men, but by Christ” (Epistula de tribus quaestionibus ad magistrum innominatum, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Introduzione generale, Rome 1990, p. 29).

Christ-Centered Devotion

Therefore, around 1243, Giovanni donned the Franciscan habit and took the name of Bonaventure. He was asked to continue his studies, and he attended the School of Theology at the University of Paris, where he followed a very demanding curriculum.

He earned the various degrees required for an academic career, including the degrees of “bachelor of biblical studies” and “bachelor of the Sentences.”

Thus, he made an in-depth study of sacred Scripture, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which was the manual of theology at the time, as well as the most important authors of theology.

As a result of his contact with the teachers and students who came to Paris from all parts of Europe, he experienced growth in his own personal reflection and spiritual sensitivity to such a degree that, in the course of the following years, this growth was reflected in his writings and sermons to the point that he became one of the most important theologians in the history of the Church.

It is worthwhile to recall the title of the thesis he defended in order to earn the degree that entitled him to teach theology — or the licentia ubique docendi as it was called back then.

His dissertation was entitled “Questions About the Knowledge of Christ.” The title indicates the central role that Christ always had in the life and teaching of Bonaventure. We can say without question that his entire thought was deeply Christ-centered.

His Role as a Peacemaker

During those years in Paris, Bonaventure’s adopted city, a violent controversy erupted against St. Francis of Assisi’s Friars Minor and St. Dominic Guzman’s Friars Preacher. Their right to teach at the University of Paris was disputed and even the authenticity of their consecrated life was questioned.

There is no doubt that the changes that the mendicant orders introduced in the understanding of religious life — which I spoke about in previous catecheses — were so innovative that not everyone could understand them.

In addition, common human weaknesses like envy and jealousy — as sometimes happens even among sincerely religious persons — also played a role.

Although he was surrounded by opposition among the other teachers at the university, Bonaventure had already started teaching in the chair of theology of the Franciscans and composed a document called “Evangelical Perfection” in response to those who criticized the mendicant orders.

In this document, he showed how the mendicant orders, especially the Friars Minor, by practicing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were in fact following the counsels of the Gospel itself.

Over and above these historical circumstances, Bonaventure’s teachings in this book and in his own life are still relevant today.

The faithfulness of the Church’s sons and daughters to their vocation — sons and daughters who not only put into practice the precepts of the Gospel but, by God’s grace, are called to observe the counsels of the Gospel and thus bear witness through their lifestyle of poverty, chastity and obedience to the fact that the Gospel is a source of joy and perfection — makes the Church more luminous and more beautiful.

The conflict died down, at least for a time. Thanks to the personal intervention of Pope Alexander IV, Bonaventure was officially recognized in 1257 as a doctor and master at the University of Paris. However, he had to renounce this prestigious position shortly thereafter when the general chapter of his order elected him minister general.

He carried out this office for 17 years, with wisdom and dedication, visiting the various provinces of the order, writing to his brothers, and intervening at times with a certain severity in order to eliminate abuses.


Service to His Order

When Bonaventure began his service, the Order of Friars Minor had developed to a prodigious degree. There were more than 30,000 Friars Minor all over Western Europe, and they also had a missionary presence in North Africa, the Middle East, and even in Beijing.

It was necessary to consolidate this growth and, above all, give it a unity of action and spirit in complete faithfulness to Francis’ charism.

Indeed, various ways of interpreting St. Francis of Assisi’s message had arisen among his followers, and there was a real risk of internal division. To avoid this danger, the order’s general chapter in Narbonne in 1260 accepted and ratified a text proposed by Bonaventure, which gathered together and unified the norms regulating the daily life of the Friars Minor.

However, Bonaventure sensed that these legislative decrees, no matter how much they were inspired by wisdom and moderation, were not sufficient to assure a communion of hearts and spirits.

Everyone needed to share the same ideals and the same purpose. For this reason, it was Bonaventure’s desire to preserve the authentic charism of Francis, his life and his teaching.

So, he zealously collected documents pertaining to the Poverello and listened intently to the recollections of those who had known him personally. This gave birth to a biography of St. Francis of Assisi that was well grounded historically, called Legenda maior, and edited in a shorter form and aptly called the Legenda minor.

The Latin word legenda, unlike its cognate in English, does not indicate the fruit of some fantasy. On the contrary, legenda signifies an authoritative text, one that was “to be read” officially.

In fact, the general chapter of the Friars Minor in 1263, meeting in Pisa, recognized Bonaventure’s biography as the most faithful portrait of their founder. Therefore, this became the official biography of St. Francis.

What is the image of St. Francis that emerges from the heart and pen of his devoted son and successor St. Bonaventure?

The essential point is that Francis was an alter Christus, a man who passionately sought Christ. With the love that led him to imitate Christ, he conformed himself entirely to Christ. Bonaventure pointed to this as a living ideal for all of Francis’ followers.

Such an ideal, which remains valid for all Christians yesterday, today and always, was also indicated as a program for the Church of the third millennium by my predecessor, Venerable John Paul II.

This program, he wrote in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, is centered “in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved, and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem” (No. 29).

His Legacy Today

In 1273, St. Bonaventure experienced another change in his life. Pope Gregory X consecrated him a bishop and named him a cardinal. He also asked him to prepare for another extremely important event in the Church: the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyon, whose purpose was to re-establish communion between the Latin Church and the Greek Church.

He dedicated himself diligently to this task, but never saw the conclusion of that ecumenical gathering because he died while it was still under way.

An anonymous pontifical notary composed a eulogy to Bonaventure, which offers us a definitive portrait of this great saint and excellent theologian: “A good, affable, pious and merciful man, full of virtue, loved by God and by men … indeed, God gave him such grace that all who saw him were pervaded by a love that the heart could not conceal” (see J.G. Bougerol, Bonaventura, in A. Vauchez (ed.), Storia dei santi e della santità cristiana. Vol. VI. L’epoca del rinnovamento evangelico, Milano 1991, p. 91).

Let us take up the legacy of this saint and doctor of the Church, who reminds us of the meaning of our lives with the following words: “On earth ... we can contemplate the immensity of the Divine through reasoning and admiration. In our heavenly homeland, on the other hand, through seeing, when we have been made like God, and through ecstasy … we shall enter into God’s joy” (La conoscenza di Cristo, q. 6, conclusione, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici /1, Rome 1993, p. 187).

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