SAINT BONAVENTURE [1221-1274]
FRANCISCAN THEOLOGIAN, CARDINAL-BISHOP AND DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
Bonaventure is seen by many as the greatest successor of St. Francis of Assisi. He was born at Bagnorea, near Viterbo, Italy in the year 1221, the son of John Fidanza and Mary Ritella. As a boy of four years old he became seriously ill and was given up by the physicians. Then his mother hastened to St. Francis, who happened to be preaching in the vicinity just then, and begged him to come and heal her child, and immediately he was cured. St. Francis is said then to have uttered the prophetic words: “O buona ventura – O blessed things to come!” For that reason the little boy was called Bonaventure.
Endowed with most remarkable gifts of nature and grace and reared in the fear of God, Bonaventure joined the Franciscan Order as a young man. Completing his year of probation with honor, he continued his studies under the great Alexander of Hales. This great theologian at the University of Paris – a diocesan priest turned Franciscan – did not know what he should admire most, the talent or the virtues of the young religious. He used to say it appeared that Adam had not sinned in this young man.
During his student years, Bonaventure devoted many an hour to the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and he was a zealous client of our Blessed Lady. It is reported that once when Bonaventure abstained from receiving holy Communion for several days from a sense of humility, an angel place the consecrated Host on his tongue. After his ordination to the priesthood he devoted himself with extraordinary zeal to the salvation of souls.
Bonaventure was called by his priestly obligations to labour for the salvation of his neighbour, and to this he devoted himself with enthusiasm. He preached to the people with an energy whick kindled a flame in the hearts of those who heard him. While at the University of Paris he produced one of the best-known of his written works, the Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which covers the whole field of scholastic theology. Due to his extensive and profound knowledge, Bonaventure was appointed professor of theology at the University of Paris at the early age of twenty-seven. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican friar), at that time shed the greatest luster on University of Paris. Gerson, the great chancellor, remarked that the university had perhaps never had a greater teacher than Bonaventure. He grasped theology with his heart as well as with his mind, and it shed its radiance on his conduct as well as his words
The years of Bonaventure’s public lecturing at Paris were greatly disturbed, however, by the attack made on the mendicant friars (Friars Minor [Franciscans] and Dominicans) by the other professors at the university. Jealousy of their pastoral and academical success and the the standing reproof to worldliness and ease of the friars’ lives were in part behind this attempt to get them excluded from the schools. The leader of the secular party was William of Saint-Amour, who made a bitter onslaught on the mendicants in a book called The Perils of the Last Times, and other writings. Bonaventure, who had to suspend lecturing for a time, replied in a treatise on evangelical poverty, named Concerning the Poverty of Christ.
Pope Alexander IV [1254-1261], appointed a commision of cardinals to go into the matter at Anagni, and on their findings ordered Saint-Armour’s book to be burnt, vindicated and reinstrated the friars, and ordered the offenders to withdraw their attack. A year later, in 1257, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas – a Dominican friar – received the degree of doctor of theology together. They were indeed saintly friends in the real sense of the word. Thomas Aquinas once visited Bonaventure while he was engaged in writing the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He found Bonaventure raised in ecstasy above the earth. Reverently he withdrew, saying to his companion: “Let us leave a saint to write about a saint.” On another occasion Thomas Aquinas asked Bonaventure from which books he obtained his unparalleled knowledge. Bonaventure pointed to the crucifix at his library.
In 1257, when Blessed John of Parma resigned the office of minister general, Bonaventure was unanimously chosen, at the recommendation of John of Parma, to fill the position. By that time Bonaventure was not yet thirty-six years old, and the order was torn by dissensions, some of the friars being for an inflexible severity, others demanding certain mitigations of the rule; between the two extremes were a number of other interpretations. Some of the extreme rigorists, called the Spirituals, had even fallen into error and disobedience, and thus given a handle to the friars’ opponents in the Paris dispute. The new minister general wrote a letter to his provincial ministers in which he made it clear that he required a disciplined observance of the rule, involving a reformation of the relaxed, but giving no countenance to the excesses of the Spirituals. At Narbonne in 1260, the first of the five general chapters which he held, he produced a set of constitutions on the rule, which were adopted and had a permanent effect on Franciscan life, but they failed to pacify the excessive rigorists. At the request of the friars assembled in this chapter, he undertook to write the life of St. Francis, which he compiled with a spirit which shows him to have been filled with the the virtues of the founder whose life he wrote. He governed his order for about 17 years, and regulated everything that pertained to convent life and the external activity of the friars with such circumspection and prudence that he has quite generally been considered the second founder of the order.
Both by word and deed he defended the order against great and learned opponents. Franciscan convents had already been established in all parts of the world: Bonaventure divided them now into provinces. He also composed ordinances for the faithful observance of the rule which formed the basis for all future constitutions of the order. At the same time he patiently gave audience to the simplest brother and sometimes performed some of the lowliest duties in the convent. He prescribed that the Angelus bell be rung daily in all Franciscan churches. This beautiful custom soon spread throughout the Catholic world.
In spite of all the duties of his important position, the saint still found time to preach and to write books of great learning and holy unction. He had steadfastly declined all ecclesiastical distinctions. As a highly respected and influential Church figure, however, Bonaventure was instrumental in securing the election of Teobaldo Visconti to the papal dignity as Pope Gregory X [1271-1276]. In 1265 Pope Clement IV [1265-1268] nominated Bonaventure to be archbishop of York in succession to Geoffrey of Ludham, but he succesfully induced the pope to accept his refusal. In 1273, however, Pope Gregory obliged him to accept the bishopric of Albano and the dignity of the cardinalate. When several papal legates arrived with the red hat, they found him washing dishes. Bonaventure asked them to hang the red hat on a nearby tree, since his hands were wet and dirty. The hat subsequently became his symbol. The pope himself consecrated him bishop and then entrusted him with the direction of the Council of Lyons II in 1274.
All the best theologians were sent to the Council; Thomas Aquinas died on the way. Bonaventure was the outstanding figure in this great assembly. He arrived with the pope some months before the Council began, and between the second and third sessions he held his last general chapter of the Order of the Friars Minor, in which he abdicated the office of minister general. To the great satisfaction of the pope and the fathers of the Council, the schismatic Greeks also attended this assembly. At their arrival Bonaventure delivered an address, which he opened with the text: “Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high: and look about towards the east, and behold thy children gathered together from the rising to the setting sun” (Bar 5:5). Due to this efforts, the Orientals were reunited to the Church of Rome. In thanksgiving Pope Gregory X sang Mass on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and the epistle, gospel and creed were sung first in Latin then in Greek; Bonaventure preached.
But amidst all this triumph, worn out by the heavy strain, Bonaventure fell ill after the third session. The end came very rapidly, the Pope himself administered extreme unction. With his eyes directed toward the crucifix, Bonaventure died during the night between the 14th and 15th of July, 1274. Seldom if ever was there a grander funeral. The pope and all the members of the Council attended it. Pope Sixtus IV [1471-1484] canonized him in 1482, two centuries and a decade after he passed away. His saintly friend. Thomas Aquinas who died on the same year, was canonized in the year 1323 by Pope John XXII [ 1316-1334]. Pope Sixtus V [1585-1590] gave Bonaventure the title of Doctor of the Church in 1587. Because of the ardent loves which marks his writings, he is called the Seraphic Doctor. A seraph is a member of the highest order of angels.
Short Prayer: Almighty God and Father, on this feast of Saint Bonaventure, enlighten our minds with the splendour of his teaching, and help us to imitate his ardent love of You. We pray this, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
Sources: Michael Walsh (Editor), Butler’s LIVES OF THE SAINTS (pages 216-217); Marion A. Habig OFM, FRANCISCAN BOOK OF SAINTS (pages 521-524); Matthew Bunson, OUR SUNDAY VISITOR’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CATHOLIC HISTORY, (pages 134-135).
Jakarta, 13 July 2011
A Christian Pilgrim