On St. Bonaventure

«Proposing This Theme I Feel a Certain Nostalgia»

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 3, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to speak about St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. I confide to you that on proposing this theme I feel a certain nostalgia because I remember the research that, as a young scholar, I carried out precisely on this author, whom I particularly esteem. His knowledge has been of no small influence in my formation. With great joy I went on pilgrimage a few months ago to his birthplace, Bagnoregio, a small Italian city, in Latium, which venerates his memory.

Born probably in 1217, he died in 1274; he lived in the 13th century, an age in which the Christian faith, profoundly permeating the culture and society of Europe, inspired immortal works in the field of literature, visual arts, philosophy and theology. Striking among the great Christian figures who contributed to the composition of this harmony between faith and culture is, precisely, Bonaventure, man of action and of contemplation, of profound piety and of prudence in governing.

He was called John of Fidanza. An incident that occurred when he was still a boy profoundly marked his life, as he himself relates. He had been affected by a serious illness and not even his father, who was a doctor, hoped to save him from death. His mother appealed then to the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi, canonized a short time earlier. And John was cured. The figure of the Poverello of Assisi became even more familiar a year later, when he was in Paris, where he had gone for his studies. He had obtained the diploma of Master of Arts, which we could compare to that of a prestigious secondary school of our time. At that point, as so many young people of the past and also of today, John asked himself a crucial question: «What must I do with my life?» Fascinated by the witness of fervor and evangelical radicalism of the Friars Minor, who had arrived in Paris in 1219, John knocked on the doors of the Franciscan monastery of that city, and asked to be received in the great family of the disciples of St. Francis. 

Many years later, he explained the reasons for his choice: He recognized the action of Christ in St. Francis and in the movement he initiated. He wrote thus in a letter addressed to another friar: «I confess before God that the reason that made me love more 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 enriched immediately with very illustrious and wise doctors; 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. Intoduzione generale, Rome, 1990, p. 29).

Therefore, around the year 1243 John put on the Franciscan coarse woolen cloth and took the name Bonaventure. He was immediately directed to studies and frequented the faculty of theology of the University of Paris, following a program of very difficult courses. He obtained the different titles required by the academic career, those of «biblical bachelor’s» and «bachelor’s in sentences.» Thus Bonaventure studied in depth sacred Scripture, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the manual of theology of that time, and the most important authors of theology and, in contact with the teachers and students that arrived in Paris from the whole of Europe, he matured his own personal reflection and a spiritual sensitivity of great value that, in the course of the following years, showed in his works and sermons, thus making him one of the most important theologians of the history of the Church. It is significant to recall the title of the thesis he defended to be able to qualify in the teaching of theology, the licentia ubique docendi, as it was then called. His dissertation was titled «Questions on Knowledge of Christ.» This argument shows the central role that Christ always had in the life and teaching of Bonaventure. We can say, in fact, that all his thought was profoundly Christocentric. 

In those years in Paris, Bonaventure’s adopted city, a violent dispute broke out against the Friars Minor of St. Francis of Assisi and the Friars Preachers of St. Dominic Guzmán. Debated was their right to teach in the university and doubts were even cast on the authenticity of their consecrated life. Certainly the changes introduced by the Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life, of which I spoke in preceding catecheses, were so innovative that not everyone understood them. Also added, as happens sometimes among sincerely religious persons, were motives of human weakness, such as envy and jealousy. Bonaventure, although surrounded by the opposition of the rest of the university teachers, had already started to teach in the chair of theology of the Franciscans and, to respond to those who were criticizing the Mendicant Orders, he composed a writing titled «Evangelical Perfection.» In this writing he showed how the Mendicant Orders, especially the Friars Minor, practicing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were following the counsels of the Gospel itself. Beyond these historical circumstances, the teaching offered by Bonaventure in this work of his and in his life is always timely: The Church becomes luminous and beautiful by fidelity to the vocation of those sons and daughters of hers who not only put into practice the evangelical precepts, but who, by the grace of God, are called to observe their advice and thus give witness, with their poor, chaste and obedient lifestyle, that the Gospel is source of joy and perfection.

The conflict died down, at least for a certain period, and, by the personal intervention of Pope Alexander IV, in 1257 Bonaventure was officially recognized as doctor and teacher of the Parisian University. Despite all this, he had to resign from this prestigious post, because that same year the General Chapter of the order elected him minister-general.

He carried out this task for 17 years with wisdom and dedication, visiting the provinces, writing to brothers, intervening at times with a certain severity to eliminate abuses. When Bonaventure began this service, the Order of Friars Minor had developed in a prodigious way: There were more than 30,000 friars spread over the whole of the West, with a missionary presence in North Africa, the Middle East and also Peking. It was necessary to consolidate this expansion and above all to confer on it, in full fidelity to Francis’ charism, unity of action and spirit. In fact, among the followers of the Saint of Assisi there were different forms of interpreting his message and the risk really existed of an internal split. To avoid this danger, in 1260 the General Chapter of the order in Narbonne accepted and ratified a text proposed by Bonaventure, which unified the norms that regulated the daily life of the Friars Minor. Bonaventure intuited, however, that the legislative dispositions, though inspired in wisdom and moderation, were not sufficient to ensure communion of spirit and hearts. It was necessary to share the same ideals and the same motivations. For this reason, Bonaventure wished to present the authentic charism of Francis, his life and his teaching. Hence he gathered with great zeal documents related to the Poverello and listened attentively to the memories of those who had known Francis directly. From this was born a biography, historically well founded, of the Saint of Assisi, titled Legenda Maior, written also in a very succinct manner and called because of this the Legend. The Latin word, as opposed to the Italian [and English, legend], does not indicate a fruit of imagination but, on the contrary, Legenda means an authoritative text, «to be read» officially. In fact, the General Chapter of the Friars Minor of 1263, which met in Pisa, recognized in St. Bonaventure’s biography the most faithful portr
ait of the founder and it thus became the official biography of the saint.

What is the image of St. Francis that arises from the heart and pen of his devoted son and successor, St. Bonaventure? The essential point: Francis is an alter Christus, a man who passionately sought Christ. In the love that drives to imitation, he was entirely conformed to Him. Bonaventure pointed out this living ideal to all of Francis’ followers. This ideal, valid for every Christian, yesterday, today and always, was indicated as a program also for the Church of the Third Millennium by my predecessor, the Venerable John Paul II. This program, he wrote in the letter «Tertio Millennio Ineunte,» is centered «on Christ himself, who must be known, loved and imitated to live in Him the Trinitarian life, and, with Him, to transform history to its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem» (No. 29).

In 1273 St. Bonaventure’s life met with another change. Pope Gregory X wished to consecrate him bishop and name him cardinal. He also asked him to prepare a very important ecclesial event: the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyon, whose objective was the re-establishment of communion between the Latin and the Greek Churches. He dedicated himself to this task with diligence, but was unable to see the conclusion of that ecumenical summit, as he died while it was being held. An anonymous papal notary composed a eulogy of Bonaventure, which offers us a conclusive portrait of this great saint and excellent theologian: «Good, affable, pious and merciful man, full of virtues, loved by God and by men … God, in fact, had given him such grace, that all those who saw him were invaded by a love that the heart could not conceal» (cf. J.G. Bougerol, Bonaventura, in A. Vauchez (vv.aa), Storia dei Santi e della santita cristiana. Vol. VI. L’epoca del rinnovamento evangelico, Milan, 1991, p. 91).

Let us take up the legacy of this saint, doctor of the Church, who reminds us of the meaning of our life with these words: «On earth … we can contemplate the divine immensity through reasoning and admiration; in the heavenly homeland, instead, through vision, when we will be made like to God, and through ecstasy — we will enter into the joy of God» (La conoscenza di Cristo, q. 6, conclusione, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici /1, Rome, 1993, p. 187).

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catecheses on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, we now turn to Saint Bonaventure, an early follower of Saint Francis of Assisi and a distinguished theologian and teacher in the University of Paris. There Bonaventure was called upon to defend the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, in the controversies which questioned the authenticity of their religious charism. The Friars, he argued, represent a true form of religious life, one which imitates Christ by practising the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Elected Minister General of the Friars Minor, he served in this capacity for seventeen years, at a time of immense expansion accompanied by controversies about the genuine nature of the Franciscan charism. His wisdom and moderation inspired the adoption of a rule of life, and his biography of Francis, which presented the Founder as alter Christus, a passionate follower of Christ, was to prove most influential in consolidating the charism of the Franciscan Order. Named a Bishop and Cardinal, Bonaventure died during the Council of Lyons. His writings still inspire us by their wisdom penetrated by deep love of Christ and mystical yearning for the vision of God and the joy of our heavenly homeland.

I welcome the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s Audience, including those from Nigeria, Japan and the United States. To the pilgrims from Sophia University in Tokyo I offer my prayerful good wishes that the coming centenary of your University will strengthen your service to the pursuit of truth and your witness to the harmony of faith and reason. Upon you and your families I invoke God’s abundant blessings!

©Copyright 2010 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[He concluded in Italian:]

I greet, finally, youth, the sick and newlyweds. Dear young people, prepare yourselves to address the important stages of life, basing every plan of yours on fidelity to God and to your neighbor. Dear sick people, offer your sufferings to the heavenly Father in union with those of Christ, to contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God. And you, dear newlyweds, know how to build daily your family in listening to God, in faithful and mutual love.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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