Saint Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor

Bonaventure, the son of a medical doctor, was born in 1221 at Bagnoreggio, near Orvieto. He became a Franciscan in 1243. His intellectual gifts were soon recognized and he was sent to Paris to study under Alexander of Hales. In 1248, he received his licence to teach, and in 1253 he became Master of the Franciscan School at Paris.

As a theologian he is regarded as being more in the line of St Augustine in contrast to his more Aristotelian contemporary, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas. He emphasised a more ‘feeling’ approach than a purely rational one in speaking of divine mysteries. His main theological teaching is contained in his commentary on the Sententiae of Peter the Lombard. One point on which he differed with Aquinas was his assertion that the creation of the world in time could be shown by human reason. He also wrote important treatises on mystical theology. His Itinerarium mentis ad Deum (The Journey of the Mind to God) became an enduring classic.

In 1257, at the early age of 36, he was elected Minister-General of the Franciscan Order. He has been called, with some justification, its second founder. The Franciscans were coming under criticism at the time as a result of a huge increase in numbers and poor organisation (sadly attributed to Francis of Assisi), with the resulting divisions into factions, each one claiming to be faithful to the Founder.

While strongly defending the ideals of Francis, Bonaventure insisted, against Francis, on the need for study, on having libraries and proper buildings. He approved of the Friars studying and teaching in universities. He saw the Franciscan role as complementing the work of the diocesan clergy through preaching and spiritual direction. The clergy of the day were often poorly educated and lacking in spirituality.

Within the Franciscans he urged a middle way. He opposed the so-called ‘Spirituals’ who promoted material poverty above all as being the true teaching of Francis. At the same time, his own ideals of a simple life of frugal poverty, hard work and detachment from the rich, as well as from riches, were a reality in his own life. He wrote a Life of Francis, which was approved by the Chapter of 1266 as the only officially authorised version.

As Minister-General he visited Italy, France, Germany, and England. In 1265, he was nominated Archbishop of York by Pope Clement IV, but declined the honour. However, in 1273, he was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X, with a command not to refuse. When the papal messengers called on him, he was washing dishes in the Mugello friary (near Florence) and asked them to wait until he had finished.

He played a prominent role in the Council of Lyons which was called to bring about a reunion with the Eastern churches; Thomas Aquinas died on his way to the same council. A temporary reunion of the churches was achieved, and Bonaventure preached at the Mass of reconciliation. However, he did not live to see Constantinople repudiate the reunion.

He died on 15 July, 1274, at the age of fifty-two. His achievements in theology and administration should not allow one to forget dominant traits noted by his contemporaries: a gentle courtesy, compassion, and accessibility. Bonaventure was canonised by Pope Sixtus IV in 1482 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1588. He is often called the Seraphic Doctor.

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