A man of action and
General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall on Wednesday, 3 March
, the Holy Father spoke of St Bonaventure, a distinguished
theologian and Master at the University of Paris and for 17 years
Minister General of the Friars Minor. As a young man the Pope wrote his
second doctoral thesis on this Saint. The following is a translation of
the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to talk about St
Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. I confide to you that in broaching this
subject I feel a certain nostalgia, for I am thinking back to my
research as a young scholar on this author who was particularly dear to
me. My knowledge of him had quite an impact on my formation. A few
months ago, with great joy, I made a pilgrimage to the place of his
birth, Bagnoregio, an Italian town in Lazio that venerates his memory.
St Bonaventure, in all likelihood
born in 1217, died in 1274. Thus he lived in the 13th century, an epoch
in which the Christian faith
which had deeply penetrated the culture and society of Europe
inspired imperishable works in the fields of literature, the visual
arts, philosophy and theology. Among the great Christian figures who
contributed to the composition of this harmony between faith and culture
Bonaventure stands out, a man of action and contemplation, of profound
piety and prudent government.
He was called Giovanni di Fidanza. An
episode that occurred when he was still a boy deeply marked his life, as
he himself recounts. He fell seriously ill and even his father, who was
a doctor, gave up all hope of saving him from death. So his mother had
recourse to the intercession of St Francis of Assisi, who had recently
been canonized. And Giovanni recovered.
The figure of the Poverello of
Assisi became even more familiar to him several years later when he was
in Paris, where he had gone to pursue his studies. He had obtained a
Master of Arts Diploma, which we could compare with that of a
prestigious secondary school in our time.
At that point, like so many young men in
the past and also today, Giovanni asked himself a crucial question:
"What should I do with my life?".
Fascinated by the witness of fervour and
evangelical radicalism of the Friars Minor who had arrived in Paris in
1219, Giovanni knocked at the door of the Franciscan convent in that
city and asked to be admitted to the great family of St Francis'
disciples. Many years later he explained the reasons for his decision:
he recognized Christ's action in St Francis and in the movement he had
Thus he wrote in a letter addressed to
another friar: "I confess before God that the reason which made me love
the life of blessed Francis most is that it resembled the birth and
early development of the Church. The Church began with simple fishermen,
and was subsequently enriched by very distinguished 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).
So it was that in about the year 1243
Giovanni was clothed in the Franciscan habit and took the name
"Bonaventure". He was immediately sent to study and attended the Faculty
of Theology of the University of Paris where he took a series of very
demanding courses. He obtained the various qualifications required for
an academic career earning a bachelor's degree in Scripture and in the
Sentences. Thus Bonaventure studied profoundly Sacred Scripture,
the Sentences of Peter Lombard — the theology manual in that time
— and the most important theological authors. He was in contact with the
teachers and students from across Europe who converged in Paris and he
developed his own personal thinking and a spiritual sensitivity of great
value with which, in the following years, he was able to infuse his
works and his sermons, thus becoming one of the most important
theologians in the history of the Church.
It is important to remember the title of the thesis he defended in
order to qualify to teach theology, the licentia ubique docendi,
as it was then called. His dissertation was entitled Questions on
the knowledge of Christ. This subject reveals the central role that
Christ always played in Bonaventure's life and teaching. We may
certainly say that the whole of his thinking was profoundly
In those years in Paris, Bonaventure's
adopted city, a violent dispute was raging against the Friars Minor of
St Francis Assisi and the Friars Preachers of St Dominic de Guzmán.
Their right to teach at the university was contested and doubt was even
being cast upon the authenticity of their consecrated life.
Of course, the changes introduced by the
Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life, of which I
have spoken in previous Catecheses, were so entirely new that not
everyone managed to understand them.
Then it should be added, just as
sometimes happens even among sincerely religious people, that human
weakness, such as envy and jealousy, came into play.
Although Bonaventure was confronted by
the opposition of the other university masters, he had already begun to
teach at the Franciscans' Chair of theology and, to respond to those who
were challenging the Mendicant Orders, he composed a text entitled
Evangelical Perfection. In this work he shows how the
Mendicant Orders, especially the Friars Minor, in practising the vows of
poverty, chastity and obedience, were following the recommendations of
the Gospel itself.
Over and above these historical
circumstances the teaching that Bonaventure provides in this work of his
and in his life remains every timely: the Church is made more luminous
and beautiful by the fidelity to their vocation of those sons and
daughters of hers who not only put the evangelical precepts into
practice but, by the grace of God, are called to observe their counsels
and thereby, with their poor, chaste and obedient way of life, to
witness to the Gospel as a source of joy and perfection.
The storm blew over, at least for a
while, and through the personal intervention of Pope Alexander VI in
1257, Bonaventure was officially recognized as a doctor and master of
the University of Paris. However, he was obliged to relinquish this
prestigious office because in that same year the General Chapter of the
Order elected him Minister General.
He fulfilled this office for 17 years
with wisdom and dedication, visiting the provinces, writing to his
brethren, and at times intervening with some severity to eliminate
abuses. When Bonaventure began this service, the Order of Friars Minor
had experienced an extraordinary expansion: there were more than 30,000
Friars scattered throughout the West with missionaries in North Africa,
the Middle East, and even in Peking.
It was necessary to consolidate this
expansion and especially, to give it unity of action and of spirit in
full fidelity to Francis' charism.
In fact different ways of interpreting
the message of the Saint of Assisi arose among his followers and they
ran a real risk 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 in which the norms regulating the daily life of the
Friars Minor were collected and unified.
Bonaventure, however, foresaw that
regardless of the wisdom and moderation which inspired the legislative
measures they would not suffice to guarantee communion of spirit and
hearts. It was necessary to share the same ideals and the same
For this reason Bonaventure wished to
present the authentic charism of Francis, his life and his teaching.
Thus he zealously collected documents concerning the Poverello
and listened attentively to the memories of those who had actually known
Francis. This inspired a historically well founded biography of the
Saint of Assisi, entitled Legenda Maior. It was redrafted
more concisely, hence entitled
Unlike the Italian term the Latin word
does not mean a product of the imagination but, on the contrary, "Legenda"
means an authoritative text, "to be read" officially.
Indeed, the General Chapter of the
Friars Minor in 1263, meeting in Pisa, recognized St Bonaventure's
biography as the most faithful portrait of their Founder and so it
became the Saint's official biography.
What image of St Francis emerged from
the heart and pen of his follower and successor, St Bonaventure? The key
point: Francis is an alter Christus, a man who sought
Christ passionately. In the love that impelled Francis to imitate
Christ, he was entirely conformed to Christ. Bonaventure pointed out
this living ideal to all Francis' followers. This ideal, valid for every
Christian, yesterday, today and for ever, was also proposed as a
programme for the Church in the Third Millennium by my Predecessor,
Venerable John Paul This programme, he wrote in his Letter Novo
Millennio Ineunte, is centred "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 fulfilment in the
heavenly Jerusalem" (n. 29).
In 1273, St Bonaventure experienced
another great change in his life. Pope Gregory X wanted to consecrate
him a Bishop and to appoint him a Cardinal. The Pope also asked him to
prepare the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons, a most important
ecclesial event, for the purpose of re-establishing communion between
the Latin Church and the Greek Church. Boniface dedicated himself
diligently to this task but was unable to see the conclusion of this
ecumenical session because he died before it ended.
An anonymous papal notary composed a
eulogy to Bonaventure which gives us a conclusive portrait of this great
Saint and excellent theologian.
"A good, affable, devout and
compassionate man, full of virtue, beloved of God and human beings
alike.... God in fact had bestowed upon him such grace that all who saw
him were pervaded by a love that their hearts could not conceal" (cf.
J.G. Bougerol, Bonaventura, in A. Vauchez (edited by),
Storia dei santi e della santità
cristiana. Vol. VI. L'epoca del rinnovamento evangelico,
Milan 191, p. 91).
Let us gather the heritage of this holy
doctor of the Church who reminds us of the meaning of our life with the
"On earth... we may contemplate the
divine immensity through reasoning and admiration; in the heavenly
homeland, on the other hand, through the vision, when we are likened to
God and through ecstasy... we shall 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).