Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio: The Second Founder of the Franciscan Order

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On July 15, the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. Gifted with wisdom and a rare intelligence, and faithful to the charism of St. Francis, he contributed to the growth of his Order, was a counsellor to the Pope, and a luminary of the Holy Church.

Newsdesk (15/07/2021 23:15, Gaudium Press) At dusk, while the sun was setting and shining its last rays on the horizon, a Franciscan friar was writing in the seclusion of his cell. As accustomed to holding disputes in the university as he was to volunteering to wash plates and pots, or to embarking full of zeal to preach, at that moment he found himself writing the life of his Founder, at the request of his brothers in vocation.

Traveling from afar, a man of the Dominican Order arrived there – a man known as the ‘Angelic Doctor’ – who had decided to visit his Franciscan friend. However, he hesitated at the door, having no desire to interrupt the friar. With an admiration proper to virtuous souls, he whispered in the ear of the person accompanying him, “Let us withdraw and let a Saint write the life of another Saint”.1

This was one of the memorable meetings between these two great figures of the 13th century who shone not only for their theological knowledge but above all for their greatness of soul: St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, whose heroic virtues, forged in the school of St Francis of Assisi, we shall learn more of as we read on.

Between Heaven and earth

Around 1221, John of Fidanza and Maria Ritelli were blessed by Providence with a son. They immediately brought him into the bosom of the Catholic Church through the regenerating waters of Baptism and gave him the same name as his father. He lived in Bagnoregio, on the hilltop of an ancient city of the Papal States.

At the age of four, the boy was stricken with a serious illness. His father, an experienced doctor, tried in every way to save his life, but to no avail. The child’s mother, trusting in the unfailing power of prayer, then turned to St. Francis of Assisi and begged him, in tears, to restore her son to health. With what joy did she witness that the child, who only a short time before had been suspended between life and death, was completely cured! At the occurrence of this miraculous event, the parents decided to change his name to Bonaventure.

St. Francis of Assisi, recently canonized by Pope Gregory IX, seemed to be smiling down on them from eternity. The suffering that had knocked on the doors of that house instigated a close relationship between the Founder, already in Heaven, and the future disciple. In fact this boy was to become one of the most eminent members of the Order of Friars Minor.

Encounter with vocation

Gifted with a prodigious intelligence, the young Bonaventure aroused admiration as much for his progress in studies as for his virtues. Bagnoregio, however, was too small a town to fill the yearnings of his soul and to develop the unusual gifts he had received from Divine Providence. He decided to leave for France that he might deepen his knowledge of science. Without knowing it, he was heading towards his vocation.

At the then famous University of Paris, he met some eminent theologians, among them the Franciscan Alexander of Hales, who had a great influence upon his pupil. As often happens in the relationship between certain rather extraordinary disciples and their master, it is difficult to say which of the two benefited most from the virtue and knowledge of the other. The professor was known to remark regarding this young student that, “in him Adam was without sin”,2 such was his purity and uprightness of soul.

Religious life had become the centre of the young man’s thoughts. When he had finished his studies, keeping the memory of his Franciscan master very much alive in his soul, he decided to join the Order. He explained the reason for this decision in a letter written some years later: “I confess before God that the reason I love the life of Blessed Francis the most is that it resembles the beginnings and growth of the Church. The Church began with simple fishermen and was then enriched by very illustrious and wise teachers; the religion of Blessed Francis was not established by the prudence of men but by Christ”.3

This youthful grace of admiration for the Founder was the driving force of Bonaventure’s whole existence. He loved St. Francis with that “form of enchantment by which one wants to give oneself entirely and keep nothing for oneself. And he made it the ideal of his life, so much so that he placed his happiness in having offered everything to God”.4

In the Academic World

After his entrance into the Franciscan Order, the Superior decided that Bonaventure should continue his studies in the same university where he had obtained his licentiate and, at the same time, teach in the Franciscan school. Flexible to holy obedience, the novice enrolled in the faculty of Theology and, on completing his new studies, he obtained his Biblical Degree, followed by a Bachelor of Sentence, and went on to teach Sacred Scripture in that illustrious university.

Around 1253, when he received, together with Saint Thomas Aquinas, the biretta and Degree of Doctor, an event occurred that highlighted the brilliance of the virtue in the soul of this friar. During the solemn ceremony of the conferring of the degree, to the astonishment of all those present, there was a dispute between the two doctoral candidates: each wanted to allow the other to take first place in the reception of the degree. Although both had good arguments for their cases, the son of St. Francis insisted so much for the disciple of St. Dominic that the latter could not refuse first place. Thus, says one of his biographers, St. Bonaventure “triumphed over both himself and his friend.”5

A grand vision of the priesthood

When the time came for his priestly ordination, Bonaventure prepared himself by fasting and praying and by increasing his usual works of charity. He thought himself unworthy of such a privilege, something that he would never have dared to receive of his own free will. He greatly desired to serve God and man in the most perfect way in this ministry, being well aware of the excellence of such a ministry.

Aware of the power granted to the priest to renew the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary by bringing about the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, St. Bonaventure expressed, in one of his works, the greatness of this sacred rite and the splendor with which it should be celebrated: “It is prescribed that this Sacrament be honored with special solemnity, both as regards place and time, and as regards words, prayers, and ornaments in the celebration of the Holy Mass, so that by this means not only the priests who confer the Sacrament, but also the faithful who receive it, may indeed perceive the gift of grace which purifies, enlightens, perfects, repairs, vivifies, and, by a passionate love, transforms them ardently into Christ himself.” 6

Wisdom and knowledge acquired from the Cross

Other members of the Friars Minor and of the Order of Preachers began to teach in the Chairs of the most prestigious institutions at the same time as St. Bonaventure did. It was customary in those days for this function to be performed by members of the secular clergy, and now some of them began to act in a hostile manner towards the professors of the mendicant orders, considering them intruders.

This antipathy extended to the theological and ascetical field. “Their right to teach at the university was contested and the authenticity of their consecrated life was even doubted. Certainly, the changes introduced by the Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life […] were so innovative that not everyone could understand them”.7

St Bonaventure stood firm in this dispute. With masterly wisdom, he knew how to refute his opponents, not only through his oratory, but also through his writings. Among these are ‘De Perfectione Evangelica’ and ‘Apologia Pauperum’, in which he defended the poverty practiced by religious, taking Our Lord Himself as a model. The Holy Church has been enriched by this doctrinal explicitness, the fruit of the faithfulness of the Saint to the charism of the Founder, and his love for true doctrine.

St. Thomas once asked him, “From which book do you derive your wonderful knowledge?” The holy Doctor answered him simply, pointing to a Crucifix: “Here is my entire library”. 8 Following the way of his Father Francis, this love for Christ crucified was the centre of his life and of his wisdom. Centuries later, another assiduous reader of his works – St Francis de Sales – would comment: “O my Holy and Seraphic Doctor Bonaventure, in whom I see no other paper but the Cross, no other feather but the lance, no other ink but the Blood of my Saviour, when you wrote your divine booklets! O your fiery word, when you exclaim: How pleasant and good is the company of the Crucifix!”9

Action and Contemplation

In the middle of 1257 the General Chapter of the Order of Friars Minor was celebrated in Rome during which the new Minister General was to be appointed. The choice of the Chapter fell unanimously on St. Bonaventure, who was no more than 36 years of age at the time.

He began by consecrating the government of the Order to Mary Most Holy. After sending a letter to all the Franciscans, in which he made clear his full knowledge of the gravity of this duty, he departed for the Eternal City to present the affairs of his Institute to Pope Alexander IV. Like a zealous pastor, he took the opportunity to visit the Franciscan convents in the region, making himself known to his subordinates and making himself paternally available to them.

This appointment did nothing to change his monastic customs. Despite the multiplicity of apostolic labours, he never ceased to carry out humble tasks in community life, nor did he interrupt his studies. He always found time for the exercises of piety and, in the most varied activities, tried to maintain a state of interior recollection.

These words of his, which well illustrate his way of proceeding, have been consecrated: “Do not think of reading without unction, speculation without devotion, research without admiration, circumspection without exultation, skill without piety, science without charity, intelligence without humility, study without divine grace, model without divinely inspired wisdom”.10

The Chapter of Narbonne

During the spring of 1260, the Friars Minor gathered in the city of Narbonne for another General Chapter, perhaps one of the most celebrated in the history of the Order. Under the direction of the new Superior, the Order had expanded in a prodigious manner and numbered more than 30,000 Franciscans spread throughout the world. It was of utmost importance to ensure the unity of action and spirit of all the religious, in complete fidelity to the charism of the Founder. In view of this, St. Bonaventure promulgated, in this assembly, a unification of the Rule, which, besides other good results, had the effect of establishing a point of equilibrium between the two wings in dispute in the Order: one prone to an exaggerated rigorism, the other to a reprehensible laxity. In this way he eliminated the risk of a serious internal rupture.

However, as the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in the Audience on the Seraphic Doctor already mentioned, “Bonaventure understood that legislative provisions, however much they may be inspired by wisdom and moderation, were not sufficient to guarantee communion of spirit and hearts. It was necessary to share the same ideals and motivations. Therefore, Bonaventure wanted to present the genuine charism of Francis, his life and teaching”.11

With this aim in mind, and urged on by his confreres at the Chapter, he travelled throughout Italy to interview those who had lived with the Poverello. With this work, he was able to leave to history a faithful and well-documented biography of his Seraphic Father: the ‘Legenda Maior’, taken up by the General Chapter of Pisa in 1263 as the official biography of St. Francis the Poverello.

“What is the image of St Francis that emerges from the heart and pen of his devoted son and successor, St Bonaventure?”, asks Benedict XVI. And immediately afterwards he adds, “The essential point: Francis is an Alter Christus, a man who sought Christ passionately. In the love that urges him to imitation, he conformed himself totally to Him. Bonaventure indicated this living ideal to all the followers of Francis”.12

On the same occasion, in Pisa, he asked Pope Alexander IV to grant the Order a Cardinal Protector. The Pontiff replied that this was not necessary, since he himself assumed that responsibility. No small privilege for the Franciscans! And, given their ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Bonaventure instituted, at that meeting, the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the whole Order. According to pious tradition, it was after this Chapter that the beautiful custom of reciting the Angelus daily at midday and at six o’clock in the evening began.

Consecrated Bishop and named Cardinal

Pope Gregory X called Bonaventure to himself and counted on his valuable help in solving important problems of the Holy Church. His most important task, however, was the preparation, in 1272, of a great ecclesial event, the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyon, with the aim of re-establishing communion between the Latin and Greek Churches. The Supreme Pontiff appointed him president and, in 1273, consecrated him bishop and made him cardinal.

However, after attending the first four sessions of the Council, St Bonaventure fell seriously ill. The Holy Father hastened to administer the last Sacraments to him and he departed for eternity on July 15, 1274. Providence wanted him to assist the Council from Heaven! At the request of the Supreme Pontiff, priests from all over the world celebrated Mass for his soul.

Outstanding fidelity to the charism of St. Francis

“The secret of the achievement of every religious Institute” – Saint John Paul II explained – “has been its fidelity to the initial charism which God discovered in the Founder or Foundress to enrich the Church. For this reason I repeat the words of Paul VI: ‘Be faithful to the spirit of your Founders, to their evangelical intentions, to the example of their holiness … it is precisely here that the dynamism proper to each religious family has its origin’ (Evangelica Testificatio, 29/6/1971, n.11-12)”.13

S.t Bonaventure never took his eyes off his spiritual father, St Francis of Assisi. On the contrary, his zeal in following in the footsteps of the Poverello and fidelity to his charism ensured that the Order of Friars Minor was kept whole and united. And so he passed into history as its second Founder.

By Sister Luciana Niday Kawahira, EP

in “Revista Arautos do Evangelho”, July/2013, n. 139, p. 32 to 35

The post St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio: The Second Founder appeared first on Gaudium Press.

Read More: Spirituality, St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and St. Francis, Gaudium Press

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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