Saint Bonaventure may not be as well-known as Saints Francis and Anthony, but he is an important figure in both Franciscan history and the history of the medieval Church. A Minister General of the Franciscan Order and a Cardinal and Doctor of the Church, Bonaventure left his mark as a scholastic philosopher and theologian, as well as a mystic writer adding significantly to the spirituality of the Franciscan movement.
Known as the Seraphic Doctor because of his devotion to Saint Francis and the Franciscan way of life, Saint Bonaventure brought the warmth and affection of Francis’ love of Jesus to bear on the scholastic thought of his day. Thus, his writings show both his highly developed ability to reason and his down-to-earth devotion to the persons of the Trinity and to the Church.
Born in Bagnorea, Italy, to Giovanni di Fidanza and Maria Ritell in 1221, just five years before the death of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure was baptized John. He received the name Bonaventure when he entered the Order of Friars Minor. Bonaventure entered the Franciscans around 1243 as a member of the Roman Province.
He attended the University of Paris studying under the founder of the Franciscan school there, Alexander of Hales, receiving his licentiate in 1248. This degree afforded him the right to teach, which he did until his election as Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor in 1257, an office he held until May 1274.
Those were difficult times as the Order was split over the issue of the observance of poverty, and Bonaventure wasted no time addressing it. He called several General Chapters at which he proposed corrective legislation. It was at one of these Chapters that the friars asked him to write about the life of Saint Francis. This was adopted as the official biography of the Order in 1263.
On June 23, 1273, he was made a cardinal and named the bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X, whom he both advised and helped prepare for the Second Council of Lyon. While attending that council, he died suddenly on Sunday, July 15, 1274. According to some, he was poisoned.
The Franciscan Theologian
In many ways, Bonaventure remained a simple man of faith and holiness; his life and administration governed by prayer and reflection. Legends have it that when the papal legates came to give him his cardinal’s hat, they found him washing dishes.
He is said to have asked them to hang the hat on a tree until he finished and could dry his hands. Legend also states that he drew attention to a woman hanging her laundry and commented to his fellow clergymen that, in all probability, the woman exceeded all of them in holiness due to her simple faith. Unlike them, he reasoned, she was not burdened by sophisticated learning and the trappings of office.
As a theologian, Bonaventure was able to reflect on the practical aspects of life and see how they interacted with the insights of faith—truly an incarnational approach, which is so typically Franciscan. He was a well-seasoned philosopher and theologian capable of thinking things through carefully in the light of reason drawing truly academic yet pastoral conclusions.
But always a true follower of Saint Francis and faithful disciple of Jesus, Bonaventure remained centered in the teachings of the Church.
Like Saint Paul, who organized the institutional Church and formulated a Christian spirituality, he gave structure to the Franciscan way of life and the spirituality of Saint Francis. Many have described Francis as a dreamer. I don’t know what his Myers-Briggs score would have been, but I do know that he tended to avoid structure and legislation. He wrote his Rule because he had to. It was required by the Church, especially considering the sudden growth in the number of his followers.
Saint Francis had wanted to simply live the life of the Gospel and let the Spirit be the guide of the friars. But the very human friars needed more structure and organization in their lives. Saint Bonaventure offered that to them without losing the idealism of the Franciscan vision.
The Spiritual Writer
Saint Bonaventure saw the spires of the great cathedrals reaching up to heaven as a reflection of the human soul’s reaching up to God in his The Soul’s Journey into God. Likewise, the streams of light coming into the church through the stained-glass windows reflect God expressing himself in the wide variety of creatures upon whom he showers his gifts of grace.
And the images go on and on as the saint reaches into human experience of creation and cultural artifacts and finds vestigium (the footprints) of God since everything in creation reflects in some way the grandeur of God. Human beings, of course, are the actual image of God.
It was this ability to take the spirituality of Saint Francis—as reflected in Saint Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, for instance—and place it at the heart of his writings, keeping the simplicity of the Franciscan insights and creating a sublime theology that truly deserves the name “Seraphic.”
When Bonaventure was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V, he was given the title “Seraphic Doctor.” Merriam-Webster defines a seraph as one of the highest-ranking angels as well as “one of the six-winged angels standing in the presence of God.” It was as a seraph that Christ appeared to Saint Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount La Verna. Therefore, it is fitting to use the term to describe the soaring mysticism of Saint Bonaventure.
As is true of all saints, Saint Bonaventure had—and has—his detractors. While considered the second founder of the Franciscan Order, there are those who feel that he took the community in the wrong direction. But the Order needed organization, and Bonaventure was the man for the job. We’ll let history continue to discern whether he did a good job.
But beyond his organizational and administrative skills, the saint expresses a heart of love after the model of Saint Francis. One cannot read The Soul’s Journey into God or the Tree of Life, for example, without feeling the devotion of the saint as he, like Saint Francis, almost gushes over the poverty shown in the Incarnation and the love expressed in the Passion of Jesus. In all he did he seems to have been a true Franciscan at heart.
In his bull of canonization, Pope Sixtus IV wrote:
Bonaventure was great in learning, but no less great in humility and holiness. His innocence and dove-like simplicity were such that Alexander of Hales, the renowned doctor whose disciple Saint Bonaventure became, used to say of him that it seemed as though Adam had never sinned in him.