Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.1221-1274
SAINT BONAVENTURE, the Seraphic Doctor, is spoken of, along with Duns Scotus and Saint Thomas Aquinas, as one of the three greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. He was born at Bagnorea, Italy, in the year 1221; his parents were Giovanni di Fidanza and Maria Ritella, and he was named Giovanni Fidanza for his father.
He received the name of Bonaventure in consequence of an exclamation of St. Francis of Assisi, when, in response to the pleading of the child’s mother, the saint prayed for Giovanni recovery from a dangerous illness, and, foreseeing the future greatness of the little Giovanni, cried out “O Buona ventura” (O good fortune!)
At the age of twenty-two St. Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order. Having made his vows, he was sent to Paris to complete his studies under the celebrated doctor Alexander of Hales, an Englishman and a Franciscan. After the latter’s death he continued his course under his successor, John of Rochelle.
After entering the Franciscan Order, he studied and taught in Paris from 1243 to 1257. In Paris he became the intimate friend of the great St. Thomas Aquinas. He received the degree of Doctor, together with St. Thomas Aquinas, ceding to his friend against the latter’s inclination, the honor of having it first conferred upon him. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he enjoyed the friendship of the holy King, St. Louis. From then on the lives of the Seraphic Doctor and the Angelic Doctor were often to interweave.
In the same year Bonaventure was made general of his order, and worked at the difficult task of finding a middle road between the friars who had become too extremely rigorous and those who had become too lax. In trying to show what their founder really intended, he wrote The Greater Legend, a life of Saint Francis which superseded everything which had been written before. He did much to give a definite rule to the Franciscan Order, encouraged study, and developed devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
Bonaventure was appointed to several bishoprics, which he refused. Finally, in 1273, Pope Gregory X commanded him to accept appointment as bishop and cardinal of Albano. As a cardinal he attended the Council of Lyons (1274), at which the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches was for a time realized. Since Saint Thomas died en route to the council, the weight of the work fell on Bonaventure. He sent monks to Constantinople to negotiate with the Orthodox, and was the outstanding figure of the assembly.
Eight days after the conclusion of the council the Seraphic Doctor died at Lyons, on July 14, 1274. The pope, the king of Aragon, the cardinals, and the conciliar fathers attended his funeral in the Church of the Franciscans at Lyons. Peter of Tarentaise, afterwards Pope Innocent V, said of Bonaventure: “. . . he was gentle, courteous, humble, pleasing to all, compassionate, prudent, chaste, and adorned with all virtues. ”
As a leader, he did much for the Church, but it is as philosopher and theologian that he has been remembered through the centuries. His works fill many volumes, the most important being his Commentary on the Sentences, which deals with almost every important question of theology. Though their ideas sometimes disagree, Bonaventure and Thomas complement each other: Aquinas followed Aristotle, while Bonaventure was a disciple of Plato and Augustine; Thomas was a teacher of the schools, Bonaventure of the practical life; Thomas enlightened the mind, Bonaventure enflamed the heart; Thomas had a love of theology, Bonaventure had a theology of love.
In looking at these two great lights of the Church we can see that their careers were very different. Bonaventure was in positions of authority in his order from the very year he received his degree, while Thomas’ career took him to and fro across Europe to teach, preach, and take part in theological disputations. Thomas was undoubtedly the foremost scholar of the time, perhaps of all time, and his theological and philosophical achievements remain the model and guide of Catholic studies. To Bonaventure, on the other hand, we owe the most complete synthesis of Christian mysticism that has ever been achieved.
These two men, along with Duns Scotus and Saint Albert the Great, earn for the thirteenth century its fame as the golden age of philosophy and theology, a time which has not since been equaled.