July is a great month for Saints as many intellectual and spiritual giants of the Church have their Feast days this month. Today we honor St. Bonaventure, another Doctor of the Church.
St. Bonaventure was born at Bagnoregio in Latium, not far from Viterbo, then part of the Papal States. Almost nothing is known of his childhood, other than the names of his parents, Giovanni di Fidanza and Maria Ritella.
He entered the Franciscan Order in 1243 and studied at the University of Paris, possibly under Alexander of Hales, and certainly under Alexander’s successor, John of Rochelle. In 1253 he held the Franciscan chair at Paris. Unfortunately for Bonaventure, a dispute between seculars and mendicants delayed his reception as Master until 1257, where his degree was taken in company with Thomas Aquinas. Three years earlier his fame had earned him the position of lecturer on the The Four Books of Sentences—a book of theology written by Peter Lombard in the twelfth century—and in 1255 he received the degree of master, the medieval equivalent of doctor.
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 emphasized a more wholistic 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, after having successfully defended his order against the reproaches of the anti-mendicant party, he was elected Minister General of the Franciscan Order at the age of 36. He has been called, with some justice, its second founder. The Franciscans were coming under criticism at the time as a result of a huge increase in numbers, poor organisation attributed to Francis of Assisi with the resulting divisions into factions, with each one claiming to be faithful to the Founder. While strongly defending the ideals of Francis, Bonaventure insisted on the need for study and an intellectual path to God. 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. In November 1265, he was selected for the post of Archbishop of York; however, he was never consecrated and resigned the appointment in October 1266.
Bonaventure was instrumental in procuring the election of Pope Gregory X. In 1273 he was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. When the papal messengers called on him, he was washing dishes in the Mugello friary (near Florence). He asked them to wait until he had finished.
Bonaventure attended the Council of Lyon in 1274. There, after his significant contributions led to a temporary union of the Greek and Latin churches, Bonaventure died suddenly and in suspicious circumstances at the age of 52. The Catholic Encyclopedia has citations which suggest he was poisoned.
Bonaventure steered the Franciscans on a moderate and intellectual course that made them the most prominent order in the Catholic Church until the coming of the Jesuits. His theology was marked by an attempt completely to integrate faith and reason. He thought of Christ as the “one true master” who offers humans knowledge that begins in faith, is developed through rational understanding, and is perfected by mystical union with God. 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.