Saint Bonaventure, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

July 14

Today is the feast day of Saint Bonaventure. Ora pro nobis.

Saint Bonaventure was born at Bagnorea in the vicinity of Viterbo in 1221.  He died on the night between the 14th and 15th of July, 1274.  His parents were Giovanni di Fidanza and Maria Ritella. He was a frail child, given the name of John at his baptism. He soon fell so ill that his cure was despaired of, and his sorrowing mother had recourse to Saint Francis.  She promised God she would endeavor to have the child take the habit of the Franciscan Order, if he were cured. Her prayer was granted, the child was cured, and Saint Francis himself gave him his new name. In reference to the miraculous cure, he prophetically exclaimed of the infant, “O buona ventura!— O good fortune!” Saint Francis died a few months later, not without foreseeing the future of this little one, destined to be a seraph of love like himself. Saint Bonaventure is titled “the Seraphic Doctor,” from the fervor of divine love which breathes in his writings.

The Franciscan Order has ever regarded Bonaventure as one of the greatest Doctors and from the beginning his teaching found many distinguished expositors within the order.  Among the earliest being his own pupils, John Peckham later Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew of Aquasparta, and Alexander of Alexandria (d. 1314), both of whom became ministers general of the order. The last named wrote a “Summa quaestionum S. Bonaventura. Other well-known commentaries are by John of Erfurt (d. 1317), Verilongus (d. 1464), Brulifer (d. c. 1497), de Combes (d. 1570), Trigosus (d. 1616), Coriolano (d. 1625), Zamora (d. 1649), Bontemps (d. 1672), Hauzeur (d. 1676), Bonelli (d. 1773), etc. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century the influence of Bonaventure was undoubtedly somewhat overshadowed by that of Duns Scotus, owing largely to the prominence of the latter as champion of the Immaculate Conception in the disputes between the Franciscans and Dominicans. Sixtus V, however, founded a special chair at Rome for the study of St. Bonaventure; such chairs also existed in several universities, notably at Ingolstadt, Salzburg, Valencia, and Osuna. It is worthy of note that the Capuchins forbade their Friars to follow Scotus and ordered them to return to the study of Bonaventure. The centenary celebrations of 1874 appear to have revived interest in the life and work of St. Bonaventure.


St. Bonaventure, Cardinal and Doctor of the Church

from the Liturgical Year, 1901

Four months after the Angel of the Schools, the Seraphic Doctor appears in the heavens. Bound by the ties of love when on earth, the two are now united for ever before the Throne of God. Bonaventure’s own words will show us how great a right they both had to the heavenly titles bestowed upon them by the admiring gratitude of men.

As there are three hierarchies of Angels in heaven, so on earth there are three classes of the elect. The Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, who form the first hierarchy, represent those who approach nearest to God by contemplation, and who differ among themselves according to the intensity of their love, the plenitude of their science, and the steadfastness of their justice; to the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, correspond the prelates and princes; and lastly, the lowest choirs signify the various ranks of the faithful engaged in the active life. This is the triple division of men, which, according to St. Luke, will be made at the last day: Two shall be in the bed, two in the field, two at the mill; that is to say, in the repose of divine delights, in the field of government, at the mill of this life’s toil. As regards the two mentioned in each place, we may remark that in Isaias, the Seraphim, who are more closely united to God than the rest, perform two together their ministry of sacrifice and praise; for it is with the Angel as with man: the fullness of love, which belongs especially to the Seraphim, cannot be without the fulfilment of the double precept of charity towards God and one’s neighbour. Again our Lord sent His disciples two and two before His face; and in Genesis we find God sending two Angels where one would have sufficed (Gen. xix. 1). It is better therefore, says Ecclesiastes, that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society?

Such is the teaching of Bonaventure in his book of the Hierarchy (Eccles. iv. 9), wherein he shows us the secret workings of Eternal Wisdom for the salvation of the world and the sanctification of the elect. It would be impossible to understand aright the history of the thirteenth century, were we to forget the prophetic vision, wherein our Lady was seen presenting to her offended Son His two servants Dominic and Francis, that they might, by their powerful union, bring back to Him the wandering human race. What a spectacle for Angels when, on the morrow of the apparition, the two saints met and embraced: “Thou art my companion, we will run side by side,” said the descendant of the Gusmans to the poor man of Assisi; “let us keep together, and no man will be able to prevail against us.” These words might well have been the motto of their noble sons, Thomas and Bonaventure. The star which shone over the head of St. Dominic, shed its bright rays on Thomas; the Seraph who imprinted the stigmata in the flesh of St. Francis, touched with his fiery wing the soul of Bonaventure; yet both, like their incomparable fathers, had but one end in view : to draw men by science and love to that eternal life which consists in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

Both were burning and shining lamps, blending their flames in the heavens, in proportions which no mortal eye could distinguish here below; nevertheless, Eternal Wisdom has willed that the Church on earth should borrow more especially light from Thomas and fire from Bonaventure. Would that we might here show in each of them the workings of Wisdom, the one bond even on earth of their union of thoughts, that Wisdom, who, ever unchangeable in her adorable unity, never repeats herself in the souls she chooses from among the nations to become the prophets and the friends of God. But to-day we must speak only of Bonaventure.

When quite a child, he was saved by St. Francis from imminent death; whereupon his pious mother offered him by vow to the Saint, promising that he should enter the Order of Friars Minor. Thus, in the likeness of holy poverty, that beloved companion of the Seraphic Patriarch, did Eternal Wisdom prevent our Saint from his very cradle, showing herself first unto him. At the earliest awakening of his faculties he found her seated at the entrance of his soul, awaiting the opening of its gates, which are, he tells us, intelligence and love. Having received a good soul in an undefiled body, he preferred Wisdom before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison with the august friend, who offered herself to him in the glory of her nobility and beauty. From that first moment, without ever waning, she was his light. Peacefully as a sunbeam glancing through a hitherto closed window, Wisdom filled this dwelling, now become her own, as the bride on the nuptial day takes possession of the bridegroom’s house, filling it with joy, in community of goods, and above all of love. For her contribution to the nuptial banquet, she brought the substantial brightness of heaven; Bonaventure on his part offered her the lilies of purity, so desired by her as her choicest food. Henceforth the feast in his soul was to be continual; and the light and the perfumes, breaking forth, were shed around, attracting, enlightening, and nourishing all. While still very young, he was, according to custom, sent, after the first years of his religious life, to the celebrated University of Paris, where he soon won all hearts by his angelic manners; and the great Alexander of Hales, struck with admiration at the union of so many qualities, said of him that it seemed as if in him Adam had not sinned. As a lofty mountain whose head is lost in the clouds, and from whose foot run fertilizing waters far and wide, Brother Alexander himself, according to the expression of the Sovereign Pontiff, seemed at that time to contain within himself the living fountain of Paradise, whence the river of science and salvation flowed over the earth (Litt. Alexandri IV.: De fontibus paradisi flumen egrediens). Nevertheless not only would he, the irrefragable Doctor, and the Doctor of doctors, give up his chair in a short time to the new-comer, but he would hereafter derive his greatest glory from being called father and master by that illustrious disciple (Bonavent. in 11 Sent., dist. xxiii. art. 2. qu. 3, ad 7). Placed in such a position at so early an age, Bonaventure could say of Divine Wisdom, even more truly than of the great master who had had little to do but admire the prodigious development of his soul: “It is she that has taught me all things; she taught me the knowledge of God and of His works, justice and virtues, the subtleties of speeches and the solutions of arguments (Cf. Wisd. vii. and viii).”

Such indeed is the object of those Commentaries on the four Books of Sentences, first delivered as lectures from the chair of Paris, where he held the noblest intellects spellbound by his graceful and inspired language. This masterpiece, while it is an inexhaustible mine of treasures to the Franciscan family, bears so great testimony to the science of this doctor of twenty-seven years of age, that, though so soon called from his chair to the government of a great Order, he was worthy on account of this single work to share with his friend Thomas of Aquin, who was fortunately freer to pursue his studies, the honourable title of prince of Sacred Theology.

The young master already merited his name of Seraphic Doctor, by regarding science as merely a means to love, and declaring that the light which illuminates the mind is barren and useless unless it penetrates to the heart, where alone wisdom rests and feasts (Exp. in Lib. Sap. viii. 9, 16). St. Antoninus tells us also, that in him every truth grasped by the intellect, passed through the affections, and thus became prayer and divine praise (Antonini,Chronic., p. III. tit. xxiv., cap. 8). “His aim,” says another historian, “was to burn with “love, to kindle himself first at the divine fire, and afterwards to inflame others. Careless of praise or renown, anxious only to regulate his life and actions, he would fain burn and not only shine; he would be fire, in order to approach nearer to God by becoming more like to Him who is fire. Albeit, as fire is not without light, so was he also at the same time a shining torch in the House of God; but his special claim to our praise is, that all the light at his command he gathered to feed the flame of divine love (H. Sedulius, Histor. seaph).”

The bent of his mind was clearly indicated when, at the beginning of his public teaching, he was called upon to give his decision on the question then dividing the Schools: to some theology was a speculative, to others a practical science, according as they were more struck by the theoretical or the moral side of its teaching. Bonaventure, uniting the two opinions in the principle which he considered the one universal law, concluded that “Theology is an affective science, the knowledge of which proceeds by speculative contemplation, but aims principally at making us good.” For the wisdom, of doctrine, he said, must be according to her name (Eccli. vi. 23), something that can be relished by the soul; and he added, not without that gentle touch of irony which the saints know how to use: “There is a difference, I suppose, in the impressions produced by the proposition, Christ died for us, or the like, and by such as this: the diagonal and the side of a square cannot be equal to one another (Bonavent.Praemium in Sent., qu. 3).” The graceful speech and profound science of our saint were enhanced by a beautiful modesty. He would conclude a difficult question thus: “This is said without prejudice to the opinions of others. If anyone think otherwise, or better, as he may well do on this point as on all others, I bear him no ill-will; but if, in this little work, he find anything deserving approval, let him give thanks to God, the Author of all good. Whatever, in any part, be found false, doubtful or obscure, let the kind reader forgive the incompetence of the writer, whose conscience bears him unimpeachable testimony that he has wished to say nothing but what is true, clear, and commonly received.” On one occasion ,however, Bonaventure’s unswerving devotion to the Queen of Virgins modified with a gentle force his expression of humility: “If anyone,” he says, “prefers otherwise, I will not contend with him, provided he say nothing to the detriment of the Venerable Virgin, for we must take the very greatest care, even should it cost us our life, that no one lessen in any way the honour of our Lady (IV. Sent. dist. xxviii, qu. 6. ad 5).” Lastly, at the end of the third book of this admirable Exposition of the Sentences, he declares that charity is worth more than all science. It is enough, in doubtful questions, to know what the wise have taught; disputation is to little purpose. We talk much, and our words fail us. Infinite thanks be to the Perfecter of all discourse, our Lord Jesus Christ, who taking pity on my poverty of knowledge and of genius, has enabled me to complete this moderate work. I beg of Him that it may procure me the merit of obedience, and may be of profit to my brethren: the twofold purpose for which the task was undertaken (III. Sent., dist. xl. qu. 3, ad 6).”

But the time had come when obedience was to give place to another kind of merit, less pleasing to himself, but not less profitable to the brethren. At thirty-five years of age, he was elected Minister General. Obliged thus to quit the field of scholastic teaching, he entrusted it to his friend, Thomas of Aquin, who, younger by several years, was to cultivate it longer and more completely than he himself had been suffered. The Church would lose nothing by the change; for, Eternal Wisdom, who ordereth all things with strength and sweetness, thus disposed that these two incomparable geniuses, completing one another, should give us the fullness of that true science which not only reveals God, but leads to Him.

Give an occasion to the wise man, and wisdom shall be added to him (Prov. ix. 9). This sentence was placed by Bonaventure at the head of his treatise on the “Six Wings of the Seraphim,” wherein he sets forth the qualifications necessary for one called to the cure of souls; and well did he fulfill it himself in the government of his immense Order, scattered by its missions throughout the whole Church. The treatise itself, which Father Claud Aquaviva held in such high estimation as to oblige the Superiors of the Society of Jesus to use it as a guide, furnishes us with a portrait of our Saint at this period. He had reached the summit of the spiritual life, where the inward peace of the soul is undisturbed by the most violent agitations from without; where the closeness of their union with God produces in the saints a mysterious fecundity, displayed to the world, when God wills, by a multiplicity of perfect works incomprehensible to the profane. Let us listen to Bonaventure’s own words: “The Seraphim exercise an influence over the lower orders, to draw them upwards; so the love of the spiritual man tends both to his neighbour and to God; to God that he may rest in Him; to his neighbour to draw him thither with himself. Not only then do they burn; they also give the form of perfect love, driving away darkness and showing how to rise by degrees, and to go to God by the highest paths (Bonavent. De Eccle. hier., p. II. c. ii).”

Such is the secret of that admirable series of opuscula, composed, as he owned to St. Thomas, without the aid of any book but his crucifix, without any preconceived plan, but simply as occasion required, at the request, or to satisfy the needs of the brethren and sisters of his large family, or again when he felt a desire of pouring out his soul. In these works Bonaventure has treated alike of the first elements of asceticism and of the sublimest subjects of the mystic life, with such fullness, certainty, clearness, and persuasive force, that Sixtus IV. declared the Holy Spirit seemed to speak in him (Litt. Superna caelestis). On reading the Itinerary of the soul to God, which was written on the height of Alvernia, as it were under the immediate influence of the Seraphim, the Chancellor Gerson exclaimed: “This opusculum, or rather this immense work, is beyond the praise of a mortal mouth (Gerson Epist. cuidam Fratri Minori. Lugd. an. 1426).” And he wished it, together with that wonderful compendium of sacred science, the Breviloquium, to be imposed upon theologians as a necessary manual. “By his words,” says the great Abbot Trithemius in the name of the Benedictine Order, “the author of all these learned and devout works inflames the will of the reader no less than he enlightens his mind. Note the spirit of divine love and Christian devotion in his writings, and you will easily see that he surpasses all the doctors of his time in the usefulness of his works. Many expound doctrine, many preach devotion, few teach the two together; Bonaventure surpasses both the many and the few, because he trains to devotion by science, and to science by devotion. ” If then you would be both learned and devout, you must put his teaching in practice (Trithem. de Scriptor. eccle).”

But Bonaventure himself will tell us best the proper dispositions for reading him with profit. At the beginning of his Incendium amoris, wherein he teaches the three ways, purgative, illuminative, and unitive, which lead to true wisdom, he says: “I offer this book not to philosophers, not to the worldly-wise, not to great theologians perplexed with endless questions, but to the simple and ignorant who strive rather to love God than to know much. It is not by disputing, but by activity, that we learn to love. As to these men full of questions, superior in every science, but inferior in the love of Christ, I consider them incapable of understanding the contents of this book; unless putting away all vain show of learning, they strive, by humble self-renunciation, prayer, and meditation, to kindle within them the divine spark, which, inflaming their hearts and dispelling all darkness, will lead them beyond the concerns of time even to the throne of peace. Indeed by the very fact of their knowing more, they are better disposed to love, or at least they would be, if they truly despised themselves and could rejoice to be despised by others (Incend. amoris Prologus).”

Although these pages are already too long, we cannot resist quoting the last words left us by St. Bonaventure. As the Angel of the School was soon, at Fossa Nova, to close his labours and his life with the explanation of the Canticle of Canticles, so his seraphic rival and brother tuned his last notes to these words of the sacred Nuptial Song: “King Solomon has made him a litter of the wood of Libanus: The pillars thereof he made of silver, the seat of gold, the going-up of purple (Cant. iii. 9, 10). “The seat of gold,” added our Saint, “is contemplative wisdom; it belongs to those alone who possess the column of silver, i.e. the virtues which strengthen the soul; the going-up of purple is the charity whereby we ascend to the heights and descend to the valleys (Illuminationes Ecclesiae in Hexaemeron, sermo xxiii).”

It is a conclusion worthy of Bonaventure, the close of a sublime but incomplete work, which he had not even time to put together himself. “Alas! alas! alas!” cries out with tears the loving disciple to whom we owe this last treasure, “a higher dignity, and then the death of our lord and master prevented the continuation of this work.” And then showing us, in a touching manner, the precautions taken by the sons lest they should lose anything of their father’s conferences: “What I here give,” he says, “is what I could snatch by writing rapidly while he was speaking. Two others took notes at the same time, but their papers are scarcely legible; whereas several of the audience were able to read my copy, and the master himself and many others made use of it; a fact for which I deserve some gratitude. And now at length, permission and time having been given to me, I have revised these notes, with the voice and gestures of the master ever in my ear and before my eyes; I have arranged them in order, without adding anything to what he said, except the indication of certain authorities (Illuminat. Eccles., Additiones).”

The dignity mentioned by the faithful secretary is that of Cardinal Bishop of Albano. After the death of Clement IV., and the succeeding three years of widowhood for the Church, our Saint, by his influence with the Sacred College, had obtained the election of Gregory X., who now imposed upon him in virtue of obedience the honour of the Cardinalate. Having been entrusted with the work of preparation for the Council of Lyons, convened for the Spring of 1274, Bonaventure had the joy of assisting at the reunion of the Latin and Greek Churches, which he, more than anyone else, had been instrumental in obtaining. But God spared him the bitterness of seeing how short-lived the reunion was to be: a union which would have been the salvation of that East which he loved, and where his name, translated into Eutychius, was still in veneration two centuries later at the time of the Council of Florence. On the 15th of July of that year, 1274, in the midst of the Council, and presided at by the Sovereign Pontiff himself, took place the most solemn funeral the world has ever witnessed. “I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan,” cried out before that mourning assembly gathered from East and West, the Dominican Cardinal Peter of Tarentaise. After fifty-three years spent in this world, the Seraph had cast off his robe of flesh, and spreading his wings had gone to join Thomas of Aquin, who had by a very short time preceded him to heaven. (2)


by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

The Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure, was born in 1221,at Balneoregio, in the State of Tuscany. His parents were very distinguished people, not only on account of their nobility and great riches, but still more for their piety and virtues. When scarcely four years old, Bonaventure became dangerously sick and the physicians despaired of his life. His mother appealed to St. Francis of Assisium, who was still living at that period, begging him to obtain, by his prayers, her son’s life from God. She promised to bring him up to the honor of the Almighty, and in the course of time to consecrate him entirely to His divine service in the Order founded by St. Francis. The latter prayed for the sick child and the malady was subdued. In regard to this miracle the holy man cried: “O Buona Ventura! ” which means, “Oh happy event!” and from that time they called the child, so miraculously cured, Bonaventure, although at the baptismal font it had received the name of John.

Arrived at the period when reason awakens, Bonaventure heard of the promise his mother had made in regard to him and fulfilled it by entering joyfully into the Order of St. Francis. After having finished his probation, he went to Paris to devote himself to study, and his progress in learning was as great as his advancement in virtue, especially in humility, constant selfdenial, perfect obedience, great love of his crucified Lord, and ardent devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He meditated daily on the passion and death of Christ, and spent as much time as he could in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. He seldom received Holy Communion, especially when he himself said Mass, without shedding many tears. His innocence he preserved inviolate. The celebrated Doctor Alexander of Hales, under whom Bonaventure studied, used to say, that it seemed to him that he had not committed any sin in Adam; so strictly did he control his inclinations, so great were his virtue and his piety.

Before he was thirty years old, his superiors appointed him to teach theology in the University of Paris, which he did with immense success. There he and St. Thomas of Aquin received the title of “Doctor,” the highest dignity conferred upon Theologians. At the age of 35 years, he was elected General of the whole Seraphic Order, and his election was confirmed by Pope Alexander, who had presided over the assembly. When once installed in his new functions, he was as zealous to preserve the rule of the holy Founder, as he had previously been earnest in declining the dignity. He made the most wholesome regulations, and led all those under him by word and example to great sanctity. During eighteen years he administered his office, with so much wisdom, mildness and strength of character, that he was loved and esteemed by all, and venerated as the second Founder of the Order.

Although occupied with such constant and important labors, he never neglected his devotional exercises or his studies. We possess this day a great many theological works of great learning written by this holy man. Among others, he wrote a book to refute those who slandered the Mendicant Orders, which he entitled: “A Defense of the Poor.” He proves in this book the temporal as well as spiritual benefits of such orders. He also wrote several most learned and eloquent books in praise of the Blessed Virgin, whose honor he desired to further to the best of his ability, and whom, from childhood, he had greatly venerated. There is also extant from his pen, the life of St. Francis, Founder of the Seraphic Order. Whilst he was writing this work, St. Thomas Aquinas came to pay him a visit. Hearing in what Bonaventure was occupied, he declined disturbing him, and left with the words: “Let us leave one Saint to work for another.”

St. Thomas so highly esteemed Bonaventure, that he did not hesitate to call him a Saint while he was still alive. This holy man was greatly astonished that Bonaventure, being so much occupied with his duties, yet found time to write so many books of such profound learning, and one day asked him where his library was. Bonaventure pointing to a crucifix, said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others.” Before he began to study, or whenever a doubt or a difficulty during study embarrassed him, he fell down before the Crucifix and humbly prayed for Divine assistance. He said more than once, that by this means, he had obtained more knowledge and wisdom than by all his industry. Not content with all this, the holy man preached publicly in all the places which he visited in the exercise of his functions, exhorting sinners to repentance and the pious to be constant in good works; by which he converted, in a most remarkable manner, the most hardened sinners.

The fame of his great knowledge and holiness, which spread all over the country, was of great benefit to him in his missionary work; whence he received the title of Seraphic Doctor, by which he is still known in our days. Bishops and prelates of the Church honored the Saint still more than other people of a lower degree. Clement IV, desired to reward him for his many services to the Church with the Archbishopric of York; but the holy man throwing himself at his feet, begged so earnestly to be spared the burden of this honor, that the Holy Father acceded to his request. After the death of this Pope, the Cardinals, assembled at Viterbo, could not agree in the election of a new head of the Church, and they at last determined to leave the choice to Bonaventure, promising to accept as Pope, whomsoever he thought deserving to receive the highest of earthly dignities. This was surely the greatest sign of honor which they could confer upon the Saint.

Bonaventure, after having prayed to God, said that, in his opinion, Theobald, archdeacon of Liege, who was not even present, was most worthy to be raised to the Pontifical Throne. The cardinals received his decision and Theobald became the head of Christ’s Church. This Pope, who took the name of Gregory X, sent afterwards the hat and insignia of a Cardinal to Bonaventure, nominating him Bishop of Albano, and commanding him at the same time, to obey without any opposition. The papal Nuncios who were to convey this news to the Saint, found him occupied in washing the dishes in the kitchen. He listened with unfeigned surprise to their message, and as he saw that, this time, there was no escape left, he obediently submitted, but nevertheless he finished his humble occupation. The Pope, calling him to Rome, took him to Lyons where a general Council was held, during which he gave new proofs of his great learning, and of his unwearied zeal in promoting the welfare of the holy Church.

It pleased the Almighty, to call His faithful servant, in the midst of his pious labor, and after a short illness, to receive his eternal reward. He died in 1274, only fifty-three years of age. The Pope and all the bishops deeply lamented his early death, but God immediately honored him by many miracles. One hundred and sixty years later, when on account of the erection of a new Church, the relics of the Saint were exhumed, it was found that the flesh of the body was entirely consumed, the head excepted, of which the hair, teeth, tongue, eyes and ears, lips and cheeks, were as perfect as though he had still been living. The head, therefore, was preserved in a rich shrine, and the rest of the body laid into a coffin. After many years, when the Huguenots or Calvinists took possession of Lyons, they publicly burned the body of the Saint and threw the ashes into the river. The holy head, however, was saved from their rage by the care of a priest, who, though most cruelly tortured, to make him confess where the relic was kept, preferred to bear the suffering rather than reveal where the precious treasure was concealed. (1)


 Image: Saint Bonaventure, François, Claude (dit Frère Luc)  – 1660 (7)

Research by REGINA Staff



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