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St. Bonaventure

The Life and Wisdom of St. Bonaventure

July 14, 2023

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On July 15, the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Bonaventure, who is one of my absolute favorite saints and theologians. I would like to reflect on my personal background with St. Bonaventure as well as offer some information about his life, work, and influence.

My first substantial encounter with St. Bonaventure occurred in graduate school, when I took a doctoral seminar course on his thought. Taught by Dr. Peter Casarella (then at CUA, currently at Duke), I quickly became fascinated with St. Bonaventure. In particular, I appreciated his emphasis on holiness as integral to theology and as necessary for the attainment of true wisdom.

As some of you know, much of my academic work has focused on the thought of Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict himself was highly influenced by St. Bonaventure. In Germany, it is common for academics to pursue a postdoctoral degree through the writing of what is essentially a second dissertation (called an Habilitationsschrift). In the 1950s, the then young scholar, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote his habilitation thesis on St. Bonaventure. Originally, he wrote on two related topics: St. Bonaventure’s understanding of divine revelation and St. Bonaventure’s theology of history. However, only the latter topic made it into the final, approved version that gained Ratzinger his postdoctoral degree.

In 2009, as part of the publication of Ratzinger’s collected works, the section on St. Bonaventure’s theology of divine revelation was published for the first time! This created a unique opportunity for me to write my own dissertation on Ratzinger’s theology of divine revelation, drawing heavily from this newly published work (still not available in English). Thus, through Ratzinger’s work, I was further influenced by St. Bonaventure. I taught an undergraduate course on St. Bonaventure as well, and—as cheesy as it is—I named my dog “Bonaventure.” It just so happens that my wife’s birthday is also on St. Bonaventure’s feast day. When I started my own blog many years ago, I named it after a term coined by St. Bonaventure: “Sapientia Nulliformis” (“Formless Wisdom”). All of this is to show that this particular saint and scholar is profoundly important to me and my work. But now, let’s turn to St. Bonaventure’s own life and work.

Born in Bagnoregio (about 65 to 70 miles north of Rome), St. Bonaventure was originally named Giovanni di Fidanza. The year of his birth is not known for certain. Some think he was born in 1217, others think it was in 1221. In either case, as a young boy, he became very sick. As Pope Benedict XVI reports: “Even his father, who was a doctor, gave up all hope of saving him from death. So his mother had recourse to the intercession of St. Francis of Assissi. . . . And Giovanni recovered” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, March 3, 2010).

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He eventually went to study at the University of Paris, which—at the time—was one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He earned his master of arts degree around 1243. Shortly afterward, he entered the Franciscan Order of the Friars Minor, “using the name ‘Bonaventure’ to celebrate his ‘good-fortune’ under Francis and [Alexander of] Hales” (Tim Noone and R. E. Houser, “Saint Bonaventure,” The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020). He continued his education at the University of Paris, studying theology from 1243 to 1248. Thereafter, he lectured at the University of Paris, first as a Bachelor of Theology. Directly after earning his licentiate to teach in 1254, he held the Franciscan Chair in theology, “but taught only at the Franciscan convent, unrecognized by the University” (ibid.). The secular Masters (i.e., Masters who were not members of religious orders) were in conflict with the newly formed mendicant orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and refused to give them due honors.

However, “in October 1256, Pope Alexander IV ordered the secular Masters at Paris to accept Bonaventure and the Dominican Thomas of Aquino in their rightful places as Masters of Theology” (ibid.). You read that correctly, St. Bonaventure’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’ times at the University of Paris overlapped. (I would love to have been a fly on the wall during their conversations!) St. Thomas held St. Bonaventure in high esteem, inquired about the source of his wisdom, and used St. Bonaventure’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard as a reference while doing his own theological work.

In 1257, St. Bonaventure was elected as the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, serving as the head of the Franciscans for seventeen years (see Benedict XVI). His influence over the Church went beyond that of the Franciscan Order. “During the three year Papal vacancy . . . Bonaventure preached an important sermon in Viterbo and was probably instrumental in the invention of conclave. He is said to have been offered the papacy by the electors and to have suggested Teobaldi Visconti instead. After Teobaldi’s election as Pope Gregory X, he appointed Bonaventure cardinal on 28 May 1273,” and Bonaventure also served as the bishop of Albano (Noone and Houser). 

Additionally, Pope Gregory X entrusted Bonaventure with preparations for the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons (May 18 to July 17, 1274), which aimed at reestablishing unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (see Benedict XVI). In fact, the union seemed to have been achieved—in part due to his own contributions—when St. Bonaventure died on July 15, 1274, two days before the final session of the council (see P. Robinson, “St. Bonaventure” The Catholic Encyclopedia). (As a historical aside: St. Thomas Aquinas died on his way to that same council on March 7, 1274.)

Alongside St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure has been hailed as one of the two great pillars of high Scholastic thought (see Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris 14 and Sixtus V, Triumphantis Hierusalem). Sixtus V made him a Doctor of the Church. As St. Thomas Aquinas is known as the Angelic Doctor, St. Bonaventure is known as the Seraphic Doctor.

St. Bonaventure’s intellectual legacy continues in his vast corpus of writings. We already mentioned his Commentary on the Sentences, which was regarded as one of the best of its kind. That’s saying something, because pretty much every Master of Theology had to write a commentary on the Sentences in order to gain the degree. As a Master of Theology, Bonaventure took part in disputations, which led to the writing of three books on disputed questions: On the Knowledge of Christ, On the Mystery of the Trinity, and On Evangelical Perfection. He also wrote a Life of St. Francis

One of my favorite of Bonaventure’s works is a book I assigned to undergraduates as part of an Intro to Theology course: the Breviloquium. I jokingly say that, with that work, St. Bonaventure achieved what Aquinas intended to do with the Summa theologiae: write a book for beginners in theology. Two even shorter but also brilliant works are The Journey of the Mind to God and the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. His Collations on the Six Days of Creation is a gem and was a key text for Benedict XVI’s habilitation thesis. He also wrote biblical works, including commentaries on the Gospels of Luke and John.

While St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Duns Scotus have justly earned the recognition they have received, it is sad to me, personally, that their success has contributed to a lack of study of and appreciation for St. Bonaventure. It is my hope that the wisdom of St. Bonaventure will one day resurface to impact a wider audience, both in the academy as well as in the pews.

St. Bonaventure, pray for us!