St. Bonaventure, called the “Seraphic Doctor” of the Church, was an incredible Franciscan theologian, who, among his many writings, wrote the poetic biography of St. Francis, The Life of St. Francis and The Journey of the Mind to God. He is known as the Seraphic Doctor because he truly possessed the Franciscan spirit; he was eventually chosen as the minister general of the Franciscan Order to help revive within the community a deep love for Franciscan spirituality. While many of these things are well known about Bonaventure, what may be less known is the great influence this saint had on Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI’s theology.
Ratzinger wrote his habilitation thesis (a post-doctoral qualification in Europe) on St. Bonaventure’s understanding of salvation history and the concept of revelation. Furthermore, in the first of a three-part Wednesday audience series on Bonaventure, Benedict XVI explained, “Among the great Christian figures who contributed to the composition of this harmony between faith and culture Bonaventure stands out, a man of action and contemplation, of profound piety and prudent government.”
What is it about Bonaventure that merits such high praise? Born around 1217, Bonaventure lived in the 13th century, which was a powerful time for the Christian faith, in which it penetrated society and influenced many works of literature, theology, and philosophy. When Bonaventure was still a child, he fell seriously ill, such that even his father, who was a doctor, had lost hope for a cure. His mother, however, prayed fervently to St. Francis of Assisi for her son’s cure, and he recovered from the illness. This incident perhaps influenced his later decision to join the Franciscans, who he discovered while studying the liberal arts in Paris. Benedict XVI quotes from one of Bonaventure’s letters, explaining why he chose to join the Franciscan Order:
I confess before God that the reason which made me love the life of blessed Francis most is that it resembled the birth and early development of the Church. The Church began with simple fishermen, and was subsequently enriched by very distinguished and wise teachers; the religion of Blessed Francis was not established by the prudence of men but of Christ.
After joining the Franciscan Order, Bonaventure was sent to study at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris. Here, he studied the Scriptures and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and he defended a thesis entitled Questions on the knowledge of Christ. This is crucial for understanding Bonaventure’s theological vision, for as Benedict says, “We may certainly say that the whole of his thinking was profoundly Christocentric.”
When Bonaventure was elected as the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, his main goal was to unify the Franciscan movement and to rekindle a love for the Poverello, their founder, St. Francis. Benedict explains the key point that Bonaventure emphasized (and indeed, even lived himself): “Francis is an alter Christus, a man who sought Christ passionately. In the love that impelled Francis to imitate Christ, he was entirely conformed to Christ.” This is the message that Bonaventure wished his fellow Franciscans to understand, that they too were called to be “another Christ” and conform themselves completely to him. Bonaventure wanted the Franciscans to invite Christ to live within their hearts, so that they could more fully live out their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and preach the Gospel joyfully to all individuals. Indeed, this desire of Bonaventure is something that all of us can strive to fulfill, regardless of our state in life.
During Bonaventure’s time, an error arose within the Franciscan Order. A group called the “Spiritual Franciscans” radically followed the writings of Joachim of Fiore, who interpreted the whole of history “as a history of progress: from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative freedom of the time of the Son, in the Church, to the full freedom of the Sons of God in the period of the Holy Spirit.” Bonaventure saw this as a grave misunderstanding of St. Francis’s mission, and therefore intensely studied the works of Joachim of Fiore, so that he might work to correct this error within the Order. From this study, Bonaventure developed a remarkable understanding of the history of the Church. Bonaventure rejected Joachim’s Trinitarian rhythm of history, saying instead, “God is one for all history.” He also affirmed that “Jesus Christ is God’s last word; in him, God said all, giving and expressing himself.” This means that God has revealed the Church as she is, and there is nothing more “new” to be revealed that is not already present in revelation.
Benedict addresses a possible objection: “This does not mean that the Church is stationary, fixed in the past, or that there can be no newness in her.” Indeed, Bonaventure’s idea of progress in history was innovative in comparison to the Church Fathers. As Benedict explains, “Christ was no longer the end of history, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, but rather its center; history does not end with Christ but begins a new period.” Bonaventure was not attempting to reject the Church Fathers, but rather, in St. Francis, Bonaventure saw that Christ could bring newness to the Church and that Christ’s riches are inexhaustible. With Christ at the center, there is the possibility for us to discover more deeply the treasures that he has given to us in his Word. It is because Christ is one that we are able to discover newness in the Church’s teachings and traditions.
As such, it would be wrong, as some believe, that the Church is declining. As Benedict explains, in light of Bonaventure’s theology, “Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards.” Moreover, we cannot at any point say that the Church is “completely new” and all of her traditions in the past are obsolete. As Benedict explains about the newness of the Church, “What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and so forth?” Through Bonaventure’s theology, we come to a new understanding of spirituality within the Church’s history: the movement of the Church is always forward, with Christ at the center and at the end in the Beatific Vision. Bonaventure came to these truths through a deep devotion to Christ in prayer. He modeled for us how to “learn at the school of the divine Teacher,” and we ought to follow his example. The desire for refreshing the mendicant orders in the 13th century can inspire us as we seek to refresh, or re-evangelize, those who have fallen away from God.
As already hinted, Bonaventure’s theology greatly influenced Benedict XVI’s own theology, particularly with regard to the progress of history. We find evidence for this in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000). He writes:
The goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history (p. 28).
Just as the Church is not stationary, as Bonaventure explained, so too the cosmos is not static, which is the creation of God and the place where the Church exists. Creation and worship are both oriented to God, and both are moving toward a final fulfillment in him. For Ratzinger, this movement is embodied in the liturgy, which is the place where Heaven and earth meet, where “the logos of creation, the logos in man, and the true and eternal Logos made flesh, the Son, come together” (p. 50). Furthermore, “All time is God’s time. When the eternal Word assumed human existence at his Incarnation, he also assumed temporality. He drew time into the sphere of eternity. Christ himself is the bridge between time and eternity” (p. 92). As such, Christ is at the center of man’s redemption, and it is through the liturgy, which takes place in time, that we encounter him, that we have a taste of the eternal while still in time. This is why Ratzinger says that liturgy is both historical and cosmological: it occurs within time but is also the celebration of the eternal liturgy.
Bonaventure’s emphasis on renewal in the monastic tradition makes him an appropriate saint for our times, especially for the New Evangelization, because it is so necessary in our times to help ourselves and others refocus on Christ as the center of our lives and the universe. While Christ is the “end goal” of all creation in a certain sense, he is also at the center of salvation history—he wants to unite himself to us in our heart and be our “center.” As Ratzinger has shown, in adopting Bonaventure’s theology, we encounter Christ as the center of the liturgy. The liturgy is the place where Heaven comes down and touches earth, the celebration of the Cross, when we are able to consume Christ in the Eucharist. With Bonaventure, we can therefore pray, “How wholesome it is, always to meditate on the Cross of Christ.”