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Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor, 1221-1274
This saint was born at Bagnorea in Tuscany, the son of John Fidanza and Mary Ritella. He was christened John at his Baptism. Stricken with a dangerous illness as a baby, at his mother’s plea, little John was prayed for by Saint Francis of Assisi. As he recovered, the saint, seeing a great future for the baby, exclaimed, “O buona ventura” O good fortune! Thus did he receive the name by which he was known throughout his life.
Bonaventure entered the Franciscan order at the age of twenty-two and was sent to Paris to complete his studies. It was in Paris that his reputation for genius manifested itself, and here that he became a close friend of Thomas Aquinas.
In 1257, he received the degree of doctor along with his friend, ceding to the reluctant Aquinas the honor of having it first conferred upon him. In the same year, Bonaventure, not yet thirty-six, was elected minister general of the Franciscan order, an order torn by internal dissension after the death of Saint Francis. Certain members felt that the rule was not severe enough while the other extreme desired mitigating some of the restrictions. Thomas Aquinas said that it would take a saint to bring this order together. Saint Bonaventure was this saint. In a letter to his chapters and in the first of five general meetings of the order which he held, Bonaventure laid out a set of constitutions on the rules for the order which have been a foundational part of the Franciscan community up to the present day.
Bonaventure governed the Franciscans for seventeen years and is called the second founder of the Franciscan order. Having declined an earlier bid by Pope Clement IV to be named archbishop of York, in 1273, Bonaventure was directed by Pope Gregory X to accept the cardinal-bishop appointment to Albano and to come immediately to Rome. The pope sent a delegation to meet Bonaventure with the hat and other insignia of his new office. They found Bonaventure at a Franciscan monastery washing the dishes. The saint asked them to hang the hat on the bough of a tree because, he explained, he couldn’t decently take it up with his greasy hands. Only when he had finished his work did Bonaventure take up the hat and go out to greet the legates.
Upon his arrival in Rome, the pope ordered Bonaventure to prepare an agenda and develop position papers for a council which was to be held in Lyon. The primary purpose of this council was to effect a reconciliation between the Eastern Church and Rome. To accomplish this preparation, all of the best theologians were summoned to Rome. (It was while enroute to Rome for this purpose that Saint Thomas Aquinas died.)
Cardinal Bonaventure was the major figure at this great council. It was through his efforts that the reunion (later abrogated by Constantinople) was agreed upon. Bonaventure preached at a celebration Mass in which the Scripture was sung in both Latin and Greek. About two weeks later, he died.
There is a story told of Bonaventure demonstrates this saint’s humility and charity. One day, Bonaventure, as minister general, was visiting a monastery of his order. One of the friars wished to talk with him, but out of shyness and humility, hesitated to approach his superior. When Bonaventure had departed, the friar realized that he was missing his chance to speak to him, and pursued Bonaventure down the road. When he finally caught up with him, Bonaventure spent a long time in conversation with the man. As the friar had returned home, comforted and rejoicing, Bonaventure’s traveling companions showed signs of impatience. Seeing this, Bonaventure mildly rebuked them. By virtue of his office, he told them, he was both prelate and servant to his brothers. That friar, he said, “is both my brother and my master.”
Saint Bonaventure was canonized in 1482 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1588. Owing to the angelic virtues credited to him in his lifetime, he is known as the “Seraphic Doctor.” His memorial is celebrated on July 15.
Bonaventure's message today: Many of us tend to take ourselves too seriously from time to time. We sometimes see ourselves as better, smarter, richer, more successful than others, and look down on them. Bonaventure recognized that whatever gifts he had received came from God. They did not make him a better person than his “brother and master.”