Last month, we celebrated the feast of Saint Bonaventure. This saint is one of my favorites, and also apparently a favorite of Archbishop Fernandez, who did his doctoral work on this Doctor of the Church. I am quite encouraged that our new prefect of the DDF has shown such interest in Bonaventure’s thought. Saint Bonaventure was a key figure in the Second Council of Lyons, which sought to bring greater unity to the Church. Bonaventure’s holiness then and his prayers today can guide us as we draw near to the Synodal Assembly in October.

Living in the 13th century, Bonaventure came to the Franciscans at a time when things were quite contentious. It was an inflection point in Church history, when quarrels turned even to violence between the Friars Minor and the Friars Preachers (i.e., the Franciscans vs the Dominicans). Even among the Franciscans, debate was fierce around the true charism of Francis of Assisi. After the Franciscans elected him Minister General, Bonaventure sought to settle this disagreement, writing a thoroughly researched biography of Francis. In 1263, it would be recognized by the Franciscans as the official biography of their founder. Pope Benedict XVI — who served as prefect of the same dicastery Fernández will soon lead for over two decades — did his postdoctoral work on Bonaventure’s thought, spoke of this timely saint in a General Audience address in March of 2010:

What image of Saint Francis emerged from the heart and pen of his follower and successor, Saint Bonaventure? The key point: 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. Bonaventure pointed out this living ideal to all Francis’ followers. This ideal, valid for every Christian, yesterday, today and for ever, was also proposed as a programme for the Church in the Third Millennium by my Predecessor, Venerable John Paul II.

Three years later, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio understood the assignment, and chose the name Francis upon his election. In his Angelus address on July 15, 2013, Pope Francis reflected on the day’s Gospel, which recounted John the Baptist’s testimony on Jesus:

Freeing oneself from attachments to one’s own ego and knowing how to step aside come at a cost, but are very important. This is the decisive step in order to grow in the spirit of service, without looking for something in return.

Brothers, sisters, let us try to ask ourselves: are we capable of making space for others? Of listening to them, of leaving them free, of not binding them to ourselves, demanding recognition? And also of letting them speak at times. Not saying, “But you know nothing!”. Letting them speak, making space for others. Do we attract others to Jesus, or to ourselves? And furthermore, following John’s example: do we know how to rejoice in the fact that people take their own path and follow their calling, even if this entails some detachment from us? Do we rejoice in their achievements, with sincerity and without envy? This is letting others grow.

As we go through a time of growth and renewal in the Church, many of us argue about what the Church is supposed to be. Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, all make clear that the call of Jesus is a call to poverty, of letting go of our riches and — most especially — our own egos. This doesn’t mean we must have a sad, miserable faith. Quite the contrary! They who would lose their lives for Christ’s sake will find it! It is an invitation to a joy that can only be experienced when we are in the life of God. Bonaventure was devout, but also amiable; decisive, but pastoral. He tells us, “The best perfection of a religious man is to do common things in a perfect manner.” Calling to mind Jesus’ words at the Sermon on the Mount, this perfection is not what the world thinks it to be. While we strive to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, let us not forget to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, whose power is made perfect in weakness.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary of Bonaventure, experienced a profound vision shortly before his death, leading him to say, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” For in the end, all that remains is faith, hope, and love; and we know which one is the greatest. Both men would die in 1274, before the conclusion of the Second Council of Lyons. Bonaventure, like Aquinas, was brilliant; but more importantly, he was a kind, humble, and compassionate man. An eloquent writer and a passionate preacher, he was called the “Seraphic Doctor,” in reference to the angels of the highest order, the ones with such proximity to God that they burn.

As we move toward the upcoming synod, let us ask for Bonaventure’s intercession. Let us pray that we don’t get caught up in abstractions, but in the reality of the person God has placed in front of us. May we all burn with that seraphic fire of love and look beyond our smallness to find sanctity most extraordinary in our lives most ordinary.

Image: The Miracle of Saint Bonaventure by François Lombard. Painting from 1639 in the Saint-Bonaventure basilica in Lyon. By Octave 444 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107577162

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Timothy Quigley is a writer, actor, and filmmaker from Lancaster, PA. His wife of two years, Karolina, is a painter. Together with their four cats, they live a small life full of artistry, prayer, and love.

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