Saints for Our Times: St. Bonaventure known for his intellectual, mystical qualities

By Mary Lou Gibson

Giovanni di Fidanza was 4 years old when he became seriously ill. According to legend, his parents took him to see St. Francis of Assisi for a possible healing. According to Editor Bernard Bangley writing in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints,” when the boy’s health returned, Francis exclaimed “Buona ventura” (good fortune). So when Giovanni entered the Franciscan order in 1243, he took the name Bonaventure.
The religious life was an interesting choice for Giovanni, who chose not to be a medical doctor like his father. Writer Tessa Paul says in “The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Saints” that the Franciscan order at that time discouraged intellectual pursuits. St. Francis of Assisi was detached from formal learning and there were no books in the monasteries.
But Bonaventure saw that if the friars were to be effective as teachers, they needed to be educated. When he was elected minister general of the still-new order in 1257, he inherited a situation of conflict over how strictly to observe Francis’ teachings on poverty. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that there were two groups: the Spirituals who insisted that poverty had to be the absolute mark of the order and the Conventuals who argued that the huge growth in numbers required more organization, communal living and places in which to live.
Bonaventure sought a middle way. According to Burns, he supported specialist Franciscan houses in university towns at which friars would be prepared to become preachers and spiritual directors. This led him into a new controversy with the lay professors who saw the new order of mendicant friars as intruders in the teaching professors. Pope Alexander IV ordered the professions to cease their attacks in 1256 against the new teachers.
While studying theology in Paris, Bonaventure became close friends with Thomas Aquinas. They both received their doctorate in theology in 1257. Bonaventure became known for his intellectual and mystical qualities. He wrote the life of St. Francis and is recognized as the “Second Founder” of the Franciscans. As minister general of the Friars Minor, Bonaventure formed a set of constitutions on the rule which had a profound and lasting effect on the order. Tim Noone and R.E. Houser, writing in “Saint Bonaventure,” state that Bonaventure steered the Franciscans on a moderate and intellectual course that made them the most prominent order in the Catholic Church until the coming of the Jesuits.
Bonaventure left a legacy of important theology and philosophical works. The most famous is his “Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard,” which covers the whole field of scholastic theology. He was known as the “Seraphic Doctor” for his intellectual and mystical qualities. Burns noted that his work, “On the Triple Way” became the basis for virtually all future mystical writing.
He was nominated by Pope Clement IV in 1265 as archbishop of York, but he declined the appointment. A few years later in 1273, Pope Gregory X nominated him as cardinal bishop of Albano and told him he could not refuse the appointment. 
Tom Cowan writes in “The Way of the Saints” that Bonaventure was washing dishes in the kitchen when the papal messengers arrived. He told them to hang the cardinal’s hat, a symbol of the office, on a tree until he had finished cleaning the kitchen’s clutter. His motto was “Do common things well and be constantly faithful to small matters.”
In 1274, Bonaventure took a leading part in the Second Council of Lyons convened to heal the division between the churches of East and West. He was successful in achieving the short-lived reunion, but died on July 15, 1274, while the council was still in session. He was canonized in 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV.
Kenneth Woodward writes in “Making Saints” that St. Bonaventure was the first papally canonized saint whose life was investigated according to three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity and the four cardinal moral virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.