Bonaventure (c 1217-74) has been called the second founder of the Franciscan order. As Master-General between 1257 and 1274, he sought to reconcile those Friars who valued poverty and mendicity above all other virtues with the more intellectual element, attracted to universities and libraries.
Bonaventure succeeded in combining the best from both traditions, though the conflict would flare up again after his death.
The Master-General was obliged to travel ceaselessly – in Italy, France, Germany and even England. Yet Bonaventure maintained his reputation as one of the greatest theologians of his day, known as “the Seraphic Doctor” in distinction to his Dominican friend St Thomas Aquinas, “the Angelic Doctor”.
Although Bonaventure knew his Aristotle as well as Aquinas did, there was a more mystical streak in his theology, with roots in Plato and St Augustine. This towering intellectual insisted that the search for God was more likely to succeed by inflaming the heart than by engaging the mind.
Honey, he observed, cannot be poured into a vessel of wormwood. The surest path to faith lay through the ascetic life; the source of all knowledge was to be found in the crucifix.
Bonaventure was born Giovanni di Fidanza at Bagnorea, some 50 miles north of Rome. After joining the Franciscans as a young man he was sent to study in Paris, where he was taught by the Englishman Alexan der of Hales, who discovered that his pupil “seemed not to have sinned in Adam”.
Subsequently Bonaventure lectured in Paris and made his name with his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Attacks on the mendicant orders interrupted his studies; his defence of the Franciscans, however, proved so powerful that he was chosen as Minister-General before becoming a Master of Theology.
In 1259 Bonaventure produced his Journey of the Mind into God, one of the summits of medieval philosophy. In 1263, with the aim of resolving the controversies within the Order, he wrote a new Life of St Francis. The General Chapter pronounced that all previous histories of St Francis should be destroyed; fortunately, though, a few copies of Thomas of Celano’s two biographies survived.
In 1265 Bonaventure was appointed Archbishop of York, but showed no disposition to take up this post, which he resigned in the following year. The election in 1271 of Pope Gregory X, whom Bonaventure had known in Paris as Tedaldo Visconti, resulted in further promotion, however unwelcome.
Appointed cardinal and Bishop of Albano in 1273, Bonaventure helped the next year to forward a plan of reunion between Rome and Constantinople at the Council of Lyon. Thomas Aquinas had died on the way to this Council; Bonaventure perished at the end of it, and was thus spared seeing the agreement he had achieved rejected by Constantinople.