One of the struggles facing the second generation of any religious order is the problem of succession. A great and charismatic leader has died; who will take on the leader’s role?
He saw in humble Francis an echo of the humble fishermen who followed Jesus and took his gospel into all the world.
When Francis of Assisi died 1226, he left an ardent group of some 5,000 followers (including an order of nuns, The Poor Clares, established in 1212) but no clear successor. His rule held that no Franciscan could own property, either individually or in common. Recall that Francis himself died in a borrowed robe, lying on a borrowed bed.
This way seemed too harsh for many of his followers and dissent threatened to destroy the young order. They split into two groups, the Spirituales, who followed Francis’ rule closely, and the Relaxati, who believed, well, that it needed to be relaxed in certain areas.
Now Bonaventure was only five years old when Francis died, so he was not part of the turmoil in those early years. But, as Bonaventure grew, he was drawn to Francis and to his life. He saw in humble Francis an echo of the humble fishermen who followed Jesus and took his gospel into all the world.
He entered the Franciscan Order around 1238 and was sent to Paris to study at the university. There he met his dear friend – and fellow Doctor of the Church – Saint Thomas Aquinas.
In 1257, Bonaventure was elected Minister General of the Franciscans and set about to bring peace within the order. He called five general meetings of the order, where differing points of view could be heard. He went about, visiting the friars and listening to their questions and concerns. He wrote a biography of Francis. And he wrote a revision of the rule that all could accept.
Bonaventure was a scholar, but he was also a man of faith. Alexander of Hales, his teacher at the University of Paris, said of Bonaventure that he seemed to have escaped the curse of Adam’s sin.
It is said that Aquinas visited Bonaventure when the Franciscan was writing his biography of Francis. The story goes that Aquinas approached his friend’s cell and found the man in holy ecstasy. He quietly withdrew, saying, “Let us leave a saint to work for a saint.”
Bonaventure’s baptismal name was Giovanni, like his father. No one knows how or when it was changed to Bonaventure. Buona Ventura means good fortune in Italian. It is certainly our good fortune to have Bonaventure as a patron to Franciscans and a guide for us all.
On the Feast of St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church, we recommend his classic work of medieval philosophy and mysticism The Journey of the Mind to God, in which he describes how the soul might progress towards mystical union with God. In the first steps by seeing God in the Creation. Next, by recognizing Him in the human soul, mind, and will, and finally by contemplating God as Being itself. The final chapters are devoted to the idea of mystical union with a God who is good.