Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Seraphic Doctor - St. Bonaventure (c. 1218-1274)

"Doctor", for most of us, generally means one of two things: a white-coated person devoted to medicine and the healing of the human body, or a wise figure from academe. In the history of the Church it has a unique meaning. A doctor vitae is one who's not only book-wise and knowledgable, but especially one who lives well, a teacher of life. There are well over 30 Doctors of the Church, both men and women. 

A Doctor of the Church is a model for all followers of Jesus in two things: teaching and listening. Through the Christian tradition, i.e., the "handing-down" of the faith from Christ and the Apostles, through their successors, the bishops, and through other clergy, priests and deacons, the Church is taught. Perhaps more importantly, the faith is conveyed through the non-ordained members of the Church. Note that the Book of Common Prayer (p. 855) lists as "the ministers of the Church" first "lay persons", then bishops, priests and deacons. Parents and teachers, especially, but also all those who have been gifted with helping others to grasp and live the teachings of Jesus, either formally or informally, share in the teaching ministry. In this regard the declared Doctors of the Church have distingished themselves through the centuries. There's a delicate interplay between the Ecclesia docens = the teaching Church, and the Ecclesia discens = the taught Church.

Secondly, a Doctor of the Church reminds us that both those teaching and those taught need to listen: not just hear, but listen with humble receptivity. All of us in the Church listen, not only by taking in what our instructors in the faith teach us, but also by feeding our minds and spirits with the riches of Holy Scripture, with the spiritual classics of our Christian tradition, and even with homilies/sermons in the liturgy, though these are often subject to mixed reviews!

Bonaventure was a unique personality. Born in Bagnoreggio, Italy, he became a Franciscan friar in 1243. He asssociated with some of the "greats": St. Francis of Assisi interceded for his cure from a serious illness when he was a young boy. He met St. Thomas Aquinas while they were students at the University of Paris, and, in fact, they received their Th.D's together in 1257. While Thomas became the herald of Scholasticism, based on Aristotle's philosophy, Bonaventure became the principal leader of the Platonic-Augustinian school of Franciscan thought, and, as such, was opposed to the inroads which Scholasticism was making in the schools of the time. 

Bonaventure exhibited great holiness of life, wisdom, eloquence in preaching, remarkable skill in getting things done, a loving heart, a charming disposition, and many other natural gifts which drew people to him. He was unparalleled as a teacher and preacher, and at age 36 he was elected as Minister General of the Franciscan Order, and virtually refounded it. Bonaventure had great love and respect for St. Francis, but he disagreed with Francis regarding study and the possession of books (a man after my own heart!). "...He clearly saw, with Francis, that the role of the Friars was to support the Church through its contemporary structures rather than to be an instrument for reform. He also believed that the best conversions came from the good example of those anxious to renew the Church, rather than by haranguing or passing laws..." (Celebrating the Saints, p. 236-237)

The Pope chose Bonaventure in 1265 to become the Archbishop of York, but Bonaventure eventually begged off being consecrated. In 1273, however, having helped in Gregory X's election to the papacy, Bonaventure was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.  He was an important figure at the Council of Lyons in May, 1274, attending four sessions before his untimely death at age 56 that year.

Through the centuries, Bonaventure became known as The Seraphic Doctor, particularly in view of his profound mysticism. In this both he and Thomas Aquinas inspired many people, both in their own time and in succeeding generations. In summary, Bonaventure's contemporaries are said to have believed that there was no one "more handsome, more holy, or more learned" than he. 


1 comment: said...

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