Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Bonaventure, the first and greatest of the Franciscan Doctors of the Church.

Saint Bonaventure was born in 1221 and joined the Franciscans in 1243, where he quickly established himself as one of the brightest minds in the Order. Having been sent to study at the University of Paris, he was appointed Master (equivalent to today’s doctorate) in 1257, alongside his friend St. Thomas Aquinas.

And if keeping up academically with the Angelic Doctor wasn’t enough, he was soon after elected Minister General of the Franciscan Order, all before he was 37. He was also selected by Pope Clement IV for the post of Archbishop of York, but in keeping with his Franciscan humility, he steadfastly refused this honor and the pope yielded. Gregory X would eventually make him a cardinal.

St. Bonaventure, by Francisco de Zurbarán

In his writings, St. Bonaventure emphasized the importance of mystical union with God, a union exemplified for St. Bonaventure by St. Francis. His was certainly a mind of the highest order, but to him, intellectual inquiry, while entirely good and valid, is of inferior interest when compared with the living power of the affections or the heart. Hence his famous phrase: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything.”

St. Bonaventure, besides being renowned for his intellectual prowess, was also a wonderful example of the Franciscan values of peace and reconciliation. He became Minister General at a time following St. Francis’ death when the Order was on the verge of schism over the issue of how strictly to enforce their founder’s vow of poverty. Displaying both a steady hand and a gentle touch, he was able to carve a moderate path that ultimately reconciled the two parties and kept the Order intact. It is no exaggeration to say that without St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan family of which Franciscan Mission Service is proud to call itself part would most likely not exist.

St. Bonaventure receives the envoys of the Byzantine Emperor
at the Second Council of Lyon.

St. Bonaventure died in 1274 while serving as one of the leaders of the Second Council of Lyon, where he continued his work as peacemaker, seeking a way to reunite the recently divided Western and Eastern Churches. In doing so, he challenged the vested political and ecclesiastical interests that would have rather kept the Great Schism open. He died under mysterious circumstances, possibly having been poisoned for his efforts. He was canonized in 1484, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1587.

St. Bonaventure, mystical teacher and reconciler of peoples, pray for us and in particular for our missioners, that we may be bridges of peace and lights of Christ’s love to all we meet!

(Text adapted from The Catholic Encyclopedia, pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)