St. Bonaventure was born in Umbria, the “green heart” of the Italian peninsula, in the town of Bagnoregio.
His father, Giovanni di Fidanza was doctor and probably well off for those times. That did not preclude any health issues for Bonaventure (then known by his given name, Giovanni). His mother, Maria di Ritello, was a devout Catholic and follower of St. Francis.
A legend says, in fact, that Giovanni fell ill, and his father was not able to cure him. St. Francis came and cured the boy and after doing so exclaimed, “Oh bona ventura,” in English, “Ah, what good luck.” Although Francis was alive at the birth of Giovanni, he died before the miraculous cure actually occurred. Perhaps, Maria invoked the intercession of the saint and that is where the legend was born.
Giovanni was educated in the local monastery of the minor friars (Franciscans), and when he was 18 went to the University of Paris. He received a master’s of arts degree (equivalent to a PhD today) in 1243, and in 1244 joined the Franciscan order, taking the name Bonaventure.
From 1243 to 1248, he studied theology in the Franciscan school at Paris. He was a classmate of Thomas Aquinas. His teachers were the foremost of his time and they recognized in Bonaventure his keen memory and unusual intelligence.
Bonaventure approached his studies and developed his philosophy through integrating the mendicant life with theology. He taught the Bible from 1251 to 1253 and lectured on the “Sentences,” a medieval theology textbook by Peter Lombard, an Italian theologian of the 12th century, and he became a master of theology in 1254, when he assumed control of the Franciscan school in Paris.
While there (until 1257) he produced several works, among them: commentaries on the Bible and the “Sentences” and a summary of his theology. His written work showed his deep understanding of the Bible and the fathers of the church, especially St. Augustine and a wide knowledge of classical philosophers, particularly Aristotle.
Bonaventure had the capacity to mediate diverse factions through his understanding of theology and philosophy. In 1256, a university faction accused the mendicants (the Franciscans were of that group as they earned their living through charity) of perverting the Gospel through their oath of poverty and opposed their ability to hold teaching positions. Bonaventure successfully defended his brothers and other mendicant orders.
He was elected as minister general of the Franciscan Order. He also was conferred the title of Archbishop of York in 1265, but he never was consecrated and resigned the post. While minister general, Bonaventure’s main objective was to maintain the unity of the Franciscan Friars, balancing religious zeal, oaths of poverty and helping to author the official biography of St. Francis. He achieved his goals by constantly traveling to the various factions and offering stirring sermons earning a great reputation for his eloquence.
Theologically, Bonaventure conceived the perfection of Christian life for the Franciscans (and anyone else) through contemplation. In “Journey of the Mind to God” (1259) he showed how man should love and contemplate God through Christ in the same manner as St. Francis. He recodified the constitutions of the Franciscans (1260) and wrote a revised “Life of St. Francis of Assisi” (1263). He defended the church from 1267 to 1273 by upholding the Christian faith and attacked unorthodox masters at Paris who contradicted revelation in their philosophy.
In 1273 Pope Gregory X appointed Bonaventure as Cardinal Bishop of Albano and in 1274 sent him as a representative to the Second Council of Lyon. There, he once again mediated between secular and mendicant orders and helped restore the union between the Greek church and Rome. He mysteriously died during that mission. There are those who believe he was poisoned.
He was canonized in 1482 and declared a doctor of the church in 1588.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini