HOMILY for the Memorial of St Bonaventure
This year marks the 740th anniversary of the death of St Bonaventure, and also, incidentally of St Thomas Aquinas who was a good friend of his. There is much that these saints share in common. Both died in connection with the Council of Lyons: St Thomas had died on the way to the Council; Bonaventure, who was instrumental in preparing for the Council as a bishop, theologian and cardinal died during it. Both were mendicant friars and had defended the friars movement in Paris; both had studied and taught in the University of Paris. However, one incident (which echoes a similar one in the life of St Thomas Aquinas) shows us St Bonaventure’s priorities. When asked by St Thomas what was the source of his learning and insight, he pointed to an image of the Crucified One, and said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others”. Thus, St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, says to us: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything”.
The primacy of Christ in all things, and thus, the priority given to the Word of God, is central to St Bonaventure’s thought. As Minister General of the Franciscans he’d had to grapple with notions that St Francis had inaugurated a new, more spiritual and charismatic age for the Church. But St Bonaventure insisted that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to humanity. There can be no further new revelation for in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God had said all, giving himself entirely to humanity, even giving us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Hence, Bonaventure said that if we seek truth, especially concerning eternal salvation, we needed to look to Christ in faith, to love him through prayer, and only then can we truly understand God’s words in Sacred Scripture. As he says: “This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding”. And this faith, of course, comes to us as a gift from Jesus Christ; it is an ecclesial faith that we receive from Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, as Minister General, St Bonaventure strived to unite the Franciscans more closely to the hierarchy of the Church. For this reason, I think, Bonaventure (unlike St Thomas) accepted being made Archbishop of York and a cardinal.
As a Scholastic, St Bonaventure (like St Thomas) firmly believed in the unity of faith and reason in the human quest for true knowledge. For, ultimately, God is the source of all wisdom; Jesus is Truth itself. Therefore, as a theologian, Bonaventure stressed that if we desired to know truth concerning our salvation, we needed to depend on God’s Word, and to learn from Christ. As he says: “The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation”. For Bonaventure, then, the motivation for genuine theology was a love for Christ and a desire to know him better. Against this, he warned of the danger of intellectual pride which subjected the Scriptures to merely human reasoning and research. St Thomas, likewise, warned that “in knowledge and in every other endowment that belongs to greatness, Man finds occasion to trust in himself rather than to give himself over completely to God”.
The sanctity of these men, then, came not from their learning or formidable intelligence, as such, but from their humility and love for the Word of God. This enabled them to use their human reason to understand divine revelation, to accept God’s Word in faith and to conform their lives to it rather than to rationalize the Faith away or relativize God’s Word. This intellectual pride is the temptation in every age. Currently, we must wonder if some churchmen have not fallen into such temptation through arguing in support of the Assisted Dying Bill, or in favour of divorce and remarriage, or allowing for the ordination of women – positions which all contradict the teaching of Scripture and of sacred Tradition. The positions they advance all sound reasonable but we must always beware, as St Bonaventure teaches us, that the pride of human reason does not take precedence over the Word of God; over the divine Wisdom and knowledge that is only known through the grace of the Holy Spirit – that same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and continues to guide, inspire, and animate Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As such, her Magisterium cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals when it concerns our salvation.
St Bonaventure, therefore, said that only “the pious and the humble, the contrite and the devout” can learn from divine Wisdom. So, let us imitate his docility to the Word of God, and so, by God’s grace grow closer to Jesus Christ, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life”.