Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 14.

St. Bonaventure. From Raphael's Disputa
By special Pontifical dispensation Bonaventure retained the office of Minister-General for a short time after his elevation to the Cardinalate. His successor could be elected only by a General Chapter, and this could not conveniently be convoked until the feast of Pentecost. This occurred on 20 May, 1274, and the place chosen for the assembly was Lyons. The Saint presided, and having formally resigned his office, Jerome of Ascoli, afterwards Pope Nicholas IV., was appointed his successor. With this event Bonaventure's official connection with the Order of St. Francis ceased. As we shall see, it was almost coincident with his death.
The Council of Lyons was still sitting when Bonaventure was called to his reward. He was only fifty-three years of age, but the immense labours he had undergone and the habitual weakness of his constitution, hastened the end.
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On 6 July, the fourth general session of the Council was held. The reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches was solemnly ratified. Bonaventure preached on the occasion. He took for his text the words of the prophet Baruch (v. 5). "Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high; and look about towards the East, and behold thy children gathered together from the rising to the setting sun, by the word of the Holy One rejoicing in the remembrance of God". The body of the discourse has not come down to us, but we can well imagine that it was well worthy of the great occasion and of the genius and sanctity of the preacher. It was his last public utterance--the Nunc dimittis of the Church's zealous champion as he witnessed the accomplishment of the object for which he had long so earnestly striven. He was even then standing on the brink of the grave. The echoes of eternity were already beginning to sound in his ears and the everlasting years to unfold themselves before his gaze. As he heard the solemn strains of the grand Te Deum that marked the close of the great event he must have felt that his work for God and for the Church was accomplished. Weakened by disease and worn out by the constant strain and pressure of business, his strength was rapidly failing. The ceaseless activity of his great mind, his restless energy and burning zeal, had hitherto rendered him insensible to the body's decline, but at last the limits of endurance were reached and the end was at hand. Bonaventure returned home from the Council, and nine days later he was dead.
The exact cause of his death is not known. One {108} writer [Footnote 44] refers to an extraordinary mortality prevailing amongst the members of the Council. It is just possible that some species of epidemic, so frequent in those days, may have broken out in the city, and that our Saint in his infirm state of health fell an easy victim to it. Incidentally, we learn that one of the symptoms of his last illness was a complete inability to retain even the least particle of food. This is recorded [Footnote 45] in connection with the following truly marvellous occurrence. On his death-bed our Saint longed with all the ardour of his seraphic soul for the sweet intercourse of Sacramental Communion. But the cause just mentioned made this impossible. Still, as far as possible to appease his pious longing, the Consecrated Host was brought into his room and placed beside him, so that his eyes might rest upon it. This only intensified his desire, until it would appear that the Lord could no longer withstand the ardour of his pleadings. A wonderful thing was then seen to happen. Without any visible agency the Sacred Host left the ciborium and, moving through the air towards the dying Saint, vanished within his breast!

[Footnote 44: Cf. "Opera Omnia," Tom. X, p. 67. No.4.]

[Footnote 45: Wadding, "Annals," Tom. IV, Anno 1274. No. 18.]

At an earlier period in his life a somewhat similar occurrence is recorded. Bartholomew of Pisa and the author [Footnote 46] of the Chronicles of the Twenty-four Generals relate that, on a certain occasion, the pious {109} General, thinking himself unworthy, abstained for a long time from saying Holy Mass. But the Lord was touched by his humility, and one day as he was devoutly hearing Mass, a particle of the Consecrated Host, solely at the command of the Saviour, left the altar and entered his mouth, filling his soul with divine sweetness. It may be that both records are but different versions of the same fact, and we may doubt which of them is authentic. But if Bonaventure's malady were such as described, we should like to think that the Lord, pitying the loneliness and extremity of His dying servant, afforded him, even by a miracle, the supreme consolation which his passing spirit sighed for.

[Footnote 46: Cf. "Analecta Franciscana," Tom. III, p. 334.]

Another incident which touchingly illustrates the absolute poverty in which the Saint died is recorded by Wadding. Although Bishop and Cardinal, his sole possession on his death-bed was his breviary. Everything else he had distributed to the poor, and even the breviary he regarded not as his own but as belonging to his Order, and he directed that it should be restored to the Brethren after his death.
We would fain linger by the deathbed of the Saint but the almost complete absence of details gives us no encouragement to do so. We are not told even where he died. Was it in the convent of his Order and surrounded by his Brethren, or elsewhere? How did he bear himself in that final struggle? What were his sentiments? What were {110} his last words? None of these things are recorded. Apart from general observations concerning his virtues and his holiness we only know with certainty that during the night of 4 July, 1274, Bonaventure passed to his reward.
We may well imagine that death has no terror for the Saints; at the same time, we cannot say that it has any special attraction for them. Even our Holy Father, St. Francis, whilst unawed at the approach of "Sister Death," seemed yet submissively to cling to life. It is a natural and a legitimate instinct. Life is the sum total of our temporal gifts, and its preservation is a duty we owe to the giver. It is true, granted the immortality of the soul, and future reward, that there is a greater good than the body's life and that to secure it we may, and in some cases ought, to forfeit the latter. But these circumstances are abnormal and rarely occur. In the ordinary course of events the soul's welfare does not demand the body's death. The interests of body and soul run on parallel lines, and so long as right order is maintained they cannot collide. We read indeed that the Saints, vividly realizing the happiness of Heaven and aspiring to it with steadfast confidence, longed for death. St. Paul exclaiming: "I wish to be dissolved and to be with Christ," is quoted as an example of this. But the attitude thus expressed by the Apostle is not incompatible with a natural repugnance to, and shrinking from death. We believe this to be in {111} some degree the characteristic of all men, saints as well as sinners.
Bonaventure's death was regarded somewhat in the light of a public calamity. The effect it produced upon the Council of Lyons is narrated as follows. [Footnote 47] "At this time, whilst the Council was still sitting, the most reverend Father in Christ, the Lord Cardinal Bonaventure of most venerable memory was laid with the holy Fathers, filling, as we may believe, the Church Triumphant with joy at his advent, but affecting the Church Militant with incredible grief at his departure. For Greeks and Latins, clergy and laity, followed his bier with bitter tears, lamenting the grievous loss of so great a personage."

[Footnote 47: Author of the "Chronicles of Twenty-four Generals," Cf. "Analecta Franciscana," Tom. III, p. 356.]

In accordance with the custom of the time and country, Bonaventure was buried on the day of his death. His funeral was attended by the Pope and all the Prelates of the Council. Peter, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, celebrated Holy Mass and preached the funeral oration. He took for his text the pathetic words in which David laments the death of Jonathan (2 Kings 1. 26): "I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan--exceedingly beautiful and amiable above the love of women". The text was suggested no doubt by that striking characteristic of the Saint upon which all his biographers so strongly insist--his wonderful amiability. As one {112} writer [Footnote 48] expresses it: "This grace the Lord had granted him that whosoever looked on him was forthwith irresistibly drawn to love him".

[Footnote 48: The historian of the Council of Lyons. Cf. "Opera," Tom. X, p 67.]

At the next session of the General Council the Pope referred to the grievous loss sustained by the entire Church in the death of Bonaventure. And to mark his sense of gratitude for the immense labours he had undergone on its behalf he ordered all the priests and prelates of the Catholic world to offer up Holy Mass for the repose of his soul.
The Saint was buried in the church of the Friars Minor at Lyons. In the year 1434, a new church dedicated to St. Francis was erected in the city, and thither, as to a more suitable resting-place, the body was translated. This took place one hundred and sixty years after the Saint's death. Marvellous to relate, the head was then found to be entirely incorrupt. The hair, lips, teeth, and tongue were perfectly preserved and retained their natural colour. The people of Lyons were profoundly affected by this miracle, and they chose Bonaventure for the patron of their city. The movement, already on foot, to obtain his canonization received thereby a new and powerful impetus.
On the occasion of this translation the body of St. Bonaventure was placed in a costly reliquary at the command of the Minister-General, and kept at the Franciscan Church at Lyons. Later in the {113} same century, the Minister-General, Father Francis Samson, removed the arms of our Saint from Lyons, and entrusted them to the keeping of the Religious at Bagnorea. In the Cathedral Church of this town these relics are still piously venerated. Around the reliquary which encloses them runs the inscription, "Father Francis Samson, General, bequeathed this reliquary to the Convent of St. Francis in Bagnorea, 1 May, 1491 ".
In 1494 King Charles VIII. of France erected a magnificent side-chapel for the remains at Lyons, and in return requested some relic of St. Bonaventure. His desire was granted, and the relic he obtained he finally presented to the chapel of Fontainebleau. Thence it was taken to the Franciscan Church at Paris, where it remained till the French Revolution. Other relics of St. Bonaventure were removed to Venice in 1494 where they are still exposed to the veneration of the Faithful.
The shrine at Lyons was enriched with many valuable offerings--tributes of gratitude to the efficacy of our Saint's intercession. There, in one urn plated with silver, his body was preserved; the head being reserved in another equally costly. There, too, the remains rested in veneration till the second half of the sixteenth century.
In 1562, Lyons fell into the hands of the Huguenots who made an assault on the Franciscan Church there and rifled St. Bonaventure's shrine of its treasures. Owing, however, to the foresight and {114} heroism of Father James Gayete, the Superior, their sacrilegious purpose was, in part, thwarted. This holy man had betimes taken the precaution of enclosing our Saint's relics in two urns and burying them in a secret place. The two Religious who shared his secret were sent to another convent lest what they knew be wrung from them by torture. Father James was subjected to much harsh treatment, but all to no avail. A search was then instituted through the friary and its grounds, and finally the Huguenots succeeded in discovering the body. This was borne to the public square and burned with many images, pictures, and objects of devotion.
When peace again prevailed, the Religious who knew of the secret returned to Lyons and produced the urn which contained the head of our Saint as also the crucifix and chalice he was wont to use. The former cultus was once more revived; the friary and church rose from their ruins and the shrine of St. Bonaventure regained its old-time splendour. During the French Revolution, however, the profanation was more complete. The friary and church were razed to the ground, and once again the urn containing the head of our Saint was buried for safety in a secret place. This time, however, the holy Religious died without divulging his secret, and all subsequent searches to find the relics have proved unavailing.