Monday, 24 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 5.

Photo. A liuari Pinturichio, pinx.
From the picture in the Vatican, Rome.
(St. Bonaventure is the figure to the left of the group of Saints).
Bonaventure was elected Minister-General of the Franciscan Order in the year 1257. At that time the Order was passing through a serious crisis in its history. Internal difficulties had arisen concerning the observance of certain points of the Rule. Some of the Brethren advocated the rigorous and literal acceptation of all its prescriptions: others contended for a more mild and liberal interpretation. Amongst the advocates of both views were extremists who sought to introduce excessive rigour or undue laxity: the main body on either side were men of moderation. These eventually prevailed and preserved to the world the Order of St. Francis in the only feasible way in which it could continue to exist. Those who aimed at too great laxity, which would deprive the Order of its distinctive features, and those who would accentuate those features until they became impracticable or grotesque, were gradually eliminated.
The process by which this was effected was slow {31} and fraught with the gravest danger to the Order. It could be accomplished successfully only under the prudent guidance of a wise Superior. Bonaventure was eminently such a man. His predecessor, John of Parma, could not cope with the difficulties of the situation. He was possessed of great ability, and his heroic sanctity has raised him to our altars, but he seems to have lacked that enlightened judgment and liberal sympathy which smooths away opposition and brings conflicting views into harmony. Where the motive of subjection is the love of God and the desire of perfection, the exercise of authority must be tempered with infinite tact and kindness. The inflexible rigour of the stern Superior is so wholly opposed to the spirit of Christ, to whom the Religious ever looks, that instead of securing obedience it excites resentment, and if it does not culminate in apostasy begets an abiding spirit of bitterness and discontent. With one section of the Order the latter appears to have been the effect of John of Parma's rule. Some writers [Footnote 12] affirm that he was released from his office at the express wish of the Sovereign Pontiff.

[Footnote 12: Cf. Wadding, Tom. IV, Anno 1256. Nos. 2 and 3.]

In view of his failure, Bonaventure's success is all the more conspicuous. In order to appreciate this success at its proper value we must consider briefly the difficulties that troubled the peace of the Order. What precisely they were it is somewhat {32} difficult to determine. They must be traced back to the influence of Brother Elias. For a period, even during the lifetime of St. Francis, this man seems to have exerted an influence in the Order second only to that of the Saint himself. He was truly a remarkable man and the story of his life is strange and sad.
An intimate friend and devoted disciple of St. Francis, he had been deemed worthy by the latter to rule the Order during his absence in Palestine. Though full of admiration for the Seraphic Father and professing intense reverence for his saintly life and Christ-like spirit, he appears never to have quite accepted his views concerning the absolute poverty and rigorous mode of life he wished to impose upon his followers. He seems to have considered that such austerity would render impossible its uniform and continued observance by any considerable body of men. Whilst a few chosen souls such as Francis himself could live up to it, the heterogeneous multitude who were flocking to the Order could not prudently be expected to do so. Hence he advocated certain mitigations in the matter of poverty. What these were we cannot definitely affirm. His views and actions are presented to us from a thoroughly hostile standpoint. His biographers, generally speaking, were his avowed opponents, and although they were men of remarkable virtue and integrity of life, we can hardly believe that they were free from the {33} influence of bias and party spirit. In their eyes Elias was a wrecker--the enemy of their Order and the destroyer of its high ideals. Hence their accounts of him must be cautiously received and allowance made for the exaggerations of pious zeal.
We are told that Elias sought to introduce the use of money; that in visiting the Order he rode on horseback; that he wore a somewhat elegant habit; that there was a general tendency to relaxation discernible in his life. No doubt he was guilty of these things, but in view of subsequent developments it is not easy to determine how far they were incompatible with the spirit of the Rule. We are told that he was a man of remarkable foresight and a born ruler. Perhaps he wished to establish from the beginning what the natural evolution of circumstances was eventually to achieve. He may have foreseen that certain prescriptions theoretically feasible for all, and practically so for a few, would actually become impracticable for the general body of the Order. Thus by the very force of circumstances it soon became necessary for the Friars to use money at least indirectly. Be the country where they reside Catholic or Protestant, friendly or hostile, there are instances where to live means to use money. Nor does the Minister-General of the Order now visit the Order on foot, nor is the Franciscan habit of the present day such perhaps as would meet with entire approval from those {34} early rigorists. But there has been no substantial defection from the primitive spirit of the Rule; these modifications have arisen as the necessary result of changed conditions. Nor is this to be wondered at. Christianity itself began even as the Franciscan Order. Like to that Order it increased and developed. In course of time, whilst theoretically maintaining its highest ideals, it practically ceased to make them the guiding principles of its general conduct. Thus, community of goods, prevalent in the time of the Apostles, gradually ceased. Again, the successors of the Apostles who were counselled to possess neither gold nor silver nor scrip eventually appear as temporal rulers; and the Saviour's doctrine of submission to evil gave way, when circumstances demanded, to armed resistance. The highest ideals of Christianity were practically abandoned by the multitude, and maintained only by the few. Indeed, it is very questionable from an historical point of view, whether the absolute perfection of the Gospel outlined in the counsels of our Lord could ever be more than the ideal of the very few--something to which one or other favoured soul might actually attain but which was never intended to be the practical aim of society in general. This must be borne in mind when studying the history of the Franciscan movement, which was an attempt to restore literally and rigidly the highest Christian ideals. Broadly speaking it succeeded and continues to succeed. The Order {35} can never revert to the attitude of the world towards the Evangelical Counsels although time and circumstances may modify its interpretation of them.
The Friars have absolute community of goods; they are bound to the poor use of the necessities of life. Whilst some interpret their obligations in this and all other matters most rigidly, and emulate St. Francis in every respect, others, although fully observing the substance of the Rule, quite justifiably regard its precepts in a milder light. They are none the less true Franciscans. Of late years there has arisen a class of writers whom we may describe as the academic critics of the Rule and Spirit of St. Francis. Regarding the Franciscan movement from an extrinsic and speculative point of view, they are particularly attracted by its more rigorous features. But they look upon them as things of the past and discuss them with melancholy interest. They seem to think that the Franciscan ideal has vanished from the world, and that the modern Friar is scarcely a representative of his prototype. Whoever is not a Francis, or a Giles, or a Juniper, is not worthy of consideration. To the professor of the Rule of St. Francis there is something particularly irritating in the attitude of these writers. He knows that he is observing the Rule in its simple literalness--that there is no precept of it which he does not fulfil; yet because he does not realize the romantic ideal conceived by these shallow critics he {36} receives at most only tolerant pity or condescending regard.
But to return to Elias and the dissensions his influence created in the Order. He seems to have gained over to his side the majority of the Provincial Ministers, so that he was twice elected General. On both occasions, strange to say, his administration ended in his deposition. Still, many of his supporters adhered to him and he was proposed a third time for the office of General. On this occasion Elias was ignominiously rejected by the Pope, who also deprived him of some privileges he enjoyed. Thereupon, overcome by pride and indignation, he set the Pontiff at defiance, and sought the protection of his declared enemy, the Emperor Frederic. He thus absolutely abandoned the Order, but there remained behind him some who advocated his views. We are even told that the succeeding General, Crescentius, was one of his followers and pursued a similar policy. Certain it is the dissensions increased during his time of office.
We have seen how John of Parma, his successor, failed to grapple with the difficulties of the situation. Wadding [Footnote 13] represents him as stern and uncompromising in his views, and as equally rigorous in forcing those views on others. When at length he saw that many Religious, who would conscientiously carry out a less lofty ideal, were being simply forced by reason of his well-meant yet none the less stringent insistence to a revolt against the very principle of obedience, John summoned a General Chapter at Rome and resigned his office. According to certain writers, [Footnote 14] Alexander IV., the Cardinals and the Brethren assembled sought to persuade him to continue in office. John, however, was resolute in his refusal. For a whole day the business of the Chapter was suspended; still the Minister-General stood firm. Then the Vocals [Footnote 15] "in view of his determined attitude said to him: 'Father, you who have invited the whole Order and know the merits of all the Brethren, tell us who is the best suited to succeed you?' There and then John replied 'Brother Bonaventure of Bagnorea; no one is more worthy than he'. Thereupon he was unanimously elected."

[Footnote 13: Tom. IV, Anno 1256. NO.2.]

[Footnote 14: Author of the Chronicles of the XXIV Generals. "Analecta Franciscana," Tom. III, pp. 286, 287. Also Bernard of Besse. Ibid. p. 698.]

[Footnote 15 Salimbene, p. 137.]