Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 6.

Bonaventure was teaching at Paris when he was elected Minister-General. However reluctant he may have been to accept the responsibility, he did not think of shirking it. He was a young man-- only thirty-seven years of age--and fully conscious {38} of his deficiencies and of the arduous task before him. That he undertook it calmly and confidently shows that he possessed the virtue of fortitude in no slight degree. He was well aware of the dissensions within the Order and of the relaxation of discipline that prevailed amongst some of the Brethren. To remedy these was his first concern.
Shortly after his election he wrote [Footnote 16] a remarkable letter to the Provincials of the Order. He began by acknowledging his unfitness for the high and important office to which he had been called, alleging the weakness of his body, the imperfection of his mind, the inexperience of his life and the repugnance of his will. Still, he did not dare to resist the voice of obedience, and to make up for his shortcomings he counts upon the worthy cooperation of the Provincial Ministers. He then refers to the irregularities existing in the Order which had begun to endanger its success and bring it into disrepute amongst the Faithful. Remembering that the Order was then in existence barely fifty years it is interesting to consider what these were. Ten causes of relaxation are enumerated by Bonaventure:--

1. Too great multiplication of temporal affairs for which money is eagerly sought, carelessly received, and recklessly handled.

2. The idleness of some of the Brethren.

3. Useless travelling from place to place, to the {39} scandal rather than to the edification of the people.

4. Importunate begging, whereby the Brethren are feared as highwaymen.

5. The construction of costly and pretentious buildings, which disturbs the peace of the Order and exposes the Brethren to the attacks of their enemies.

6. The increase of dangerous friendships from which arose suspicions, calumnies and scandals.

7. The imprudent bestowal of offices on those who were incapable of discharging them.

8. The eager reception of legacies and officious interference with obsequies, to the great offence of the secular clergy.

9. Frequent and expensive change of residence, to the disturbance of the locality and the prejudice of poverty.

10. Finally, expensive living, by which the Brethren became a burden to the people.

[Footnote 16: Cf. "Opera Omnia" (Quaracchi), Tom. VIII, p. 468.]

Whilst many, he remarks, are blameless in these matters, still, the evil redounds upon all, and must not be overlooked nor tolerated on any account. He then points out the remedy and insists on its application. He concludes his letter with the following remarkable utterance: "Should I learn from the Visitors whom I desire to pay special attention to these matters, that my directions have been obeyed, I shall give thanks to God and to you; but if it should be otherwise (which God {40} forbid), you may rest assured that my conscience will not permit me to allow the matter to pass unnoticed. Although it is not my intention to forge new chains for you, yet must I in compliance with the dictates of conscience aim at the extirpation of abuses."
From this we can gather the nature of the policy adopted by the Saint. It was clearly one of firmness and moderation. Perceiving that they arose from minor causes, such as the particular views of individuals, he makes no reference to the internal dissensions of the Order. He aimed at uniformity on general lines, convinced that if this were accomplished lesser differences would gradually disappear, or, at least, lose their power of seriously disturbing the peace of the Order. The Rule was to be observed; no abuse was to be tolerated. But whilst strongly condemning the excesses of those who aimed at relaxation, he was not less determined in restraining the zeal of those who sought excessive rigour. This provoked the displeasure of the latter. In view of the Saint's words quoted above and of the Constitutions enforced by him at the Chapter of Narbonne, their failure to agree with his policy demonstrates how extreme were the views they entertained. And it is apparent that those who regard such men as representing the true spirit of the Order are seriously mistaken. Excessive rigour is as foreign to the latter as excessive mildness. True virtue avoids {41} both extremes, and Bonaventure's wisdom enabled him to aim at the golden mean.
In 1260 our Saint celebrated the General Chapter of Narbonne. Here the various Constitutions hitherto established in the Order were revised and promulgated anew. These Constitutions differ but slightly from those that prevail at the present day. The vicissitudes of six hundred years have necessitated certain additions and modifications, but they have remained substantially the same and constitute an enduring monument to the wisdom and foresight of Bonaventure. Wadding [Footnote 17] says of them: "The Statutes of Bonaventure are weighty--the outcome of mature deliberation and discussion--and they are redolent of a truly religious spirit. In them is enjoined whatever is of primary importance and necessity. They ought never to be abrogated, but whatever modifications changes of time and place may call for should be added to them, for of all they are the most excellent." The Annalist is unsparing in his condemnation of the attempts made at various times to change them. "One cannot but be displeased," he writes, deploring a state of things which now happily no longer exists, "at the facility with which some make laws at General Chapters. It would seem as though one could not consider himself a renowned ruler unless he posed as a legislator and drew up new laws to mark his term of office. Hence, we have daily {42} fresh and bewildering laws, and such a multitude of crude and undigested statutes, that the poor subject does not know to-day what he may have to observe to-morrow."

[Footnote 17: Tom. IV, Anno 1260. No. II.]

The Constitutions of Narbonne were distributed under twelve heads and formed an enlightened and prudent interpretation of the twelve chapters of the Rule. Writing [Footnote 18] to the Provincials six years after their promulgation, Bonaventure attributes the existence of certain irregularities to their non-observance. His appeal to the prelates of the Order on this occasion reveals the burning zeal of the Saint: "Lest the 'blood of souls'--not only of those committed to our care but of all who esteem the religious life--should be 'demanded at our hands' .... I adjure you by the shedding of Christ's Most Precious Blood and by the Wounds of His Passion, which appeared with unmistakable clearness on the body of our Holy Father, St. Francis, that like prudent and faithful servants of Christ you apply yourselves diligently to the rooting out of pestiferous abuses, and that you show yourselves attentive to discipline and examples of religious fervour. In the first place, excite the Brethren to a love of prayer, and at the same time entreat and even compel them to observe the Rule faithfully--'fearing the countenance of none; rooting up and pulling down; wasting and destroying'; committing the disaffected and insubordinate to prison, {43} or expelling them from the Order, as the laws or justice and piety may demand, lest, whilst with cruel mercy you spare a diseased member, the corruption extend itself to the entire body."

[Footnote 18: "Opera Omnia," Tom. VIII, p. 470.]

No reasonable man reading these words of Bonaventure could doubt his earnestness in procuring regular observance, or think of accusing him of remissness or laxity. It only shows how extreme were the views of a certain section of the Order when we find them attempting to do so. Peter John Olivi, the leader of the rigorists, replying to some who sought to justify their relaxations by saying that Bonaventure and others lived very laxly, says: [Footnote 19] "Hitherto, it was the custom to adduce worthy men as examples of perfection; now, alas! they are brought forward to justify relaxation and inobservance .... Let me say what I think of Bonaventure. He was a most excellent and pious man, and in his teaching he insisted on the perfection of poverty. But he was of a somewhat delicate constitution and therefore, perhaps, inclined to be somewhat indulgent to himself, as I have often heard him humbly admit. For he was not greater than the Apostle who said 'We all offend in many things'. Still, the prevailing relaxation affected him so much that I heard him declare at the Chapter of Paris that from the day he was made General there never was a moment when he was not prepared to be ground to dust so that the Order might retain the purity and {44} strictness intended by St. Francis and his companions, and attain the end they aimed at. On this account the holy man may be excused somewhat, though not entirely. He was not one of those who sought to justify relaxation or assail the purity of the Rule, making such conduct the rule of their lives. If he was in any way found wanting he regarded the matter with grief and sorrow." In conclusion, Peter John Olivi makes the astounding assertion that he does not consider Bonaventure's attitude to have been mortally sinful. "I do not think," he says, "that such men are to be judged guilty of mortal sin unless, taking everything into account, this kind of excess should in their case be considered enormous."

[Footnote 19: Cf. "Opera Omnia," Tom. X, p. 50.]

Assuredly, Bonaventure is deserving of our sympathy. On the one hand we find him grief-stricken at the relaxations in the Order and doing everything in his power to remedy them; on the other hand we find him assailed as conniving at them and in some degree responsible for them. The rigorists could not distinguish between what was strictly commanded and what was a matter of perfection. This latter could be recommended but not enforced, and because our Saint's wisdom would not allow him to attempt its enforcement they accused him of laxity.
It has been said in a previous chapter that the observance of St. Francis was something peculiar to the Saint himself and could not become a matter {45} of obligation for all. Strict observance admits of many degrees of perfection. This Bonaventure perceived, and whilst sincerely desiring that which was most perfect he felt that it was unattainable. Hence, he chose a middle course and steadfastly adhered to it. By this means unity and peace were on the whole well maintained in the Order during his Generalship. Still the elements of discord were not destroyed. They were only held in check by the powerful personality of the Saint. They continued to operate slowly and imperceptibly, giving rise in time to the fanatical sect known as the Fraticelli. We are justified in thinking that the maintenance of the body of the Order in its substantial purity was due to the wise administration of Bonaventure. A more rigorous General or a less observant one might have led the Order to some extreme which would have wrought its ruin. From this point of view our Saint deserves the title which has widely been bestowed upon him of Second Founder of the Franciscan Order.