The Church progresses in both
newness and continuity
the General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall on Wednesday,10 March
, the Holy Father continued the commentary on St Bonaventure,
which he began the previous week, focusing on the the Seraphic Doctor's
"remarkable theology of history and progress". The following is a
translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last week I spoke of the life and
personality of St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. This morning I would like
to continue my presentation, reflecting on part of his literary opus and
on his doctrine.
As I have already said, among St
Bonaventure's various merits was the ability to interpret authentically
and faithfully St Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with
In a special way, in St Bonaventure's
day a trend among the Friars Minor known as the "Spirituals" held that
St Francis had ushered in a totally new phase in history and that the
"eternal Gospel", of which Revelation speaks, had come to replace the
New Testament. This group declared that the Church had now fulfilled her
role in history. They said that she had been replaced by a charismatic
community of free men guided from within by the Spirit, namely the
This group's ideas were based on the
writings of a Cistercian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In
his works he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm in history. He considered the
Old Testament as the age of the Father, followed by the time of the Son,
the time of the Church.
The third age was to be awaited, that of
the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history
of progress: from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative
freedom of the time of the Son, in the Church, to the full freedom of
the sons of God in the period of the Holy Spirit. This, finally, was
also to be the period of peace among mankind, of the reconciliation of
peoples and of religions. Joachim of Fiore had awakened the hope that
the new age would stem from a new form of monasticism. Thus it is
understandable that a group of Franciscans might have thought it
recognized St Francis of Assisi as the initiator of the new epoch and
his Order as the community of the new period
the community of the Age of the Holy Spirit that left behind the
hierarchical Church in order to begin the new Church of the Spirit, no
longer linked to the old structures.
Hence they ran the risk of very
seriously misunderstanding St Francis' message, of his humble fidelity
to the Gospel and to the Church. This error entailed an erroneous vision
of Christianity as a whole.
St Bonaventure, who became Minister
General of the Franciscan Order in 1257, had to confront grave tension
in his Order precisely because of those who supported the
above-mentioned trend of the "Franciscan Spirituals" who followed
Joachim of Fiore.
To respond to this group and to restore
unity to the Order, St Bonaventure painstakingly studied the authentic
writings of Joachim of Fiore, as well as those attributed to him and,
bearing in mind the need to present the figure and message of his
beloved St Francis correctly, he wanted to set down a correct view of
the theology of history.
St Bonaventure actually tackled the
problem in his last work, a collection of conferences for the monks of
the studium in Paris. He did not complete it and it has come down to us
through the transcriptions of those who heard him. It is entitled
in other words an allegorical explanation of the six days of the
The Fathers of the Church considered the
six or seven days of the Creation narrative as a prophecy of the history
of the world, of humanity. For them, the seven days represented seven
periods of history, later also interpreted as seven millennia.
With Christ we should have entered the
last, that is, the sixth period of history that was to be followed by
the great sabbath of God. St Bonaventure hypothesizes this historical
interpretation of the account of the days of the Creation, but in a very
free and innovative way. To his mind two phenomena of his time required
a new interpretation of the course of history.
The first: the figure of St Francis, the
man totally united with Christ even to communion with the stigmata,
almost an alter Christus, and, with St Francis, the new
community he created, different from the monasticism known until then.
This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as an innovation of God
which appeared at that moment.
The second: the position of Joachim of
Fiore who announced a new monasticism and a totally new period of
history, going beyond the revelation of the New Testament, demanded a
As Minister General of the Franciscan
Order, St Bonaventure had immediately realized that with the
spiritualistic conception inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the Order would
become ungovernable and logically move towards anarchy. In his opinion
this had two consequences:
The first, the practical need for
structures and for insertion into the reality of the hierarchical
Church, of the real Church, required a theological foundation. This was
partly because the others, those who followed the spiritualist concept,
upheld what seemed to have a theological foundation.
The second, while taking into account
the necessary realism, made it essential not to lose the newness of the
figure of St Francis.
How did St Bonaventure respond to the
practical and theoretical needs? Here I can only provide a very basic
summary of his answer and it is in certain aspects incomplete:
1. St Bonaventure rejected the idea of
the Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one for all history and is not
tritheistic. Hence history is one, even if it is a journey and,
according to St Bonaventure, a journey of progress.
2. Jesus Christ is God's last word
in him God said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself,
God cannot express or give. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father
and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: "He will bring
to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:26), and "he
will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16:15).
Thus there is no loftier Gospel, there
is no other Church to await. Therefore the Order of St Francis too must
fit into this Church, into her faith and into her hierarchical order.
3. This does not mean that the Church is
stationary, fixed in the past, or that there can be no newness within
her. "Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt": Christ's
works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress, the Saint said
in his letter De Tribus Quaestionibus. Thus St Bonaventure
explicitly formulates the idea of progress and this is an innovation in
comparison with the Fathers of the Church and the majority of his
For St Bonaventure Christ was no longer
the end of history, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, but rather
its centre; history does not end with Christ but begins a new period.
The following is another consequence: until that moment the idea that
the Fathers of the Church were the absolute summit of theology
predominated, all successive generations could only be their disciples.
St Bonaventure also recognized the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the
phenomenon of St Francis assured him that the riches of Christ's word
are inexhaustible and that new light could also appear to the new
generations. The oneness of Christ also guarantees newness and renewal
in all the periods of history.
The Franciscan Order of course
as he emphasized
belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and
cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the
newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid
and St Bonaventure
as I said in my previous Catechesis
defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of
Paris: the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere
to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the
characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that
restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.
At this point it might be useful to say
that today too there are views that see the entire history of the Church
in the second millennium as a gradual decline. Some see this decline as
having already begun immediately after the New Testament. In fact, "Opera
Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt": Christ's works do not
go backwards but forwards.
What would the Church be without the new
spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the
spirituality of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and so
This affirmation applies today too: "Opera
Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt", they move forward. St
Bonaventure teaches us the need for overall, even strict discernment,
sober realism and openness to the newness, which Christ gives his Church
through the Holy Spirit.
And while this idea of decline is
repeated, another idea, this "spiritualistic utopianism" is also
reiterated. Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some
were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different
Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had
another, totally "other" Church
an anarchic utopianism!
And thanks be to God the wise helmsmen
of the Barque of St Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on the
one hand defended the newness of the Council, and on the other, defended
the oneness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of
sinners and always a place of grace.
4. In this regard, St Bonaventure, as
Minister General of the Franciscans, took a line of government which
showed clearly that the new Order could not, as a community, live at the
same "eschatological height" as St Francis, in whom he saw the future
world anticipated, but
guided at the same time by healthy realism and by spiritual courage — he
had to come as close as possible to the maximum realization of the
Sermon on the Mount, which for St Francis was the rule, but
nevertheless bearing in mind the limitations of the human being who is
marked by original sin.
Thus we see that for St Bonaventure
governing was not merely action but above all was thinking and praying.
At the root of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his
decisions are the result of reflection, of thought illumined by prayer.
His intimate contact with Christ always accompanied his work as Minister
General and therefore he composed a series of theological and mystical
writings that express the soul of his government. They also manifest his
intention of guiding the Order inwardly, that is, of governing not only
by means of commands and structures, but by guiding and illuminating
souls, orienting them to Christ.
I would like to mention only one of
these writings, which are the soul of his government and point out the
way to follow, both for the individual and for the community: the
Itinerarium mentis in Deum, [The Mind's Road to God],
which is a "manual" for mystical contemplation.
This book was conceived in a deeply
spiritual place: Mount La Verna, where St Francis had received the
In the introduction the author describes
the circumstances that gave rise to this writing: "While I meditated on
the possible ascent of the mind to God, amongst other things there
occurred that miracle which happened in the same place to the blessed
Francis himself, namely the vision of the winged Seraph in the form of a
Crucifix. While meditating upon this vision, I immediately saw that it
offered me the ecstatic contemplation of Fr Francis himself as well as
the way that leads to it" (cf. The Mind's Road to God,
Prologue, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici / 1,
Rome 1993, p. 499).
The six wings of the Seraph thus became
the symbol of the six stages that lead man progressively from the
knowledge of God, through the observation of the world and creatures and
through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, to the
satisfying union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St
Francis of Assisi.
The last words of St Bonaventure's
Itinerarium, which respond to the question of how it is
possible to reach this mystical communion with God, should be made to
sink to the depths of the heart: "If you should wish to know how these
things come about, (the mystical communion with God) question grace, not
instruction; desire, not intellect; the cry of prayer, not pursuit of
study; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity;
not light, but the fire that inflames all and transports to God with
fullest unction and burning affection.... Let us then... pass over into
darkness; let us impose silence on cares, concupiscence, and phantasms;
let us pass over with the Crucified Christ from this world to the
Father, so that when the Father is shown to us we may say
with Philip, 'It is enough for me''' (cf. ibid.,
Dear friends, let us accept the
invitation addressed to us by St Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and
learn at the school of the divine Teacher: let us listen to his word of
life and truth that resonates in the depths of our soul. Let us purify
our thoughts and actions so that he may dwell within us and that we may
understand his divine voice which draws us towards true happiness.