Feast of Saint Bonaventure
Mass for Seminarians
Sacred Heart, Glyndon
July 15, 2020
“Ecce quam bonum”
In Psalm 133, we find words appropriate for this occasion: “Ecce quam bonum et iucundum habitare fratres in unum”, that is to say, “O how good and how pleasant when brothers dwell together as one”. After months of isolation brought on by the coronavirus, we are finally able to be together in prayer and fellowship. I am very happy to be with you today and with you I pray that this pandemic will loosen its grip upon the world, especially upon the poor. Let us look ahead to that day when it will again be possible to move about freely and to see one another in person rather than on Zoom! Today I am also pleased to celebrate the Rite of Candidacy for John Paul LeGare, a rite in which, at his request, he is formally enrolled as a candidate for Holy Orders.
Happily, we have gathered on the Feast Day of St. Bonaventure, a great saint and theologian of the Middle Ages, who hails from the 13th century. St. Bonaventure was the Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), and later, the Cardinal-bishop of the ancient See of Albano, near Rome, as also a leader at the Second Council of Lyon, during which he died, in 1274. Now, you may be wondering what St. Bonaventure has to say to the likes of us, who live in the 21st Century and who seek to serve the Church, not as members of a religious order but rather as diocesan priests. The answer is, plenty! But I’ll try not to go on too terribly long, lest you think it really isn’t good or pleasant for us to be together!
There are three lessons from Bonaventure’s life that I would like to mention today: First, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, he focused singularly on Christ. Second, St. Bonaventure teaches us how to seek and find wisdom. Third, St. Bonaventure teaches us how to combine contemplation and action.
Bonaventure’s Singular Focus on Christ Jesus
First, then, is Bonaventure’s singular focus on Jesus. And you may say to yourself, what’s so singular about that? Is there any saint who did not focus on Jesus? This is a point I readily concede. But what Bonaventure did was to absorb and integrate into his life and teaching the singular focus of St. Francis of Assisi on Jesus Christ. Bonaventure, in fact, wrote what remains the standard biography of St. Francis and in it he shows how completely Francis lived the Beatitudes, and thus became a living portrait of Christ, a portrait made more dramatic by the marks of Jesus’ passion on Francis’ flesh. Learned as they were, the writings and sermons of St. Bonaventure brim over with an intimate knowledge and love of Jesus. Even though Bonaventure was a Master of Theology at the University of Paris, then rose to become Minister General of his Order, and still later a bishop of an historic see and a cardinal … Jesus remained the sole teacher and the sole master in Bonaventure’s life. Everything about him pointed to Jesus and thus to God the Father. Many preachers and teachers speak about Jesus but Bonaventure was on intimate terms with Jesus.
So let us see priestly formation as a precious and graced-filled opportunity to begin a life-long pursuit of holiness, understood as prayerful intimacy with Christ, a holiness that forms us in his likeness and permeates everything we say and do. As Pope St. John Paul II once said … we must center our lives “in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved, and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him, transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem” (NMI, 29). In a word, priests with an intimate knowledge and love of Jesus can change the world. They know, as did Bonaventure, that, for all the challenges the Church is facing, “opera Christi non deficiunt sed proficiunt”— that is to say – “Christ’s works do not go backwards or fail but progress!”
The Search for Wisdom
Second, Bonaventure teaches us to seek and find wisdom. I think you would agree that, in these troubled times, we are not lacking in loud voices but we are lacking in wise voices. Bonaventure was no stranger to troubled times. For example, during his tenure at the University of Paris, the right of the Franciscans and Dominicans to teach there was bitterly disputed. That dispute went so far as to call into question the very legitimacy of the Franciscans and Dominicans as religious. Bonaventure did not formulate his response in haste or anger but instead responded to this dispute with a beautiful text that showed how the mendicant religious life of simplicity, chastity, and obedience springs from the Gospel itself. What a lesson for us who live in an age of instant communications. At the very least, Bonaventure ought to make us hesitate to push that “send” button!
Bonaventure also helps us find wisdom in today’s reading from Ephesians where St. Paul urges us to seek, with all the saints, the strength to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love (Eph. 3:18), that is to say, the four directions or dimensions of the Cross of Christ. Accordingly, in his Soliloquy, Bonaventure urges us to look prayerfully in four directions that correspond with the Cross: within ourselves, created good but deformed by sin and redeemed by Christ; outside of ourselves, where we see how fleeting are riches and honors; below ourselves, where we see the reality of death and judgment; and above ourselves, where we begin to gaze on the beauty and glory of God. By sustaining a prayerful dialogue within ourselves and with our God, Bonaventure shows how we gradually assimilate the wisdom of the Cross, and how this wisdom comes to be reflected more clearly in our lives. This, I assure you, is a life-long project that we must make together.
Contemplation and Action
Finally, Bonaventure teaches us how contemplation and action go together. Now, someday soon, when you are busy diocesan priests you might just think that a saint like Bonaventure enjoyed a luxury you won’t have – the time to spend in reading, prayer, and reflection. But already we’ve seen that Bonaventure did not spend all his time in chapel or in the library or in the common room with the rest of the Friars. In the midst of prayer and scholarship, he faced a host of vexing problems, what today we would refer to as problems of administration and governance’. As seminarians, you may think that such problems are afar off in the future, but I assure you it is never too early to prepare your mind and heart for them.
What is so beautiful about Bonaventure is that, amid the challenges he faced, he remained deeply committed to contemplation, to deep and sustained prayer. This did not detract from his effectiveness in fulfilling heavy responsibilities, but instead enabled him to reach decisions on the basis of thought and prayer. Prayer, he teaches, does not close the mind but opens it. Prayer, he teaches, does not close us off from the practicalities of life but rather enables us to deal with them, not infallibly, but well and wisely. Looking back on my own life, I see how some of my decisions might have benefitted from more prayer and contemplation and perhaps a little less planning. So for all of us St. Bonaventure stands a model of contemplation and action.
We conclude with a prayer from the heart and pen of St. Bonaventure: “All you souls devoted to God, run with intense desire to this fountain of life & light, and cry out to him with all the power of your hearts … Your depth [O God] knows no bottom; your width knows know shore; your vastness no bounds, your clearness no taint.”
God bless you, my dear seminarians, and may he who is God from God and light from light, guide and direct your steps, now and throughout your lives.