St Bonaventure

Cardinal-Bishop of Albano (Italy), Doctor of the Church (entered heaven in 1274)

Dear Bonnie,

I am glad you decided to major in history.  The ancients used to call history “magistra vitae” – the teacher of life.  Indeed, an attentive study of past human endeavors can create a wonderfully mature and supple mind.  Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty to warn you (before you get seduced by next month’s welcoming departmental cocktail hours) that historians are full of irrational biases, and so you must always take everything they tell you with a grain of salt.  Don’t draw any conclusions until you have consulted three or four different sources (about historical things, that is; when it comes to the faith, all you need to do is throw a glance at what the Church’s Magisterium has to say). Take the Middle Ages as an example.  The vogue view lumps everything that happened between the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe until Michelangelo into one big pile of ignorance, superstition, and oppression. They call it “The Dark Ages.” (And then they go and blame it all on the Catholic Church… Talk about ignorance and superstition!)  Nothing, absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. The Middle Ages produced some of mankind’s most arresting artistic achievements and laid the groundwork for everything modernity praises: science, universities, civil liberty, women’s rights, the fine arts, freedom of expression, democracy, legal order, and much more.  Take away the “Dark Ages” and the peoples of Western Europe and America would still be wallowing in witch-doctory, human sacrifice, and trial by combat. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at today’s saint.

Bonaventure followed in the footsteps of the great St Francis of Assisi (who is another proof against the “darkness” of the Middle Ages), and eventually became the minister general of all the Franciscans, codifying their rule, resolving internal strife, and earning the title of “second founder.”  Blessed Pope Gregory X named him cardinal and summoned him to the Council of Lyons, where the saint so perspicaciously and charitably ran the proceedings that he instigated a reunion between the Catholics and Orthodox (after Bonaventure died, however, the Orthodox returned to their schismatic posture).  

In addition to brilliant administration and delicate diplomacy, he showed spiritual eloquence and theological excellence in his prolific literary output.  He received his doctorate from the University of Paris together with St Thomas Aquinas, the two of whom brought scholastic philosophy and theology to its enduring climax.  And to top it all off, his Christian virtue ran so deep and was so contagious that the future Pope Innocent V said the following in his eulogy: “No one ever beheld Bonaventure who did not conceive a great regard and affection for him; and even strangers were desirous to follow his counsel and advice, simply from hearing him speak: for he was gentle, courteous, humble, pleasing to all, compassionate, prudent, chaste and adorned with all virtues.”  This “Seraphic Doctor,” as he was called (“doctor” was what they called professors at the time), achieved all of this before dying at the young age of 53.

An epoch that could produce such a man can hardly be unambiguously labeled “Dark.”  So, I repeat, when the genteel and accomplished historians who will be your teachers are telling their stories, feel no need to grant them the benefit of infallibility.

Your loving Uncle Eddy

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