In 1257, just over thirty years after the death of Saint Francis, the Franciscan Order was nearly at breaking point. The fierce conflict between those Franciscans who purportedly wanted to adhere to the real spirit of Francis of Assisi’s life (the “Spirituals”) and those Franciscans who wanted a more conservative, monastic type of existence (the “Conventuals”) had been raging for years. This conflict was further intensified by different interpretations of the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore.
Joachim taught that the entire history of humankind is divided into three periods corresponding to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Age of the Holy Spirit, according to Joachim an age of universal peace and of the Kingship of Christ, still lay in the future.
At this time Father Bonaventure was called to take leadership of the Franciscan Order in order to restore stability. He had been teaching theology at the University of Paris and was now required to mediate between the two factions within his own Order.
Two years later Bonaventure withdrew into private retreat on Mount Alverna, where St Francis had received the Stigmata, to seek guidance and to discover more deeply the spirit of St Francis. He apparently had some kind of mystical experience at this time and emerged something of a transformed man.
We do not know what was the nature of his mystical experience but when Bonaventure returned to govern the Order his teaching took on a new direction. Over a period of about twenty years he began to unfold a new understanding of Franciscan spirituality and eschatology, which culminated in a series of most interesting lectures grouped together under the title, “Collations on the Hexaemeron” (Conferences on the Six Days of Creation).
St Bonaventure explained in this work that Saint Francis of Assisi would in the future bring about a new order of Franciscans completely transformed into the likeness of Christ. These holy people would be perfectly conformed to St Francis’s spirit, be fully enlightened as to the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures, be completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit, and would usher in a final era of perfect peace in the world before the Second Coming of Christ.
In 1969 Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) published an in-depth study of St Bonaventure’s work and, amongst other things, wrote:
“Like so many other masterpieces of scholarship, Bonaventure’s interpretation of the creation-account has remained incomplete. Neither he nor Aquinas were permitted to finish the real Summa of their lives….. Nonetheless, it does form a unified whole, and the basic lines intended by Bonaventure are unmistakable.
“At the vanishing-point of his theology of history we find the very same word which Augustine had used at the close of his ‘City of God’, which in itself is so different from the work of Bonaventure. That word is peace: ‘And then there will be peace.’ But for Bonaventure, this peace has come closer to earth.
“It is not that peace in the eternity of God which will never end and which will follow the dissolution of this world. It is a peace which God Himself will establish in this world which has seen so much blood and tears, as if at least at the end of time, God would show how things could have been and should have been in accordance with His plan.
“Here the breath of a new age is blowing; an age in which the desire for the glory of the other world is shaped by a deep love of this earth on which we live. But despite the difference that may separate the work of these two great Christian theologians, still there is a basic unity; both Augustine and Bonaventure know that the Church which hopes for peace in the future is, nonetheless, obliged to love in the present; and they both realise that the kingdom of eternal peace is growing in the hearts of those who fulfil Christ’s law of love in their own particular age. Both see themselves subject to the word of the Apostle: ‘So there remain faith, hope, and love, these three. But the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13:13).”
From: “The Theology of History in St Bonaventure”, by Joseph Ratzinger, pages 162, 163.
Feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, OFM.