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PHOTOS: Birthplace of St. Bonaventure celebrates his feast day

Four men carry a statue of St. Bonaventure during a candlelight procession on July 14, 2023, in Bagnoregio, Italy, his birthplace, on the vigil of the saint’s feast day. / Patrick Leonard/CNA

Bagnoregio, Italy, Jul 15, 2023 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

The birthplace of St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century intellectual giant now revered as a doctor of the Church and the “second founder” of the Franciscans, paid homage to its patron Friday night on the vigil of his feast day with music, prayers, and a candlelight procession.

For the citizens of Bagnoregio, an idyllic town nestled in Italy’s Lazio region about a 1½-hour drive north of Rome, the July 15 feast is both a solemn holy day and a wellspring of civic pride. Bonaventure’s “braccio santo,” or holy arm — the only surviving relic of the saint — is kept in a silver, arm-shaped reliquary housed in a side chapel of Bagnoregio’s Cathedral of San Nicola and San Donato.

Religious sisters participate in a candlelight procession on July 14, 2023, in Bagnoregio, Italy, in honor of the town’s patron saint and native son, St. Bonaventure. Patrick Leonard/CNA

Friday’s procession, which commenced at the cathedral, was led by the town’s confraternities of the Most Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis, and St. Peter. Following them were a brass band, a statue of the saint adorned with flowers and carried by four men, and a priest carrying the holy arm. Then came Italian Cardinal Fortunato Frezza (a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica since 2013), numerous priests, and this year’s first communicants, followed by other religious and residents.

As the participants made their way down the candlelit Via Roma, onlookers watched from windows, balconies, and restaurants bustling with patrons on a warm summer evening.

A resident of Bagnoregio, Italy, watches a candlelight procession through the streets of the town in honor of its patron saint, St. Bonaventure, on July 14, 2023. Patrick Leonard/CNA

Arriving at the piazza Sant’Agostino, Frezza, standing beneath a monument of Bonaventure, offered a brief reflection on the importance of the saint and of procession as a form of popular devotion.

The relic “gives us strength to sustain our weakness … It is a relic that is alive and active,” observed the cardinal, a noted biblical scholar. It is “an arm that teaches,” he said, the very right arm that “wrote his works of great intellect and wisdom.”

The cardinal closed his brief catechesis by saying “our life is a holy procession, an itinerary of the mind towards God.” Here he was playing on the title of one of Bonaventure’s most important theological works, “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum,” “The Journey of the Mind to God.” Following a benediction with the relic, the procession continued down Via Fidanza, looping around the main gate and then back up Via Roma to the cathedral. The faithful entered and Frezza imparted the final blessing, again with the relic.

Cardinal Fortunato Frezza leads a prayer service on July 14, 2023, in Bagnoregio, Italy, in honor of the town’s patron saint and native son, St. Bonaventure. Patrick Leonard/CNA

The Franciscans’ ‘second founder’

Born in 1217 (or 1221, according to some accounts) as Giovanni Fidanza in Civita di Bagnoregio (then in the territory of the Papal States), he displayed great acumen and intellectual curiosity. He was, however, plagued by ill health in his youth. His mother called upon the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi, and he was, according to the legend, miraculously cured.

The young Bonaventure studied at the nearby Franciscan convent. Given his great talent, at 18 he left Bagnoregio to study in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe.

He joined the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor in 1243. At the University of Paris, he studied under the renowned Franciscan theologian Alexander de Hales; in 1257 he earned his teaching license (magister cathedratus) in theology there. Bonaventure was a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom he met as they were both teaching at the university. The two future doctors of the Church were united in defending the then-nascent Franciscan and Dominican orders, whose orthodoxy was called into question by the secular clergy.

A statue of St. Bonaventure is shown during a candlelight procession on July 14, 2023, in Bagnoregio, Italy, his birthplace, on the vigil of the saint’s feast day. Patrick Leonard/CNA

Bonaventure’s teaching career was cut short; in 1257 when he was appointed minister general of the Franciscan order, which was then plagued by internal factionalism due to divergent understandings of Francis’ spirituality following his death.

To rectify this, Bonaventure spent much time traveling around Europe to help maintain the unity of the order. In 1260 he went to Narbonne, France, to solidify the rule of the order, and that same year he started writing (which was completed three years later in 1263) the “Legenda Maior,” “The Major Legend,” considered the definitive biography of St. Francis. For Bonaventure, the key to righting the order lie in Francis’ ideals of obedience, chastity, and poverty, which he reestablished as the Franciscans’ guiding principles.

A woman venerates the “braccio santo,” or holy arm, of St. Bonaventure on July 14, 2023, the vigil of the saint’s feast day, at the Cathedral of San Nicola and San Donato in his hometown, Bagnoregio, Italy. Patrick Leonard/CNA

Enduring influence

In addition to his contributions as the “second founder” of the Franciscans, Bonaventure had a profound impact on the papacy. Following the chaos of the three-year conclave in Viterbo that elected Gregory X in 1271 (the longest papal election in the history of the Church), the new pontiff, also a Franciscan, entrusted Bonaventure with preparing many of the key documents for the Second Council of Lyon (1272–1274), which sought to unify the Latin and Greek Churches.

He was made a cardinal in the consistory of May 28, 1273. He did not, however, see the end of the council, as he died on July 15, 1274. He was canonized in 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV and proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.

A candlelight procession through the streets of Bagnoregio, Italy, on July 14, 2023, honors the town’s native son and patron saint, St. Bonaventure. Patrick Leonard/CNA

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, who was a great admirer of Bonaventure, visited the saint’s birthplace to venerate the relic and address the faithful. In 2010 he dedicated three consecutive Wednesday audiences on the saint, outlining the importance of his governance of the Franciscans and his theological, philosophical, and mystical works. Bonaventure’s writings, Benedict observed, demonstrate that “Christ’s works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress.”

“For St. Bonaventure, Christ was no longer the end of history, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, but rather its center; history does not end with Christ but begins a new period,” Benedict said.

“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,” Pope Benedict explained.

“St. Bonaventure also recognized the Fathers as teachers forever, 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,” he said. “The oneness of Christ also guarantees newness and renewal in all the periods of history.”

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