Benedict XVI has taught it to the faithful in a general audience, against those who call for a new beginning for Christianity, without hierarchy or dogmas. The secret of good governance, he said, is "above all to think and to pray"
by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 18 – Few have noticed it, but in the thick of the storm that has battered the Catholic Church in the wake of the scandal presented to the "little ones" by some of its priests, Joseph Ratzinger has faced the challenge in a way uniquely his own. With a surprising lesson on the theology of history, not without references to his own experience as theologian and pope.
He gave the lesson to the pilgrims crowding the hall for the general audience on the morning of Wednesday, March 10.
The pope repeatedly looked up from the written text and improvised. The complete transcript is reproduced further below, and deserves to be read from beginning to end. But a few of its features should be pointed out immediately.
At the center of the lesson stands Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, doctor of the Church, one of the first successors of Saint Francis as head of the order he founded.
And this is the first of the autobiographical features. Because it was precisely on Saint Bonaventure's theology of history that the young Joseph Ratzinger published, in 1959, his thesis for certification to teach theology, which has recently been republished.
The novelty of this early text was that it compared, for the first time, Saint Bonaventure's theology of history with the highly influential version of Joachim of Fiore.
Joachim of Fiore has had a tremendous influence on both Christian and atheist thought, in his own century and in later ones, up until our own time. Thirty years ago, the theologian Henri De Lubac dedicated a two-volume study to this influence, entitled: "La posterité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore."
When today, in reaction to the scandal of some priests, appeals come again for an epochal, radical purification of the Church, a new Council to be a "new beginning and rupture," a spiritual Christianity made up of the bare Gospel without any more hierarchies or dogmas, what is being invoked if not the age of the Spirit proclaimed by Joachim of Fiore?
In his lesson last March 10, Benedict XVI described and made accessible with rare clarity the contrast between Joachim and Bonaventure. He showed how Joachim's utopia found fertile ground in Vatican Council II to reproduce itself once again, successfully opposed, however, by the "wise helmsmen of Peter's barque," by the popes who were able to defend simultaneously the novelty of the Council and the continuity of the Church.
It's a small step from spiritualism to anarchy, Benedict XVI warned. That's the way it was in Saint Bonaventure's century, and that's the way it is today. In order to be governed, the Church needs hierarchical structures, but these must be given a clear theological foundation. This is what Saint Bonaventure did in governing the Franciscan order. For him, "to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer."
The same thing – the pope said – must happen today in the universal Church: "governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ."
This is the second, decisive autobiographical trait from the lesson on March 10. In it, Benedict XVI said how he intends to govern the Church. He said it with the meek humility that is characteristic of him, putting himself in the shadow of a saint.
Just as for Saint Bonaventure the theological and mystical writings were "the soul of governance," so it is for the current pope. The soul of his governance is the liturgical homilies, instruction for the faithful and the world, the book on Jesus, in short, "thought illuminated by prayer." It is there that the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church and its acts of governance find their foundation and nourishment. It is from there that the Church of Pope Benedict draws healing for its children's sins and an answer to the attacks – far from innocent – that reach it from without and from within.
But let's let him speak. Here is his catechesis from Wednesday, March 10, 2010:
"There is not another higher Gospel, there is not another Church to await..."
by Benedict XVI
Dear brothers and sisters, [...] among various merits, St. Bonaventure had that of interpreting authentically and faithfully the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with great love.
In a particular way, in the times of St. Bonaventure a current of Friars Minor called "spiritual" held that there was a totally new phase of history inaugurated with St. Francis; the "eternal Gospel" had appeared, of which Revelation speaks, which replaced the New Testament.
This group affirmed that the Church had now exhausted her historical role, and in her place came a charismatic community of free men guided interiorly by the Spirit, namely, the "spiritual Franciscans."
At the base of the ideas of this group were the writings of a Cistercian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works, he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm of history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Father, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. To be awaited yet was the third age, 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 liberty of the time of the Son, in the Church, up to the full liberty of the children of God, in the period of the Holy Spirit, which would have been also the period of peace among men, of the reconciliation of peoples and religions.
Joachim of Fiore aroused the hope that the beginning of the new time would come from a new monasticism. It is thus understandable that a group of Franciscans thought it recognized in St. Francis of Assisi the initiator of the new time and in his order the community of the new period –- the community of the time of the Holy Spirit, which left behind it the hierarchical Church, to begin a new Church of the Spirit, no longer connected to the old structures.
There was, hence, the risk of a very serious misunderstanding of the message of St. Francis, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church, and such a mistake implied an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole.
St. Bonaventure, who in 1257 became minister-general of the Franciscans, found himself before serious tension within his own order due, precisely, to those who espoused this current of "spiritual Franciscans," which aligned itself to Joachim of Fiore. Precisely to respond to this group and to give unity again to the order, St. Bonaventure carefully studied the authentic writings of Joachim of Fiore and those attributed to him and, taking into account the need to present correctly the figure and message of his beloved St. Francis, he wished to show a correct view of the theology of history.
St. Bonaventure addressed the problem in fact in his last work, a collection of conferences to monks of the Paris studio, which remained unfinished and which was completed with the transcriptions of the hearers. It was titled "Hexaemeron," that is, an allegorical explanation of the six days of creation.
The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the account of creation as a prophecy of the history of the world, of humanity. The seven days represented for them seven periods of history, later interpreted also as seven millennia. With Christ we would have entered the last, namely, the sixth period of history, which would then be followed by the great sabbath of God. St. Bonaventure accounts for this historical interpretation of the relation of the days of creation, but in a very free and innovative way.
For him, two phenomena of his time render necessary a new interpretation of the course of history.
The first: the figure of St. Francis, the man totally united to Christ up to communion of the stigmata, almost an "alter Christus," and with St. Francis the new community created by him, different from the monasticism known up to then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as a novelty of God which appeared in 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, called for an answer.
As minister-general of the Order of Franciscans, St. Bonaventure had seen immediately that with the spiritualistic conception, inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the order was not governable, but was going logically toward anarchy.
For him there were two consequences.
The first: the practical need of structures and of insertion in the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, needed a theological foundation, also because the others, those who followed the spiritualist conception, showed an apparent theological foundation.
The second: although taking into account the necessary realism, it was not necessary to lose the novelty of the figure of St. Francis.
How did St. Bonaventure respond to the practical and theoretical need? Of his answer I can only give here a very schematic and incomplete summary in some points:
St. Bonaventure rejected the idea of the Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one for the whole of history and he is not divided into three divinities. As a consequence, history is one, even if it is a journey and – according to St. Bonaventure – a journey of progress.
Jesus Christ is the last word of God, in him God has said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot express, cannot give. The Holy Spirit is 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" (John 14:26), "he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:15).
Hence, there is not another higher Gospel, there is not another Church to await. Because of this, the Order of St. Francis had also to insert itself in this Church, in her faith, in her hierarchical order.
This does not mean that the Church is immobile, fixed in the past and that novelties cannot be exercised in her. "Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," the works of Christ do not go backward, do not fail, but progress, says the saint in the letter "De tribus quaestionibus."
Thus St. Bonaventure formulates explicitly the idea of progress, and this is a novelty in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and a great part of his contemporaries. For St. Bonaventure, Christ is no longer, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, the end, but the center of history; history does not end with Christ, but a new period begins.
Another consequence is the following: prevailing up to that moment was the idea that the Fathers of the Church were at the absolute summit of theology, all the following generations could only be their disciples. Even St. Bonaventure recognizes the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the phenomenon of St. Francis gave him the certainty that the richness of the word of Christ is inexhaustible and that also new lights can appear in the new generations. The uniqueness of Christ also guarantees novelties and renewal in all the periods of history.
Certainly, the Franciscan Order – so he stresses – belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the Apostolic Church, and cannot build itself on a utopian spiritualism. But, at the same time, the novelty of such an order is valid in comparison with classic monasticism, and St. Bonaventure [...] defended this novelty against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris. The Franciscans do not have a fixed monastery, they can be present everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. Precisely the break with stability, characteristic of monasticism, in favor of a new flexibility, restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.
At this point perhaps it is useful to say that also today there are views according to which the whole history of the Church in the second millennium is a permanent decline; some see the decline already immediately after the New Testament.
In reality, "opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," the works of Christ do not go backward, but progress. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, of the Franciscans and Dominicans, of the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on?
This affirmation is also valid today: "Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," they go forward. St. Bonaventure teaches us the whole of the necessary discernment, even severe, of the sober realism and of openness to new charisms given by Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to his Church.
And while this idea of decline is repeated, there is also the other idea, this "spiritualistic utopianism," which is repeated. We know, in fact, how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally "other" Church. An anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God, the wise helmsmen of Peter's Barque, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on one hand defended the novelty of the council and on the other, at the same time, defended the uniqueness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.
In this connection, St. Bonaventure, as minister-general of the Franciscans, took a line of government in which it was very clear that the new order could not, as a community, live at the same "eschatological height" of St. Francis, in which he saw the future world anticipated, but – guided, at the same time, by healthy realism and spiritual courage – had to come as close as possible to the maximum realization of the Sermon on the Mount, which for St. Francis was the rule, though taking into account the limits of man, marked by original sin.
Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure, to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer. His profound contact with Christ always accompanied his work of minister-general and that is why he composed a series of theological-mystical writings, which express the spirit of his government and manifest the intention of guiding the order interiorly, of governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ.
Of these his writings, which are the soul of his government and show the way to follow either as an individual or a community, I would like to mention only one, his masterwork, the "Itinerarium mentis in Deum," which is a "manual" of mystical contemplation.
This book was conceived in a place of profound spirituality: the hill of La Verna, where St. Francis had received the stigmata. In the introduction, the author illustrates the circumstances that gave origin to his writing: "While I meditated on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, presented to me, among others, was that wondrous event that occurred in that place to Blessed Francis, namely, the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this, immediately I realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and at the same time the way that leads to it" ("Journey of the Mind in God," Prologue, 2, in "Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici," 1, Rome, 1993, p. 499).
The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up 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 one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart: "If you now yearn to know how that happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light but the fire that inflames everything and transport to God with strong unctions and ardent affections... We enter therefore into darkness, we silence worries, the passions and illusions; we pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that, after having seen him, we say with Philip: that is enough for me" (Ibid., VII, 6).
Dear friends, let us take up the invitation addressed to us by St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and let us enter the school of the divine Teacher: We listen to his Word of life and truth, which resounds in the depth of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and actions, so that he can dwell in us, and we can hear his divine voice, which draws us toward true happiness.
(Translation by Zenit).
The catechesis reproduced above is the second of a trilogy dedicated by Benedict XVI to Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, at the general audiences of three consecutive Wednesdays.
Here are links to the first and third catecheses, respectively from March 3 and March 17, 2010:
> Saint Bonaventure 1
> Saint Bonaventure 3
At the end of this catechesis, Benedict XVI announced the imminent publication of a letter to the Church of Ireland, rocked by the scandal of pedophile priests:
"As you know, in recent months the Church in Ireland has been severely shaken as a result of the child abuse crisis. As a sign of my deep concern I have written a pastoral letter dealing with this painful situation. I will sign it on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the guardian of the Holy Family and patron of the universal Church, and send it soon after. I ask all of you to read it for yourselves, with an open heart and in a spirit of faith. My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal."
POSTSCRIPT – The end of the apostolic visit among the Legionaries of Christ has been reported in a semi-hidden, imprecise way by the congregation's media.
As of today, March 18, the only place the news has been released is on a page of the Spanish-language version of the website of Regnum Christi, the lay branch of the Legion:
> Inicia nueva etapa de la visita apostólica
In this note, however, one reads something that corresponds more to wishful thinking than to the reality of things.
According to Regnum Christi, it would seem that the apostolic visit did not end on March 15, as in fact it did, but still requires more time. The reason given is that the five visitors still need "several months" and "further consultations" with the Holy See to draw up their reports.
But that's not true. The visitors delivered their final reports on March 15. And on March 30, they will be in Rome to present them to the Vatican authorities. It will be these authorities, and not the visitors, who will need time to make the resulting decisions.