A classic figure in Western Christianity, St. Bonaventure was born in Italy in 1221. The period of Bonaventure's life, 1221-1274, spans the time in history known as the high Middle Ages. He entered the Order of Friars Minor, also known as the Franciscans, in 1238 or 1243; the exact date is uncertain. He gained the title of the "Second Founder" of the Franciscan community because of the scope and depth of his commitment to the vision of the first founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Bonaventure's spiritual leadership within the Franciscan community, spiritual teachings, and intellectual contributions on the relationship of philosophy to Christian theology eventually led to his canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church in 1482 and his being named in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V a Doctor of the Church. Bonaventure's ability to give the mystical movement begun by St. Francis of Assisi a solid theological and psychological basis gave rise to the additional names of the Seraphic Doctor and Doctor Devotus.
Bonaventure's baptismal name was John, after his father Giovanni de Fidanza. While there is no formal biography of St. Bonaventure and limited details of his youth have been preserved, there is a significant legend, which offers an explanation as to why John became Bonaventure. Aspects of the legend appear in Bonaventure's own writings, which tell the story that while yet a child, John was preserved from death due to the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi. When presented to St. Francis for the healing blessing, Francis is said to have exclaimed, O buona ventura, meaning "oh, good fortune." There is no evidence that this event actually occurred, but the change in name foreshadowed the good fortune St. Bonaventure's legacy has been to Franciscan spirituality and Christian theology. Three major trends impacted the 13th century, the time in which Bonaventure lived. First, the Crusades brought Christianity into contact with Islamic culture causing Christianity to reflect on itself as it encountered other worldviews. Second, the recovery of the complete works of the great philosopher Aristotle offered a scientific philosophical system perceived by some as superior to that of the great father of Western Christianity, St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Third, the rise of new types of monastic orders, preaching and mendicant-meaning living a life of radical poverty- generated tensions between the religious and secular professors at the famous University of Paris, where Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Franciscan Bonaventure (1221-1274) studied and taught side by side as scholars and friends. These factors brought a new worldview and culture to Europe that had to be addressed by university scholars and theologians such as Bonaventure.
In the Middle Ages it was believed that reason and faith existed to interpret each other. Christian theologians and philosophers followed the motto: credo ut intelligam, I believe in order to know. The interplay between reason and faith, intellect and will, has been called "the eternal conversation." This was a debate that absorbed the great minds of Bonaventure's time. There were those at Paris questing for a self-sufficient philosophy without concerns for the claims of faith. Intelligence, for Bonaventure, was always at the service of devotion. God acts in the midst of human history and experience. The gift of reason is meant to help interpret God's ongoing revelation for the purpose of giving meaning to human living.
Bonaventure's public teaching at the University of Paris ended in 1257 when he was elected at 36 as Minister General of the Franciscans. His call away from university life removed his distinctive influence on Christian scholasticism and thus enabled Thomas Aquinas's favored reliance on the metaphysical system of Aristotle to overshadow Bonaventure's more experiential convictions about knowledge as the journey into God.
Beginning in the late 20th century, Bonaventure's writings have experienced resurgence. Interest in existentialism, process theology, creation-centered theology, Franciscan spirituality, and new approaches to a spiritual vision of the human person have brought St. Bonaventure to the fore in the contemporary quest for meaning.