Returning to a subject he wrote about early in his career, Pope Benedict spoke at his weekly audience about how St. Bonaventure firmly responded to heretical ideas he encountered within the Franciscan order when he served as its minister general starting in 1257. The problem Bonaventure faced was that some friars were taken with the notion that a new age of the spirit was to arrive in which the church hierarchy would no longer be needed. (For details, see the transcript of the pope's remarks provided by Zenit.) These ideas were supposedly derived from Joachim, a mystic abbot from Calabria who died in 1202. To make a very complicated story short: Joachim envisioned three stages of history - Father, Son and Spirit - and, well after he died, some Franciscans saw St. Francis as the harbinger of the new age of the spirit. To be fair to Joachim, the idea that the age of the spirit ended the need for a church hierarchy was not his but the work of some very imaginative imitators; Joachim was in good stead with church authorities in his lifetime. In any case, it is especially interesting that Benedict likens the medieval friars who saw the third stage of history as bringing the end of the hierarchy to those who, with their "anarchic utopianism," believed the Second Vatican Council meant "that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally `other' Church." If I had the opportunity, I would ask Benedict what he makes of Blessed John of Parma, a sainted man known for his goodness and simplicity. He preceded Bonaventure as the Franciscans' minister-general, heading the order in the midst of the heresy scandal in the 1250s. According to historians, Bonaventure had a hand in convicting John of Parma of heresy and sentencing him to a life of imprisonment. John was taking the fall. He had no role in this heresy, as his eventual beatification indicates, and the penalty on him was so unfair that a cardinal intervened to help him against this unjust verdict and sentence. John of Parma was beatified in 1781. I can understand why Benedict, given his views on authority in the church, would reflect on how the great and holy mystic Bonaventure coped with dissent against the hierarchy with a firm hand. Those who feel for the victims of overly harsh or unjust crackdowns by church authorities may well wish to reflect on Blessed John of Parma when his feast day arrives on March 20.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.
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