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Ecclesia Semper Purificanda

In the course of his transformative journey, Dante Alighieri arrives at the heaven of the sun, where he encounters the great theologians and doctors of the Church. The two most prominent are, of course, Thomas of Aquino and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, whose feast the Church celebrates today.

In the famous cantos eleven and twelve of the Paradiso, Thomas sings the praises of Francis and Bonaventure reciprocates by hymning the praises of Dominic. Clearly we are in Paradise where earthly competition and jealously are transcended. Except that, in Dante, earth is never left behind, but seen in its truth.

Thus both Thomas and Bonaventure conclude their praise of the other's founder, by castigating the present corruption of their own religious family. Ecclesia semper purificanda!

One of my favorite works of Bonaventure is his short treatise, The Six Wings of the Seraph, a series of counsels to religious superiors, structured on the seraphic vision of Francis which marked him with the signs of Christ's passion.

Here are two excerpts, taken from de Vinck's translation, published by St. Anthony's Press:

.....devotion is the basis of all true religious life, and the means by which all exercises of virtue come to prosper. Dry indeed is the religious life that is not abundantly anointed with this oil, unstable the structure of good works not bonded with frequent and devout prayer: it is destined to crumble like a stone wall built without cement. In every Order where the fervor of devotion has cooled, the whole framework of the other virtues begins to fall apart and comes close to ruin. The empty lamps of the foolish virgins will go out.

The superior is God's minister whom the Master has set over His household.....If he fails to correct delinquents, and allows vice to flourish under his rule, and bad habits to rise and wax strong and spread out; if he permits regular discipline to fall apart and infractions to teem; if he fails to make every effort to counter evil, both actual and foreseeable: he will have a threefold account to render to God.

There is much spiritual insight and pastoral realism in the work. I suspect Dante knew it, but would be grateful for any illumination on the matter from those more knowledgeable than myself.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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I am quite certain that I am not more knowledgable than you on Dante, but I'm not not certain what your question is. Is it on the pastoral nature of Dante, or on the necessity of devotion for the religious life?

Okay. But you'd think that after 1700 years it would have reached some degree of "purification" don't you?

Scott,Sorry for the ambiguity of the question.It was whether Dante knew this particular work of Bonaventure? It seems sure he knew the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum.

Andre: Why after only 1700 years?The reason that the Church is always in need of being purified is that it is composed, generation after generation, of sinners. When the Pelagians claimed that the Church on earth could be without spot or wrinkle, Augustine asked the Pelagian if he was a sinner. When he answered Yes, Augustine said: "Then the Church is not without spot or wrinkle, because you are the spot or wrinkle"! His other proof was that the whole Church prays everyday: "Forgive us our trespasses." If the Church everyday has something that needs forgiveness, it is always in need of being purified.Augustine, Aquinas, and I wouldn't besurprised Dante had a very concfrete notion of the Church.

No question we are a church of sinners from Pentecost till the present. Since Wermelinger we have a different perception of Pelagius. Jerome is said to have argued that even Christ was a sinner. Amazing how Augustine pursued Pelagius but courted Paulinus of Nola and Jerome, both of whom had a wont for getting kicked out of most places they lived in.Perhaps it was Pelagius' critical assessment of the "Confessions." What is also curious is Jerome and Augustine's catering to rich converts.What a century the fourth was. We had the decline of Christianity, yet so many, especially bishops, were made saints. What did they do to deserve this?At least Jude helped South Chicago through the depression.

Since the tpoic has arisen, Jerome was a very complex character as J.N.D. Kelly's biography shows very well. It is easy to find real warts, but he also had some extraordinary virtues. Above all it is startling that scarcely anyone else before the Renaissance--Origen is an exception to some extent--thought it worth while to learn Hebrew to be able to study the considerable number of books of the Bible originally written in Hebrew. If I recall correctly, Augustine, the brilliant Latinist, stumbled in Greek--bad teaching no doubt--and thought it was not a good idea to go back to the Hebrew. Of course one could blame the convenient fiction that the Septuagint was inspired.As for Ecclesia semper purificanda, who could think and think otherwise. Admittedly I once imagined that Dante was talking about his own day. I have come to realize that he was also talking about ours.

Interesting question on how much of Bonaventure Dante had digested. Honestly, I have no idea. I do have to state that one of my enthusiams about Pope Benedict is the recovery of Bonventurian and Augustianian thought in the Church at the practical level. Like His Holiness and despite a background in philosophy, I have never been much of a Thomist- I doubt St. Thomas was a Thomist according to how what that term has come to mean. Further, I have been immersing myself in evangelicalisms "emergent" movement largely spearheaded by Brian McLaren, that seeks to bring evangelical Protestant Christianity into dialogue with post-modernity. I think the theology of Bonaventure ideally suited for such a dialogue.

Scott,Thanks for your comment. Why do you think Bonaventure's thought "suited for a dialogue with post-modernity?"I'd also appreciate further insight into McLaren and the movement he spearheads -- if you have time.

Look for some e-mails shortly.

I believe that Bonaventure while he was at Paris taught some of those who later became active at Santa Croce when Dante was frequenting the religious schools in Florence. Steven Botterill in the Dante Encyclopedia states that Dante may well have known some part of Bonaventures writings "even though there is no unambiguous allusion to them in his work." Others have also pointed out the difficulty of tracing precise influences in Dante's career. Peter Dronke stresses how little "Dante's intellectual and imaginative processes can be accounted for in terms of his learned sources...all understanding for Dante implied transformation. Almost nothing can be 'traced back' in an uncomplicated fashion." Still its interesting to speculate. In my inexpert view it's highly probable that Dante would be aware of Bonaventure's position on the reform of religious orders given Bonaventures prominence in those controversies and Dante's clear interest in the subject. But thats far from determining that a particular work influenced Dante.

Forgive me, but where does "renewal" come into the picture?

Renewal vs. Reform. Same thing?

......... (any takers.....?)


It dawned on me: Yes, the Church is always in need of purification, and I have always associated this old Latin expression with the wider Church. However, Father Imbelli's post (if I'm not mistaken here) seems to focus application of this statement to the situations of religious orders, which comprise only one segment of the wider Church. Then Father Imbelli opines that "[t]here is much...pastoral realism in the work." This comment plus his earlier reference to God placing the religious superior "over His household" raised "red flags" for me, whether intended or not."Purification." Its meaning intended by Father Imbelli in his post? Its meaning for the wider Church? I'm especially concerned about the second question. We've been hearing all this claptrap about "reforming the reform" from the good folks in the bowels of the Vatican. How should we "purify" our Church? By shuffling the game pieces a bit around the board, i.e., reform? Or by acknowledging the game pieces need to be replaced --- maybe even the board itself, i.e., renewal?I do not count myself among "those more knowledgeable than [Father Imbelli]" regarding Dante, Bonaventure, Aquinas, etc., but this blogsite is open to the public, and I am deeply distressed by the apparent apathy of the average Catholic --- still in a Catholic pew (for now, anyway) --- toward the "reforming the reform" efforts of two reactionary popes and their curialistas trying to undercut the spirit of renewal that emerged from the Second Vatican Council."Ecclesia semper purificanda." Continue the same old "game" with its traditional monarch and serfs? Or return to the original enterprise far removed from the crusty, stinkin' ecclesial crap we have today?Reform or renewal?

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