December 18, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: 13th century devotion and theology

John F. Fink(Nineteenth in a series of columns)

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with building the first crèche to illustrate the story of the Nativity. That was only one of many devotional practices that modern Catholics take for granted that began during the 13th century.

If you have followed this series, you know that the 13th century was a violent age, especially since there were six crusades against the Muslims or the Orthodox, and one against the Albigensians in southern France. But it was also the century during which Sts. Francis and Dominic founded their religious orders.

This was also the time when devotion to Mary became increasingly popular, with mother-and-child paintings and statues represented in sentimental fashion. Devotion to the rosary spread, especially as it was preached by the Dominicans, although it’s only a legend that Mary gave the rosary to St. Dominic in 1214; it was prayed as early as the 12th century.

The crucifix became a prominent feature of Church decoration, and the figure on the cross was now depicted as a dying man rather than the Lord-in-majesty form of earlier times.

It was also the century during which Catholics were encouraged to receive the sacraments more frequently than they were accustomed to doing. The Fourth Lateran Council decreed that they were to receive the sacrament of penance at least once a year, and to receive the Eucharist during the Easter season.

It was a century during which theology got a big boost, particularly through the efforts of three men, all of whom were connected to each other. Sts. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure have all been declared doctors of the Church. Albert was Thomas’ teacher at the University of Paris, and Thomas and Bonaventure received their doctoral degrees together on Oct. 23, 1257. Later, when Thomas and Bonaventure were teaching at the University of Paris and a movement was underway to expel them, Albert defended them.

Albert was actually called “the Great” while he was still living. He wrote a compendium of all knowledge: natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics and metaphysics.

During this time, the ancient works of Aristotle, previously unknown in the Latin West, made their way to Europe through the spread of the Arab world. Albert was convinced that Aristotle’s philosophy could be reconciled with Christianity, and he taught Thomas how to do so. Thomas, in turn, became the most eloquent spokesman of the Catholic tradition of reconciling reason and divine revelation according to Aristotelian philosophy.

Bonaventure wrote literature that both enlightened the mind and inflamed the heart. It’s said that in Thomas we behold sublime love of theology, but in Bonaventure a sublime theology of love. Bonaventure also wrote the official biography of St. Francis of Assisi.

In 1274, Pope Gregory X called the Second Council of Lyons to discuss the possibility of reuniting the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Albert, Thomas and Bonaventure were all invited to the council, and Bonaventure drew up its agenda. But Thomas died while traveling to Lyons, France, on March 7, and Bonaventure died suddenly while the council was in session, on July 15. †

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