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A Pilgrimage Through the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition

A Pilgrimage to Wisdom by Joseph P. Chinnici, O.F.M.The great Dominican medievalist M.D. Chenu penned the aphorism many years ago that “a theology worthy of the name is a spirituality which has found rational instruments adequate to its religious experience.” The observation is particularly applicable to the ferment occurring in the Franciscan family in these first years of the twenty-first century. Having been prodded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal, laity and religious together,  men and women of all countries and races, have both developed and profited from extensive new research into the spiritual experience of Francis, Clare, and the early penitents. Their immediate retrieval of the uniqueness of the Franciscan spiritual-evangelical vision has been matched by an unprecedented popular interest in the major intellectual expressions of this life. Scholars in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and the United States, have mined the cultural landscape of the middle ages to reveal the unity between the earliest spiritual vision and way of life and the subsequent breakthroughs in creative theological, philosophical, political and economic reflection. Franciscan pastoral theology, the vernacular tradition of poetry, material expressions, and legendae, the academic reflections of Bonaventure, Olivi, and John Duns Scotus,  the ascetical-moral formational synthesis,  and the political and economic dimensions of the movement have all been newly uncovered.  It is just a beginning gift to the Church and world of our new century. 

In the English speaking world, this revival has been partially developed by the Secretariat for the Retrieval of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, a commission established in 2000 by the provincial ministers of the English-speaking Conference, Order of Friars Minor. The intellectual renewal has come to most fruitful expression in the publications of a Heritage Series and the Washington Theological Union Symposium papers detailing the theological, liturgical, and evangelizing vision which marked the first hundred years of the Franciscan movement. A significant series of academic publications associated with The Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, New York, has made the early sources available to a contemporary audience. The Franciscan Federation of Colleges and Universities in the United States has undertaken to mainstream the intellectual and cultural tradition of the vision for a new generation of students. Most recently, major study centers in Rome, Canterbury, St. Bonaventure, and Berkeley, have formed the Franciscan International Academic Federation to facilitate the exchange of information, knowledge, faculty, and students. All of this has begun to create an intellectual fermentation committed to appropriating, shaping, and reformulating the inheritance. It is a spiritual-intellectual tradition-in-mission searching for ever more adequate tools of cultural expression. 

Some significant steps in this retrieval have also been accomplished through the steady foundational work of the Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs in the United States and the Franciscan International Study Centre, Canterbury, England. Combining geographical travel, spiritual experience, and the best intellectual reflection in a communal setting, the endeavor has developed in the last two years a “pilgrimage to wisdom.”  Those who long for a knowledge which leads to both an experiential tasting of God’s goodness and a personal, communal, and social transformation in the Gospel will find the heart of this pilgrimage captured in this fine collection of essays. Here one will discover significant expositions by engaging scholars on Francis’ own theological-mystical vision; the convergences  between the spiritual-communal  tradition  and  the development of  modern political liberties; the major intellectual themes and multiple influences of  the Bonaventurian synthesis; the philosophical and theological humanism of John Duns Scotus and its applicability to the modern world; and the intellectually reforming struggles of a Franciscan family weathering the storms occasioned by its unique vision within the Church, its own moral failures, and its commitments to proclaim the Gospel in the world. Readers will here meet not only the major figures of the tradition but countless others as well, not only those working in theology and philosophy, but also those committed to reconciling science and faith, Church and society. All will hopefully be stimulated by this collection to make their own “pilgrimage to wisdom,” if not geographically into England, France, and Germany, then at least imaginatively in private prayer, communal discussions, and social commitments.  Let us with enthusiasm embark together on this clear pathway of a via sapientiae!


Introduction by André R. Cirino O.F.M.

Having set out for my daily walk through the Blean Woods adjacent to the Franciscan International Study Centre (FISC) at Canterbury, a dream that surfaced at our staff chapter by our then new Director of Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs (FPP), John Cella OFM, came back to me: “Why not do a pilgrimage focused on the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition?” What at first seemed just a dream to me, on that walk became a very real possibility. After working many years for FPP and for the last several years teaching at FISC, I took the opportunity to travel to all of the places associated with our Franciscan Intellectual Tradition (FIT) in England, Germany and France. And having one foot in each of these entities—FISC and FPP—I realized that I could be the bridge between them that could help make this dream a reality. John Cella came to Canterbury to meet with Philippe Yates OFM, Principal of FISC, and the dream began to unfold.

Our first FIT pilgrimage took place in England in the summer of 2006, and the second FIT pilgrimage went to Germany and France in summer of 2007. We managed to network with some of the best Franciscan scholars and specialists (cf. each one’s curriculum vitae) in all three countries who committed themselves to rendezvous with us in cities connected with the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition.

With FISC as our base in Canterbury, we learned about The Coming of the Friars to England and The English Context of the Development of the Franciscan Constitutions and of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. After these introductory lectures, we visited the site of the first Franciscan house in England where in 1224 the original friars settled in Canterbury at Greyfriars.

Next the pilgrimage prepared to move to the city of Oxford to initiate a consideration of one of the most erudite Franciscan scholars, Blessed John Duns Scotus. Prior to the journey to Oxford, we became acquainted with The Theology and Scientific Studies of Robert Grosseteste, The Oxford Tradition on the Eve of Duns Scotus (1229-1288), Duns Scotus: Life and Writing Career, Duns Scotus and the Canticle of Sir Brother Sun.

No one ever goes to Canterbury without a visit to its spectacular Cathedral. One of the archbishops of Canterbury at the end of the 13th century was Friar John Peckham. The Franciscan Order was experiencing growth pains at the time of his appointment, so we listened to The Mendicant Controversy amongst other issues affecting the Order. Besides celebrating Eucharist near Peckham’s tomb, we were treated to an evening “candlelight procession” through the Cathedral, further enhancing the medieval dimension of our experience.

Since Canterbury is only about twelve miles from Faversham, the birthplace of the first English General Minister of the Franciscan Order in 1239, Haymo of Faversham, we made our way to the eleventh century church of St. Mary of Charity for Eucharist and some historical backdrop.

Cambridge was the next major stop on this FIT pilgrimage where we heard about Albert of Pisa, Minister Provincial of England (1236-39) and Roger Bacon and the Reform of Christendom. While there, we stopped for a brief prayer at Sydney Sussex College which today stands on the site of the pre-Reformation Franciscan friary in Cambridge where John Duns Scotus is believed to have taught and where he is commemorated on a plaque.

Next we journeyed to the small village of Ockham in Surrey to All Saints Church (which dates from the 13th century and contains a recent stained-glass window and statue of William) to listen to a lecture about Ockham on an Argument against God’s Knowledge of Future Contingents. And nearby, we stopped at Chilworth friary at the tomb of Eric Doyle— friar minor of the last century in the long line of British Franciscan scholars—to learn about The Character of Eric Doyle’s Theological Endeavour: Trinity, Christology, Ecclesiology, Franciscanology.        

Pilgrimage then took us to the famous city of Greenwich near London to the site of The Old Royal Naval College built over the remains of the original provincial friary. Here we learned about The Greenwich Observants and Christopher Davenport, after which we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride up the Thames to central London.

Moving into Cologne, Germany, we began with lectures on the Subtle Doctor, treating with The Theology of Duns Scotus, The Relevance of Duns Scotus for Today, and The Primacy of Christ in John Duns Scotus. In the spirit of pilgrimage, we walked to the Minoritenkirke where Scotus is buried and to our delight were able to celebrate the Eucharist over Scotus’ tomb.

Upon our arrival in Paris, we first visited the Cathedral of St. Denis, the same place of arrival of the first friars in Paris in the 13th century. There we celebrated Eucharist of St. Louis IX before his relics among the tombs of the French Kings. Then, we listened to the story of The Arrival of the Friars and the Establishment of the Paris School.

Straight away, the most illustrious of the Parisian Franciscan scholars—Bonaventure of Bagnoregio—became our focus. In a powerpoint presentation, we reviewed The Life of St. Bonaventure through art and the historical places associated with the Seraphic Doctor, followed by a lecture on St. Bonaventure at Paris. We then visited the remains of the Parisian friary where Bonaventure and Scotus taught and received a lecture on the friars in Paris inside the 14th century refectory.

Leaving Paris for Lyon, we stopped along the way at Vézelay, the friars’ original eremitical settlement dating to 1217 where we celebrated Eucharist in their 13th century chapel, and encountered one of the friars still living the eremitical life there today.

Arriving in Lyon on the eve of the feastday of St. Bonaventure, we were treated to three presentations focused again on the Seraphic Doctor: Medieval Sermons and St. Bonaventure’s Sermons, Survival and Diffusion of St. Bonaventure’s Works, Can We Speak of a Bonaventurian School?

St. Bonaventure died in this ancient city of Lyon on 15 July 1274 while attending the Second Council of Lyon. We had the privilege of celebrating Eucharist on the very same day of his death, 15 July, in his burial church even though his tomb, like that of his Master’s in Jerusalem, is empty.

Since we were so close to the city of Avignon, we went to visit the papal palace which was the scene of the conflict between the Franciscan Spirituals and Pope John XXII. Our treat there, however, was to meet with another fine Franciscan scholar to listen to some thoughts about Francis of Assisi—Theologian?                                                        

To close our pilgrimages, we chose to do so during a visit to the Cathedral of Lyon where St. Bonaventure debated and deliberated in ecumenical council and for a final Eucharist with a summation of our pilgrimages entitled Bringing It All Together.

None of these fine talks could have been brought together without the assistance of some members of the staff of FISC—Kathleen Bishop, David Palmer, and our indefatigable Principal, Philippe Yates. A huge debt of gratitude also belongs to Graham Wheater who generously offered to proofread the entire manuscript.

Those of us who were privileged to make this journey through these three countries intimately connected with our Franciscan Intellectual Tradition returned to our homes filled not only with ideas and thoughts of our forebears, but also with the challenges which their theology still offers to us today in this 21st century.