Blessed John Duns Scotus
Today marks 700 years since the death of Bl. John Duns Scotus, The Marian Doctor
Who is Blessed John Duns Scotus?
John Duns Scotus, described by Pope Paul VI as “the perfector” of St. Bonaventure and “the most
distinguished representative” of the Franciscan School, was born towards the end of 1265 or at the beginning of 1266 in the little village of Duns in southern Scotland. From his earliest years, he received a good formation from his Catholic family.
A pious tradition relates that he loved to study, and earnestly desired to apprehend the truths of the faith. But in spite of his good will, his progress at school was slow: little John was just not blessed with particularly acute intelligence. With simplicity and confidence the boy appealed to Our Blessed Lady, the Mother and Dispensatrix of all graces, and beseeched Her to supply for what was wanting in his intellectual capacity. Our Lady heard his prayer, and from then on, John astonished his companions and teachers with his acute ability to understand and to learn. Later, the celebrated Franciscan historian Wadding would write of him: “During his adolescence Scotus was so brilliant in his study of letters that he surpassed the powers of man and the limits of nature, thus showing the particular gifts which he had received from God through the intercession of the Immaculate, who had appeared to him.” In his subsequent career, Blessed John would put his “particular gifts” to good use in the service of his most generous and lovable Mother and Patroness.
John’s uncle, Fr. Elias Duns, was Father Guardian of the Franciscan friary at Dumfries. Discerning his vocation to religious life, John followed his uncle and received the Franciscan habit as a novice in approximately 1280. At some point, John was sent to England to continue his studies, probably at Northampton and Oxford. It is thought that he was a student for a while of the famous Master, William of Ware. On 17th March, 1291, John was ordained a priest by Bishop Oliver Sutton of Lincoln. He was 25 years old. Between 1293 and 1297, he studied theology at Paris. He then returned to England to pursue higher theological studies at Oxford.
On Christmas Eve in 1299 at the friary in Oxford, John received another special grace from God. While immersed in the contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation, Our Lady appeared to him and placed Her Infant Son in his arms. This event must surely have had an important impact on the development of John’s thought about the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word.
In 1300 in Oxford, John began his first commentary on the Sentences of the Master, Peter Lombard. He was sent to Paris in 1302 to continue his studies, but his stay there was to be short lived, because in June of 1303 he was forced to flee the city with a number of other friars on account of his allegiance to the Holy Father in a dispute between Pope Boniface VIII and the King of France, Philip the Fair. This gesture of uncompromising obedience to the Supreme Pontiff on the part of our Blessed is perfectly in accord with the admirable spirit of obedience and faith that permeates all his theological writings.
Between 1303 and 1304 Blessed John taught at the University of Oxford, and it was there that he wrote his masterpiece, the Opus Oxoniense, or Ordinatio, as it is now more commonly known. John was soon able to return to Paris, and, after enthusiastic recommendation by the Minister General of the Friars Minor, Fr. Gonsalvus of Spain, once a professor at Paris, he was awarded a doctorate in theology. After a further short period at Oxford, John return once again to Paris. According to the testimony of one of Scotus’ disciples, William of Alnwick, it was during this last period that the great theologian spent in Paris that he wrote his Quodlibetum.
But the most celebrated event connected with the great Franciscan Doctor at Paris is the famous dispute which he conducted in defence of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to an ancient and constant Franciscan tradition, Blessed John defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in front of the entire academic corpus of the Sorbonne University of Paris. At that time, on the basis of the thought of famous theologians such as St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, the University of Paris was quite opposed to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It is related that, prior to the debate, Blessed John, passing before a stone statue of Our Lady, paused for a few moments, and then humbly offered up the following heartfelt prayer: “Allow me to praise you, O most holy Virgin; give me strength against your enemies.” The head of the statue moved, bowing a little before the Blessed, as if to reassure him that his proposed defence of the Immaculist thesis was indeed according to God’s will and that Our Lady would accompany her faithful servant with her special help and protection. When the moment of the debate arrived, John illustrated the truth of the Immaculate Conception with such brilliance and acumen that the assembled members of the academic staff could not refrain from crying out in unison, “Scotus has won!” This victory of our Blessed was so decisive, in fact, that the University of Paris subsequently became a convinced supporter of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
On 25 October 1307, responding promptly to the expressed wishes of his superiors, Scotus departed for Cologne in Germany to oppose the errors of the Beghards, whose pseudo-mysticism was on the rise in the Rhineland. There he died on 8 November 1308, at the young age of 43.
According to an ancient tradition, Scotus died while defending the Mother of God in a debate. He surrendered his pure soul to God, worn out by fatigue and penance, but victorious in the love and truth of God, whom he had always served so well.
After his death, Blessed John was almost immediately styled “blessed” in popular devotion. His cult was widespread in Europe until the times of the Reformation. Today, his body is venerated in the historic church of the Holy Cross, in the care of the Franciscans, at Cologne in Germany. The honour shown him through the centuries for his holiness of life was officially confirmed on 20 March 1993 by the Servant of God, John Paul II, who enrolled him among the Blessed of the Roman Catholic Church.
England received me
France taught me
Cologne has me!