Missionary and astronomer, b. at Pitthem near Courtrai, Belgium, Oct. 9, 1623; d. at Peking, January 28, 1688
Verbiest, FERDINAND, missionary and astronomer, b. at Pitthem near Courtrai, Belgium, October 9, 1623; d. at Peking, January 28, 1688. He entered the Society of Jesus on September 2, 1641, and studied theology at Seville, where he defended public theses in 1655. In 1658 with thirty-five new missionaries he accompanied Father Marti in Martini on his return to China after having secured at Rome the Decree of Alexander VII for the toleration of the Chinese rites (see Matteo Ricci). He reached Macao in 1659, and was exercising his ministry in Shen-si when in 1660 he was called to Peking to assist, and eventually to replace, Father Adam Schall in his astronomical labors. He was among those imprisoned during the persecution of 1664. Father Schall, the chief of those accused, being unable to make himself understood by his judges, Father Verbiest, himself loaded with nine chains, defended him with courage and eloquence.
In fact the Church in China owed to Father Verbiest the recovery of peace and greater security than it had before the outbreak. In 1668 the young emperor commanded a public test, which allowed the priest to prove beyond dispute the merits of European astronomy compared with the ancient astronomy of China. Father Verbiest and the mandarin who had instigated the persecution and who had taken Father Schall’s place as president of the bureau of mathematics, were each commissioned to determine in advance the length of the shadow thrown by a gnomon of a given height at noon of a certain day; then the absolute and relative positions of the sun and the planets on a given date; and finally the moment of a lunar eclipse. The results of the test, which the emperor, ministers, and nobles established in person, were a triumph for the astronomy of the missionaries. Father Verbiest was immediately placed at the head of the Bureau of Mathematics, and, out of consideration for him, his exiled brethren were authorized to return to their missions.
Thenceforth K’ang-hi’s benevolence towards Father Verbiest and the Christian religion increased steadily. The emperor requested the priest to construct instruments like those of Europe, and in May, 1674, Verbiest was able to present him with six, made under his direction: a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter. These large instruments, all of brass and with decorations which made them notable works of art, were, despite their weight, very easy to manipulate, and a credit to Verbiest’s mechanical skill as well as to his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They are still in a perfect state of preservation, and at the time of the expedition against the Boxers (1900) the international troops admired them on the platform of a tower of the imperial palace where Father Verbiest installed them more than two centuries and a half ago. K’ang-hi made use of the talents of the Belgian Jesuit in various other ways, e.g. the transportation of enormous blocks of stone, the construction of an aqueduct, and the casting of cannons. Not only did Father Verbiest cast 132 cannons of far superior power than those possessed by the Chinese, but he invented a new gun-carriage.
At the same time the missionary had to write in Chinese a collection of works explaining the construction of the instruments, their object, and the manner of using them. The emperor also desired him to compile astronomical tables indicating the movements of the planets and the solar and lunar eclipses for 2000 years to come; moreover, he had him give on certain days a course in mathematics and astronomy, at which many of the great mandarins as well as the 160 students of the Bureau of Mathematics assisted. In his desire to acquire the European sciences, K’ang-hi himself became a pupil of the missionary; for five whole months he summoned him almost daily to his presence, setting aside in his behalf all the laws of Chinese etiquette and detaining him for whole days, while Father Verbiest explained the astronomical books compiled in Chinese by himself and his fellow-religious, and finally studying like a school-boy under his direction arithmetic, rectilinear and spherical geometry, geodesy, topography, etc. On beholding the earnestness with which K’ang-hi endeavored to learn especially the chart of the heavens, Father Verbiest began to hope that “as a star of old brought the magi to the adoration of the true God, so the princes of the Far East through knowledge of the stars would be brought to recognize and adore the Lord of the stars”. K’ang-hi did not fulfil this hope, but his bent for the European sciences, by inclining him to favor more and more the missionaries who made them known to him, became the means of salvation for thousands of his subjects. Through his influence with the emperor Father Verbiest did more for the spread of the Gospel than any of the missionaries who preached it in the provinces; nevertheless he found time for the direct exercise of the apostolate, especially in the composition of short works in Chinese on the principles of the Christian religion. As he says in one of his letters, books which the Chinese always welcomed as gifts, and which were especially esteemed coming from his pen, were a means of conveying the truth to persons to whom the missionaries would otherwise not have access. K’ang-hi recognized the services of the missionary by conferring on him successively the highest degrees of the mandarinate. The liberty to preach, the only reward Father Verbiest looked for, was almost the sole benefit he derived from his dignities.
It would seem that the use of the human sciences, which had so powerfully assisted Father Ricci to found the Chinese mission, and permitted Father Verbiest to save it, would henceforth not be misrepresented. But such was not the case, and, as is well known, it was a missionary from China who considered it his duty to carry to Rome, and by means of his writings to spread throughout the world, impassioned accusations against the methods of the Jesuit missionaries. Among the replies elicited by the attack of Father Navarrete there is one by Father Verbiest; it was not published, but was read at Rome and thence came an ample justification of the worthy missionary astronomer. Innocent XI, to whom he had dedicated the Chinese translation of the Missal printed at Peking and another work containing his astronomical observations, answered him on December 3, 1681, by a Brief which means much more than a commonplace expression of thanks: “It has pleased us especially”, says the pope, “to learn from your letter with what wisdom and seasonableness (quam sapienter atque opportune) you have made use of the profane sciences for the salvation of the Chinese peoples and the advancement and benefit of the Christian faith: employing them to repel the false accusations and calumnies which have been heaped upon the Christian name, opening the way to that high degree of favor with the Chinese king and his advisers, which has obtained both that you yourself should be delivered from the harsh persecutions which you have long endured with the greatest courage, and the power to recall your fellow-missionaries from exile and to restore to religion not only its former liberty and splendor, but to inspire it with the hope of daily progress..
In 1677 Father Verbiest was appointed vice provincial, i.e. superior of all the Jesuit missions of China. This nomination was a stimulus to seek new means of developing the work confided to his direction, with which object he addressed (August 15, 1678) a circular letter to all the members of his order in Europe. In it he set forth the hopes which more than ever were held out to the Faith in China, together with the impossibility for the missionaries then in the field, with the fewness of their number and the inadequacy of their resources, to gather in all the harvest. He then urged his brethren in Europe by most touching arguments to come in as great numbers as possible to reinforce this body of overworked laborers, and also to procure for the mission the material resources necessary for founding new Christian communities, supporting catechists, establishing schools, etc. While seeking assistants in Europe he endeavored to obtain them also in China itself. The question of a native clergy had arisen at the beginning of the mission. There were difficulties in the way. Hitherto no Chinese had been raised to the priesthood, though many of them had entered the Society and had rendered good service to the mission as catechists. The persecution of 1664, which for nearly five years deprived the Christians of their European missionaries, emphasized more urgently the need of Chinese priests. There is a memoir of the consultation then ordered by the Jesuit superiors; it was drawn up for the father general by Father Verbiest, and is dated from Peking, June 12, 1678. Herein the vice-provincial energetically advocated the necessity of ordaining Chinese priests; to better assure their perseverance he urged that none be raised to the priesthood save young or mature men who had previously been received and tried in the Society. Moreover, he desired that these Chinese priests might be allowed to say Mass and administer the sacraments in the Chinese language, which permission had been granted in principle by Paul V, as early as 1615. Among the things which Father Verbiest particularly recommended to Father Couplet, sent to Rome in 1680 as procurator of the missions of China, was a request for a confirmation of this permission. His gift to the pope of the Chinese translation of the Missal by Father Buglio was calculated to support this request, but Father Couplet’s negotiations in this respect were without result.
Father Verbiest was more fortunate in his appeal to his brethren in Europe. Well seconded by F. Couplet in his journeys with a Chinaman through Italy, France, and the Low Countries, this appeal aroused numerous and ardent volunteers. The strongest contingent of aspirants was furnished by France. Louis XIV, who had several times received Father Couplet and Michael, the Chinaman, at Versailles, longed for the glory of founding at his own expense a French mission, which would simultaneously serve the interests of religion and science in the Far East. And his ministers rightly divined how much France‘s commercial expansion would gain thereby. Consequently, six Jesuits were taken from the chosen staff of the college of Paris. Having previously been made fellows of the Academy of Sciences and given the title of mathematicians to the king, they set sail from Brest, March 3, 1685, with the embassy which the king was sending to Siam. Five of them set out from Siam in 1687 and landed at Ning-po in China on July 23. The authorization to penetrate to the interior, which the Viceroy of Chekiang and even the Tribunal of Rites at Peking would have refused them, was granted them by the emperor at Father Verbiest’s request. The arrival of these recruits was a great consolation to the venerable missionary. Nevertheless he was not to have the joy of receiving them at Peking, which they reached (February 7) ten days after his death. They arrived in time for his funeral which K’ang-hi delayed in order that it might be more solemn. On March 11 Father Verbiest’s remains were carried to the burial-place formerly given to Father Ricci.