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Johann Adam Schall von Bell

Prominent figure among the missionaries to China, b. of an important family at Cologne in 1591; d. at Peking, Aug. 15, 1666

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Schall von Bell, JOHANN ADAM, an especially prominent figure among the missionaries to China, b. of an important family at Cologne in 1591; d. at Peking, August 15, 1666. He studied at Rome, where he entered the Society of Jesus on October 20, 1611. After his novitiate and some years devoted to philosophy and theology he asked to be sent on the missions and in April, 1618, he set sail from Lisbon for China. When he reached Macao (1619) the Chinese Christian settlements were still deeply troubled by the war waged against them since 1615 by the high mandarin Kio Shin. Four of the chief missionaries, two of them from Peking, had been expelled and conducted to Macao; the others had only escaped the same fate through the devotion of some Christian mandarins who hid them in their houses. It was only in 1622, when the persecution began to relax, that Schall could penetrate to the interior. He labored first at Si-ngan-fu in Shen-si. His ministry, which for a long time was difficult and thwarted, had just begun to afford him great consolation when he was summoned to Peking in 1630. He had to replace Father Terrentius (deceased) in the work of reforming the Chinese calendar. The task was far removed from his ordinary duties of the apostolate but it was one on which the future of the mission then depended.

In China the establishment of the annual calendar was from time immemorial one of the most important affairs of State. The official astronomers who were entrusted therewith composed the “Board of Mathematics”; there were 200 members in this board, which was divided into several sections, presided over by exalted mandarins. They had to make known in advance the astronomical situation for the whole year, the days of new and full moons, movements of the sun with the dates of its entrance into each of the twenty-eight constellations forming the Chinese zodiac, the times of the solstices and equinoxes, and the beginnings of seasons, the positions and conjunctions of planets, finally, and especially, eclipses of the moon as well as of the sun. For these announcements the

Chinese had several empirical rules, inherited from their ancestors, and especially those which the Mohammedan astronomers had brought to China during the Yuen, or Mongol, dynasty. These rules were insufficient to prevent errors, which were sometimes very serious, and, having no scientific principle, the Chinese astronomers were incapable of discovering the defects of their methods and calculations, far less correcting them. Here was an opportunity for the missionaries to render a service and thus do much to strengthen their position in China. This had already been well understood by the founder of the mission, Father Matteo Ricci; his direct offer of assistance would have been ill received, but he had discreetly inspired in the most intelligent of the Chinese literati a desire for his aid. A translation of the Catholic liturgical calendar which he had communicated in MS. to his neophytes had very greatly excited this wish. That the mission might be ready for the official appeal which would come sooner or later he repeatedly urged the general of the Society to send a good astronomer, and in 1606 Father Sabbatino de Ursis, a Neapolitan, arrived.

Father Ricci had been dead but a few months when because of the mistake of an hour by the Board of Mathematics in the announcement of an eclipse, the Government decided to request the aid of the missionaries for its tangled astronomy. At the beginning of 1611 an imperial decree entrusted the missionaries with the correction of the calendar and requested them to translate books containing the rules of European astronomy. Father de Ursis at once undertook this task, assisted by two Christian doctors, Paul Siu Koang and Leon Li-ngo-tsen, but the work was scarcely begun when it was halted by the intrigues of the native astronomers. Then the persecution of Kio Shin forced Father Sabbatino and his companion, Father Diego Tantoya, to withdraw to Macao, where both ended their days. Nevertheless these same illustrious neophytes, who had saved the mission from total ruin, succeeded not only in securing other missionaries from Peking but in having confided to them anew the duties of official correctors of the calendar. This mandate was renewed by an imperial decree of September 27, 1629. The great Christian mandarin Paul Siu again resumed the high offices of which the persecution had deprived him and received by the same decree the direction of the reform with full power for its execution. The fathers were certain of obtaining through him all the means necessary for the success of the undertaking. The first missionary to resume the work was unable to devote to it his remarkable abilities for any length of time. This was Father John Terrentius, or to call him by his true name, Schreck. Born at Constance on Lake Geneva in 1576, he embraced the religious life in Rome at the age of thirty-five being then in possession of an enviable renown as physician, botanist, and mathematician. The Academia dei Lincei (founded at Rome by Prince Frederico Cesi) had admitted him among its earliest members; here he had as colleague Galilei, whose discoveries he followed with sympathy. In his first letters from China, which he had entered secretly in 1621, we find Father Terrentius endeavoring to obtain from the Florentine astronomer through the mediation of mutual friends, “a calculation of the eclipses, especially solar, according to the new observations”, for he says, “this is supremely necessary to us for the correction of the [Chinese] calendar. And if there is any means by which we may escape expulsion from the empire it is this”. This learned missionary died prematurely on May 13, 1630, and Father Schall was summoned to Peking to replace him. Father James Rho, a native of Milan, who had also come from Europe to China in 1618, and who since 1624 had been working in the Christian settlements, was also called to the capital to assist Father Schall in his scientific undertaking.

The task imposed on the two missionaries was very difficult; they had not only to convince the Chinese of the errors of their calendar, but also to make them understand the causes of these errors, and to demonstrate to them the reliability of the principles on which they themselves based their corrections. To do this they had to establish at the Board of Mathematics a complete course in astronomy, and they had to begin by compiling in Chinese a whole series of textbooks comprising not only astronomy properly so-called but also even the most elementary foundations of the science, such as arithmetic, geometry, and other parts of mathematics. In 1634 they had composed as many as one hundred and thirty-seven of these works, of which they printed a hundred. The foreign reformers were not without opposition from superstitious believers of the traditional methods and especially from the envious. These became particularly violent on the death of Paul Siu (1633, when he was Colao or prime minister). Happily, Emperor Ts’ungcheng, who judged very intelligently of the methods in dispute by the results of the prediction of celestial phenomena, continued to support the fathers in the kindest manner. In 1638 Father Schall lost his deserving fellow-worker, Father Rho, but by that time the reform had already been accomplished in principle; it had become law and needed only to be put into execution.

All the provinces of China were soon informed of the important commission of reforming the calendar which had been entrusted to the missionaries. The news created a great sensation which benefited the whole mission. The honor paid to the missionaries of Peking redounded to the credit of all their brethren; many mandarins felt it necessary to offer public congratulations to those working within their territory. Everywhere the preaching of the Gospel was allowed unprecedented liberty. Father Schall profited by this, interrupting from time to time his scientific labors for the apostolate, not only in Peking but also in the neighboring provinces. Thus he founded a new Christian congregation at Ho-Kien, capital of one of the prefectures of Chi-li. However, his zeal was especially exercised at the court itself. Christianity, which hitherto had won but few souls in the imperial palace, now took an important place there through the conversion of ten eunuchs, among whom were the sovereign’s most qualified servants. This class had always been most opposed to the preaching of the missionaries. This happy progress of evangelization was disturbed and for a time stopped by the invasion f the Tatars and the revolution which, by overthrowing the throne of the Ming dynasty, brought about the accession of the Manchu dynasty of the T’sings, which still reigns. In the provinces laid waste by the insurrection prior to the foreign conquest several missionaries were massacred by the rebel leaders. At Peking Father Schall assisted the last of the Ming in his useless resistance by casting cannon for him. Nevertheless the Tatars regarded him favorably. Shun-chi, the first of the Ts’ings to reign at Peking, was only eight or eleven years old when he was proclaimed emperor (1643). The regent who governed in his name for six years confirmed all Schall’s power regarding the calendar. The young emperor was still kinder to the missionary; not only did he summon him to familiar interviews in his palace, but, in spite of the most sacred rules of Chinese etiquette, he used unexpectedly to visit him in his house, remaining in his modest room a long time and questioning him on all kinds of subjects.

The imperial favor became a source of serious embarrassment to Father Schall and his fellow-workers. Prior to Shun-chi the “new rules” established by the Jesuits for the making of the Chinese calendar became compulsory for the official astronomers, but the correctors themselves had no authority to insure application of them. Shun-chi wished to alter this, impelled no doubt by his affection for Father Schall, but also because he had recognized the inefficiency of the native direction of the Board of Mathematics. He therefore appointed Father Schall president of this Board, at the same time conferring on him high rank as a mandarin to correspond with this important office. The missionary thought he might accept the office, which was more onerous than honorable; the success of the reform, which was theoretically accomplished, required it. But the rank of mandarin accorded ill with religious humility. Schall did all in his power to avoid it; from 1634, when it was conferred on him for the first time, until 1657, he made five appeals to the emperor or to the Supreme Tribunal of Rites, to be relieved of it. In his explanations to his brethren in the mission (December 16, 1648) he declared that he had refused it eight times, that he had pleaded on his knees before the Tribunal of Rites to be delivered from it, and that he only finally accepted it at the command of his regular superior and renouncing most of the advantages whether honorary or financial which were connected with the rank. Nevertheless this acceptance, not withstanding the reservations made, was the occasion of other conscientious scruples concerning which the sentiments of the Jesuits in China were divided for several years. First of all, was not every rank of mandarin as exercised by a missionary a violation of the canon law which forbade priests to hold civil offices?

A more serious question arose regarding the contents of the Chinese calendar. The latter, as it was drawn up by the Board of Mathematics and subsequently spread throughout the empire, gave not only astronomical information of a purely scientific nature, but the Chinese likewise sought and found there indications concerning lucky and unlucky days, that is those which should be chosen or avoided for certain actions, and much superstition was mixed with this part. When the calendar was seen to contain the same things after Father Schall became president, uneasiness was felt among the missionaries. Everybody did not know how the publication was made. No one supposed that Father Schall had the slightest share in the superstitions; they were in fact the exclusive work of a section of the Board of Mathematics which worked independently of Father Schall. Furthermore, the definitive and official publication of the calendar was not within the father’s province. That was reserved to the Li-pou (Bureau of Rites), to which Father Schall merely transmitted his astronomical calculations. Besides, Father Schall’s data were expressly distinguished in the calendar itself by the words, “according to the new rule”. Nevertheless, even when they were aware of these explanations, which Father Schall hastened to give, several learned and zealous missionaries considered that his responsibility was too greatly involved and, consequently, since his office did not permit him to suppress the superstitions of the calendar, he was bound in conscience to resign. Five theologians of the Roman College to whom the question was submitted with incomplete information decided in this sense on August 3, 1655. However, fresh explanations given by Father Schall and the approval of other very competent missionaries eventually placed the case in a different light, and a new and better informed commission at Rome concluded (January 31, 1664) that there was no valid reason for Father Schall’s resignation of the presidency of the Board of Mathematics. The preamble of the decision repeated and adopted the arguments of Father Verbiest: “The father president of the board”, it stated, “does not concur positively in the insertion of the superstitious matters which have been noted in the calendar; he does not concur therein, either himself, for he does not sign these additions or set his seal to them, nor through his pupils (in the Board of Mathematics), for the latter only make the insertion, without the father taking any share therein. With regard to the distribution of the calendar, which he makes in virtue of his office, it bears directly only on the notification of astronomical observations. If the calendar also contains things which savor of superstition it may be said that they are published under the head of information and are indifferent in themselves, that is the calendar simply shows the days on which such and such things are done according to the customs of the empire, or that they are the days having the conditions which popular superstition considers favorable for certain acts; and Father Schall is passive under the abuse which is following this distribution, which he was forced to make by serious reasons and even necessity.

To remove the last scruples concerning this burning question, Father Oliva, General of the Society of Jesus, appealed to the pope. Alexander VII, after having taken account of the whole affair, declared vivre vocis oraculo (April 3, 1664) that he authorized the Jesuits of China, “even professed, to exercise the office and dignity of mandarin and imperial mathematician”. The decision set at rest not only Father Schall’s conscience, but also those of the missionaries who might be called to the same duties. In fact, except for a short interruption caused by the persecution of which we shall speak later, the presidency of the astronomical bureau remained with the mission till the nineteenth century. It was always the best human protection both for liberty of preaching and freedom to practice Christianity throughout the Chinese empire. Even in Father Schall’s time this was clearly proved by the rapid increase in the number of neophytes; in 1617 they were only 13,000; in 1650, 150,000, and from 1650 to the end of 1664 they grew to at least 254,980. The missionaries who furnished these statistics at the very period did not hesitate to give the correction of the calendar as the indirect cause of the progress of evangelization, although the extraordinary tokens of kindness which Father Schall received from the young emperor contributed a great deal. One of the most valuable of these tokens, especially from the Chinese standpoint, was the diploma, dated April 2, 1653, by which Shun-chi expressed his lively satisfaction with the services rendered in the revision of the calendar and the direction of the Board of Mathematics, and conferred on Father Schall the title of Tung hiuen kiao shi, “most profound doctor”. This diploma, written in Tatar and Chinese, the text being encircled with dragons and other carved ornaments, was delivered to the father engraved on a marble tablet. The tablet, which was recovered at Peking in 1880 by M. Deveria, who presented it to the Jesuit missionaries of southeast Chili, measures eighty-eight by fifty-one inches. Father Schall appreciated still more the gift of a new house and a church for the building of which the emperor gave a thousand crowns. This was the first public church opened in the capital since the coming of the missionaries; it was dedicated in 1650.

Some years later Shun-chi gave Father Schall and the mission a still greater gift, an imperial declaration praising not only European learning but also the law of the Lord of Heaven, that is the Christian religion, and permitting it to be preached and adopted everywhere. This declaration, made in 1657, was also engraved in Tatar and Chinese on a large marble plate and placed before the church. All his goodwill towards Christianity and the welcome which the young monarch accorded to the discreet preaching of Father Schall, had inspired the latter with the hope that one day he would request baptism, but Shun-chi died (1662) before giving him this joy, aged at most twenty-four years. The child who was proclaimed his successor became the famous K’ang-hi and favored the Christians even more than his father, but during his minority the government was in the hands of four regents who were enemies of Christianity. At the denunciation of a Mohammedan self-styled astronomer, Yang-koang-sien, Father Schall and the other missionaries residing at Peking were loaded with chains and thrown into prison in November, 1664. They were accused of high treason but chiefly of the propagation of an evil religion.

The principal charge against Father Schall was that he had shown to the deceased emperor images of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Brought before various tribunals the aged missionary, who had just been stricken with paralysis, could only reply to his judges through his companion, Father Verbiest. The first complaint against him was that he had secured the presidency of the Board of Mathematics in order that he might use the authority accruing from this high office for the propagation of the Christian Faith; Father Verbiest replied for him: “John Adam took the presidency of the Board of Mathematics because he was on several occasions urged to do so by the emperor. On a stone tablet, erected before the church, the emperor publicly attested that he raised John Adam, against the latter’s wishes, to that dignity.” Another complaint of the accuser—that Father Schall had badly determined the day on which a little imperial prince was to be buried—was set aside by the regents themselves for, on investigation, they found that the priest had never meddled with the determination of lucky or unlucky days. Finally, on April 15, 1665, sentence of death was passed against Father Schall; he was condemned to be cut in pieces and to be beheaded. Almost immediately afterwards a violent earthquake was felt at Peking, a thick darkness covered the city, a meteor of strange aspect appeared in the heavens, and fire reduced to ashes the part of the imperial palace where the sentence was delivered. The missionaries as well as the Christians could not but see Divine intervention in these events, while the superstitious Tatars and Chinese were terrified. In consequence the death sentence was revoked (May 2) and Father Schall was authorized to return to his church with his fellow missionaries. The venerable old man survived these trials a year, dying at the age of seventy-five, having consecrated forty-five years to the Chinese missions. Peace was not entirely restored to the Christian communities until 1669, when the young emperor assumed the reigns of government. One of K’ang-hi’s first acts was to have the sentence against Father Schall declared void and iniquitous by the Tribunal of Rites and to order solemn funeral ceremonies in his honor, the prince himself composing for his tomb an extremely eulogistic epitaph.

Father Schall worthily ended as a confessor for the Faith, almost as a martyr, a long life filled not only with great services to religion, but also marked by every virtue. All witnesses testify to this, and we might treat with contempt an infamous accusation directed against his memory nearly a century after his death. In 1758 was published for the first time, and afterwards reissued in several works against the Jesuits, a story according to which Father Schall spent his last years “separated from the other missionaries and removed from obedience to his superiors, in the house given him by the emperor with a woman whom he treated as his wife and who bore him two children; finally, having led a pleasant life with his family for some time, he ended his days in obscurity.” This is reported by Marcel Angelita, secretary to Msgr. de Tournon during his legation in China (1705-1710), who died at Rome in 1749. The narrative gives no inkling of the source of this strange story. Its value may readily be judged by the manner in which it contradicts what has been related of the last days of Father Schall according to contemporaneous witnesses and even official Chinese documents.

Prior to Angelita no one ever formulated or insinuated such an accusation against the celebrated missionary. If what it presumes were true it could not have been concealed; Yang-koang-sien and other enemies would have exploited it. In particular Navarrete, author of the “Tratados historicos”, in which are collected so many more or less false stories concerning the Jesuit missionaries (including Father Schall), could not have failed to learn of this during his stay at Peking in 1665 and to recount it at length. At any rate such complete disregard of the duties of a priest would not have escaped his fellow-religious (of whom there were always some at Peking), and they would not have continued to honor him, as they did, to the end as one of their most venerable brethren. These reasons and others which could be adduced are so clear that there is not the slightest doubt concerning the falseness of Angelita’s story. It may be asked, however, how the latter, whose calling should have prevented him from being a. calumniator of the lowest class, could invent and publish such a villainous tale. The fact is that Schall’s life might have furnished a foundation on which Angelita’s imagination, inflamed against the Jesuits, worked and finally reared this story, but it furnished not a shadow of proof. Several contemporaries of Father Schall, Jesuits and others, including Chinese, mention the name of a Chinese Christian, a servant of Father Schall’s, who seems to have made use of the priest’s goodness for the benefit of his own ambition. Puontsin-hia (thus was he called) obtained for himself a mandarinship of the fifth rank; for his son John he secured even more, for Father Schall regularly adopted him as his grandson, and the Emperor Shun-chi granted many weighty favors to this “adopted grandson” of the missionary whoa he loved. Father Gabiani in a relation (written between 1666 and 1667, and published in 1671) states that the “arrogance” of this upstart “slave” prejudiced many persons of rank against his master. Father Schall himself, when at the point of death (July 21, 1665), made a public confession to his brethren of his “excessive indulgence towards this servant, of the scandal he had caused in adopting as his grandson the son of Puon,” finally of irregular gifts made to both, contrary to his vow of poverty. The avowal of these human weaknesses, doubtless exaggerated by the humility of the dying missionary, does not lessen our esteem for him. Hence the conclusion may be drawn that the source of Angelita’s story was probably this fact of the adoption of the son of Puon by Father Schall. But this fact, doubtless learned by Tournon’s secretary during his stay in China, forty years after the death of Father Schall, had perhaps been distorted when it reached him, or rather his prejudice against the Jesuits caused him to regard it as something quite different from what it implied and to add to it false and calumniating circumstances. Finally it should be added that he wrote his relation many years after his return from China, when his mind was perhaps enfeebled by age and under the influence of a more passionately prejudiced man than himself, the ex-Capuchin Norbert.


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