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Leonard Lessius

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Lessius (LEYS), LEONARD, a Flemish Jesuit and a theologian of high reputation, b. at Brecht, in the province of Antwerp, October 1, 1554; d. at Louvain, January 15, 1623. His parents, honest people of the farming class, died when he was but six years old. In 1568 he entered the college of Arras in the University of Louvain, and there studied classics and philosophy. His brilliant talents enabled him to become doctor in philosophy at the age of seventeen years; and although he did not learn Greek till later, he mastered it so well that he could mentally translate into that language the reading he heard in the refectory, and sometimes wrote his private notes in Greek. Professors vied with one another in seeking to have him as their pupil. In 1572, and not, as the date is sometimes given, in 1573, he entered the Society of Jesus, and after two years’ noviceship was sent to Douai to teach philosophy in the Jesuit College there till 1581. He studied theology in Rome, where he had Francis Suarez as his professor for two years. In 1585 he was back again at Louvain as professor of theology in the Jesuit College and held this chair for fifteen years. When he had given up teaching, he was urged by his superiors and companions to publish the lectures on theology which he had delivered with such great success; this he did, yielding at last to their wishes. He was twice sent to Rome by the members of the Gallo-Belgian province to the general congregations of his order in 1608 and 1615. Cardinal Bellarmine and other dignitaries of the Church endeavored, though unsuccessfully, to retain him in Rome and to attach him to the Sacred Penitentiary. He was consulted from all quarters, and corresponded on theological matters with the most learned doctors of the day, such as Bellarmine, Suarez, Vasquez, Molina, etc. But he longed to have done with studying and writing books, that he might turn to prayer and contemplation towards the end of his career. His remains are in the choir of the Jesuit church in Louvain. Leonard Lessius was a man of great virtue and of great science; his modesty and humility were equal to his learning, nor did he ever hesitate to give up his own opinion when good arguments against it were presented to him; his charity, meekness, patience, and mortification were remarkable throughout his long life, in spite of the trying disease he contracted when fleeing from Douai to escape the Calvinists. Pope Urban VIII, who had known him personally, paid a special tribute to his sanctity; St. Francis of Sales also esteemed him highly for his virtue and his science. After his death, authentic information was taken about his life and virtues; he is now ranked among the venerable, and the process of his beatification has been introduced..

The literary activity of Lessius was not confined to dogmatic and moral matters; he wrote also on asceticism and controversy. We give here the most important of his works; the whole list may be seen in Sommervogel. The first printed lines which came from the pen of Lessius, i.e. “Theses theologicae” (Louvain, 1586), provoked a fiery debate with the doctors of the University of Louvain; the theses of Lessius and Hamelius, both professors at the Jesuit College, Were attacked as containing dangerous opinions on predestination, grace, inspiration in Holy Scripture, etc. As to the last point, Lessius had merely suggested an hypothesis on subsequent inspiration, i.e. that a book written without the help of the Holy Ghost might become Holy Scripture, if the Holy Ghost apparently declared that the said book did not contain anything false. The condemnations issued by the Vatican Council did not touch this view of Lessius. The doctrine of Lessius on grace and predestination, which was accused of Semipelagianism, taught predestination “post praevisa merits”, the cooperation of free will with grace in such a way as to reject the “gratia per se efficax”; in fact, this doctrine was by no means peculiar to Lessius. Apologies, antitheses, anti-apologies, succeeded on both sides; the Universities of Louvain and Douai censured the theses; the faculties of theology of Ingolstadt, Mainz, and Trier approved them; the general of the Jesuits and at last the pope was appealed to. Finally Sixtus V, who in a letter called the incriminated articles “articuli sane doctrinae”, charged his nuncio at Cologne, Octavio Frangipani, to bring the discussions to an end till the pope should have decided the question; Frangipani (1588) forbade both sides, under threat of excommunication, to discuss the matter or to charge each other with heresy.

The great work of Lessius is “De justitia et jure”, which was published in 1605 and was dedicated to the Archduke Albert. Many editions followed at Antwerp, Louvain, Lyons, Paris, and Venice. This work, composed with great accuracy, shows best the soundness of judgment, the common sense, and the clearness of mind which distinguishes Lessius. The chapters on interest and other commercial subjects are epoch-making in the treatment of those difficult questions; Lessius was especially consulted by the merchants of Antwerp on matters of justice. Archduke Albert had the book constantly on his desk and referred to it as a guide. A good compendium of the work was published at Douai in 1634. Four years later a work of quite a different nature was written by Lessius under the title, “Qum fides et religio sit capessenda” (Antwerp, 1609). It is a short book of some 150 pages, on controversy and apologetics, which brought about a great many conversions, among them that of John of Nassau. The book was often reprinted and was translated into Flemish, German, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, and French. The work “De gratia efficaci”, on grace, liberty, predestination, etc., appeared in 1610; with the “De justitia” it secures Lessius a place among the best theologians of the day in dogmatic as well as in moral questions. Some writings of a controversial character were published between 1611 and 1619; “De Antichristo et ejus praecursoribus”; “Defensio potestatis summi pontificis”, against the theories put forward by James I, King of England, Barclay, Blackwell, etc. A work on Providence and the immortality of the soul was printed in 1613, “De Providentia Numinis”, and translated into different languages, even into Chinese. His “Hygiasticon” or plea for sobriety, a treatise on how to preserve strength and to live long, was published in 1613, often reprinted and translated into nearly all the languages of Europe; it is a translation of a similar work by Cornaro (Luigi Cornaro, an Italian hygienist, 1467-1566), accompanied with the personal reflections of Lessius. Even now it is not without interest.

Among his ascetical works, which are noted for the science and piety they contain, must be mentioned his “De summo bono” (Antwerp, 1616); “De perfectionibus moribusque divinis libri XIV” (Antwerp, 1620); and especially his posthumous work, on the Divine names, “Quinquaginta nomina Dei” (Brussels, 1640), very often reprinted and translated. After his death was published his theological treatise on the sacraments, the Incarnation, etc. (De beatitudine, de actibus humans, de incarnatione Verbi, de sacraments et censurig, etc., Louvain, 1645). Not a few of his unprinted works are preserved at Brussels and elsewhere; they are made up especially of theological treatises, notes on morals, some letters and documents on the discussion mentioned above, answers to various consultations, etc. No complete (edition of Lessius’s works has ever appeared. The books “De perfectionibus divinis”, “De gratis efficaci”, “De summo bone”, etc. were published in Paris ‘(1878-81); “De divinis nominibus” and “De summo ibono” at Freiburg (1862 and 1869); Bouix made a new French translation of the “De divinis nominibus” (Paris, 1882).


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