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Victor de Buck

Bollandist, b. at Oudenarde, Flanders, April 21, 1817; d. June 28, 1876

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Buck, VICTOR DE, Bollandist, b. at Oudenarde, Flanders, April 21, 1817; d. June 28, 1876. His family was one of the most distinguished in the city of Oudenarde. After a brilliant course in the humanities, at the municipal college of Soignies and the petit seminaire of Roulers and completed in 1835 at the college of the Society of Jesus at Alost, he entered this Society on October 11 of the same year. After two years in the novitiate, then at Nivelles, and a year at Tronchiennes reviewing and finishing his literary studies, he went to Namur in September, 1838, to study philosophy and the natural sciences, closing these courses with a public defense of theses bearing on these subjects. The work of the Bollandists (q.v.) had just been revived and, in spite of his youth, Victor De Buck was summoned to act as assistant to the hagiographers. He remained at this work in Brussels from September, 1840, to September, 1845. After devoting four years to theological studies at Louvain, where he was ordained priest in 1848, and making his third year of probation in the Society of Jesus, he was permanently assigned to the Bollandist work in 1850, and was engaged upon it until the time of his death. He had already published in part second of Vol. VII of the October “Acta Sanctorum”, which appeared in 1845, sixteen commentaries or notices that are easily distinguishable because they are without a signature, unlike those written by the Bollandists. Moreover, during the course of his theological studies which suffered thereby no interruption, and before becoming a priest, he composed, in collaboration with Antoine Tinnebroeck who, like himself was a scholastic, an able refutation of a book published by the professor of canon law at the University of Louvain, in which the rights of the regular clergy were assailed and repudiated. This refutation, which fills an octavo volume of 640 pages, abounding in learned dissertations, was ready for publication within four months. It was to have been supplemented by a second volume that was almost completed but could not be published because of the political disturbances of the year 1847 which were but the prelude to the revolutions of 1848, and the work was never resumed.

Father De Buck’s literary activity was extraordinary. Besides the numerous commentaries in Vols. IX, X, XI, XII, and XIII of the October “Acta Sanctorum”, which won the praise of those best qualified to judge, he published in Latin, French, and Flemish, a large number of little works of piety and dissertations on devotion to the saints, church history, and Christian archaeology, the partial enumeration of which fills two folio columns of his eulogy, in the fore part of Vol. II of the November “Acta”. Because of his extensive learning and investigating turn of mind he was naturally bent upon probing abstruse and perplexing questions; naturally, also, his work was often the result of most urgent requests. Hence it was that, in 1862, he was led to publish in the form of a letter to his brother Remi, then professor of church history at the theological college of Louvain and soon afterwards his colleague on the Bollandist work, a Latin dissertation “De solemnitate preecipue paupertatis religiose”, which was followed in 1863 and 1864 by two treatises in French, one under the title: “Solution aimable de la question des couvents” and the other “De l’etat religieux”, treating of the religious life in Belgium in the nineteenth century.

At the solicitation chiefly of prelates and distinguished Catholic savants, he undertook the study of a particularly delicate question. In order to satisfy the many requests made to Rome by churches and religious communities for the relics of saints, it had become customary to take from the Roman catacombs the bodies of unknown personages believed to have been honored as martyrs in the early Church. The sign by which they were to be recognized was a glass vial sealed up in the plaster outside the loculus that contained the body, and bearing traces of a red substance that had been enclosed and was supposed to have been blood. Doubts had arisen as to the correctness of this interpretation and, after careful study, Father De Buck felt convinced that it was false and that what had been taken for blood was probably the sediment of consecrated wine which, owing to misguided piety, had been placed in the tomb near the bodies of the dead. This conclusion, together with its premises, was set forth in a dissertation published in 1855 under the title “De phialis rubricatis quibus martyrum romanorum sepulcra dignosci dicuntur”. Naturally it raised lively protestations, particularly on the part of those who were responsible for distributing the bodies of the saints, the more so, as after the discussions on the vials of blood, the cardinal vicar in 1861 strictly forbade any further transportation of these relics. The author of the dissertation, “De phialis rubricatis”, had but a few copies of his work struck off, these being intended for the cardinals and prelates particularly interested in the question, and as none were put on the market, it was rumored that De Buck’s superiors had suppressed the publication of the book and that all the copies printed, save five or six, had been destroyed. This, of course, was untrue; not one copy had been destroyed and his superiors had laid no blame upon the author. Then, in 1863, a decree was obtained from the Congregation of Rites, renewing an older decree, whereby it was declared that a vial of blood placed outside of a sepulchral niche in the catacombs was an unmistakable sign by which the tomb of a martyr might be known, and it was proclaimed that Victor De Buck’s opinion was formally disapproved and condemned by Rome. This too was false, as Father De Buck had never intimated that the placing of the vial of blood did not indicate the resting-place of a martyr, when it could be proved that the vial contained genuine blood, such as was supposed by the decree of the congregation. Finally, there appeared in Paris in 1867 a large quarto volume written by the Roman prelate, Monsignor Sconamiglio, “Reliquiarurn custode”, It was filled with caustic criticisms of the author of “De phialis rubricatis” and relegated him to the rank of notorious heretics who had combated devotion to the saints and the veneration of their relics. Father De Buck seemed all but insensible to these attacks and contented himself with opposing to Monsignor Sconamiglio’s book a protest in which he rectified the more or less unconscious error of his enemies by proving that neither the decree of 1863 nor any other decision emanating from ecclesiastical authority had affected his thesis.

However, another attack made about the same time touched him more deeply. The gravest and most direct accusations were made against him and reported to the Sovereign Pontiff himself; he was even credited with opinions which, if not formally heretical, at least openly defied the ideas that are universally accepted and held in veneration by Catholics devoted to the Holy See. In a Latin letter addressed to Cardinal Patrizzi, and intended to come to the notice of the Supreme Pontiff, Father De Buck repudiated the calumnies in a manner that betrayed how deeply he had been affected, his protest being supported by the testimony of four of his principal superiors, former provincials, and rectors who eagerly vouched for the sincerity of his declarations and the genuineness of his religious spirit. With the full consent of his superiors he published this letter in order to communicate with those of his friends who might have been disturbed by an echo of these accusations.

What might have invested these accusations with some semblance of truth and what certainly gave rise to them, were the amicable relations established, principally through correspondence, between Father De Buck and such men as Alexander Forbes, the learned Anglican bishop, the celebrated Edward Pusey in England, Montalembert, and Bishop Dupanloup in France and a number of others whose names were distasteful to many ardent Catholics. These relations were brought about by the reputation for deep learning, integrity, and scientific independence that De Buck’s works had rapidly earned for him, by his readiness to oblige those who addressed themselves to him in their perplexities, and by his remarkable earnestness and skill in elucidating the most difficult questions. Moreover, he was equipped with all the information that incessant study and a splendid memory could ensure. But it was not only great minds groping outside of the true Faith or weakened by harassing doubts who thus appealed to his knowledge. The different papal nuncios who succeeded one another in Belgium during the course of his career as Bollandist, bishops, political men, members of learned bodies, and journalists, ceased not to importune this gracious scholar whose answers often formed important memoranda which, although the result of several days and sometimes several nights of uninterrupted labor, were read only by those who called them forth or else appeared anonymously in some Belgian or foreign periodical.

Although Father De Buck had an unusually robust constitution and enjoyed exceptionally good health, constant and excessive work at length told upon him and he was greatly fatigued when Father Beckx, Father General of the Society, summoned him to Rome to act as official theologian at the Vatican Council. Father Victor assumed these new duties with his accustomed ador and, upon his return, showed the first symptoms of the malady arterio-sclerosis that finally carried him off. He struggled for some years longer against a series of painful attacks each of which left him decidedly weaker, until a final attack that lasted almost interruptedly for nearly four years, caused his death.


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