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Willem Hessels Van Est

Famous commentator on the Pauline Epistles, b. at Gorcum, Holland, in 1542; d. at Douai, Sept. 20, 1613

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Est (ESTIUS), WILLEM HESSELS VAN, a famous commentator on the Pauline Epistles, b. at Gorcum, Holland, in 1542; d. at Douai, September 20, 1613. Gorcum at that time contained about 5000 inhabitants, among whom the most illustrious belonged to the family of Est, both on his father’s and mother’s side. Est was born at a time of great excitement, and though the mildest of men his whole life was spent amidst scenes of controversy and civil war. Luther was still in full vigor, though he had only four years to live, Calvin was active at Geneva, and Europe was flooded with books and pamphlets violently attacking the Church. Very few writers did more to show (and that in quite an unostentatious manner) the hollowness of the reformers’ Biblical arguments than Est. He received his early education at home, after which he went to Utrecht, where he studied classics and thence proceeded to Louvain, where he spent about twenty years in the study of philosophy, theology, and Holy Scripture. During the last ten years there he was professor of philosophy in one of the colleges. In 1580 he received the degree of Doctor of Theology. He was throughout distinguished by sincere piety, great ability, and application to study. During this time he was frequently the bearer of pecuniary aid to his uncle, Nicolas Pieck, O.S.F., who was giving missions in Belgium; but the latter would never accept any help. In 1572, while Est was still at Louvain, a great catastrophe befell his native town, which was captured by the Calvinists. His father, brother, and uncle were made prisoners and were in imminent danger of their lives. The father and brother escaped, but Nicolas Pieck, who was then Superior of the Franciscan convent at Gorcum, and eighteen other ecclesiastics, were taken to Brielle, on the sea-coast, and put to death for the Catholic Faith with revolting brutality. Est wrote what is considered the best history of the Martyrs of Gorcum, who were canonized by Pius IX in 1867. From this history we learn many details about Est and his relatives.

When Est first arrived at Louvain he found the place in a ferment owing to the recently broached opinions of Baius (q.v.), one of the professors of Holy Scripture, and who held a leading position in the university all the time that Est was there. Violent controversy raged round the person of Baius during all that time. It is evident from the commentaries of Est that he was much influenced on questions of grace and free will by the teaching of his old professor, Baius; and on these points he has to be read with some caution. After having been made doctor, he continued teaching philosophy at Louvain two years longer. In 1582 he was made professor of theology at Douai, a position which he retained for thirty-one years. He was also for many years rector of the diocesan seminary and during the last eighteen years of his life chancellor of the University of Douai. He was noted for his piety, modesty, and compassion for the poor, and greatly admired for his vast learning, solid judgment, and eloquence. He was afterwards styled doctor fundatissimus by the learned Pope Benedict XIV. Soon after he left Louvain a fresh controversy broke out there, into which he appears to have been drawn. About 1586 Lessius began to refute the errors of Baius in his ordinary course of lectures. The friends of Baius, who admired him for his edifying life, great learning, and manly submission, felt annoyed that his shortcomings should have been thus pointedly accentuated by their opponents. They attacked certain propositions of Lessius, resembling those of Molina and Suarez, and had them condemned by the university as savoring of Semipelagianism. The sister university of Douai added its condemnation (said to have been obtained under a misapprehension), and its terms were in still more violent language. It has been said, though on no very clear evidence, that the form of condemnation was drawn up by Est. There can be little doubt but that he was in favor of the condemnation. The whole controversy finally led up to the Congregatio de Auxiliis (q.v.). On maturer examination the teaching of Lessius on grace etc. was found to be innocuous.

Most of Est’s works, which were written in Latin, were not published until after his death. His greatest work is his “In omnes Divi Pauli et Catholicas Epistolas Commentarii” (Douai, 1614-15; Mainz, 1858-60). There are several later editions, that of Mainz (1841-45, 7 vols.) being one of the best. To this work was prefixed the author’s protestation of loyalty to the Church in which he declares that he desires to submit all things to the judgment of the Catholic Church and its supreme pastor and judge on earth, the Roman pontiff, and if anything has been spoken in error that it be considered as unsaid. In his commentaries he everywhere endeavors to arrive at the literal meaning of the author, with great judgment, acumen, and erudition. He refutes objections, as occasion arises, with calmness and freedom from passion. No serious student of the Epistles can afford to neglect this work. Horne, a Protestant writer (Introd., London, 1834, II, 293), says that it is “a most valuable work, which Romanists and Protestants alike concur to recommend as an excellent critical help to the exposition of the Apostolic Epistles. The prefaces of Est are particularly valuable.” His other works are: “Commentarii in IV libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi” (Douai, 1615); “Annotationes in praecipua et difficiliora S. Scripturae loca” (Douai, 1617); “Historia Martyrum Gorcomiensium” (Douai, 1603; also in the “Acta SS.” for July, II, 754-847). He also translated the life of Blessed Edmund Campion, S.J., from French into Latin, and left copious notes for a new edition of the works of St. Augustine.



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