150th Death Anniversary of Fr. Theophile Verbist
Friday, 23 February 2018 10:34

Rev. Fr. Théophile  Verbist

150th Death Anniversary
February 23, 2018

 

Born in Antwerp (Belgium) on June 12, 1823, in an urban middle class family, he was ordained as  diocesan priest on September 18, 1847.

Initially assigned as supervisor in the Minor Seminary of Mechlin, he became chaplain at the military school and rector of a community of Sisters of Notre-Dame de Namur in Brussels in 1853.

In 1860, he got an additional appointment as National Director of the Holy Childhood in Belgium; around that time, his longtime vocation to the foreign missions began to manifest itself more clearly.

After intense correspondence with Church authorities and a gradual clarification of the project of a Belgian missionary congregation to the Far East, the group received the Chinese province of Inner-Mongolia as their tentative area of assignment in 1861, that would be confirmed three years later.

After more consultations and meetings, the statutes of the new congregation were approved on November 28, 1862. The general purpose of the new congregation was defined as “the conversion of the infidels”, while as specific aims are given “the preaching of the faith to the Chinese and the salvation of the many abandoned children”.

Five pioneers (Rev. Fathers Verbist, Bax, Van Segvelt, Verlinden, and Vranckx) took their religious vows in the hands of Cardinal Sterckx on October 24, 1864.

On August 25, 1865, after succeeding to receive French passports, but with too little time left to schedule time for learning the Chinese language in Hong Kong, the first batch of missionaries, headed by Father Verbist himself, left for Chinese Mongolia, via Rome, where the founder got his appointment as apostolic pro-vicar.

On December 6, 1865, the team arrives in Xiwanze, their destination, without most of their luggage that was left in Paris due to a shipment error; they would get them only in April of the following year, after winter.

In September 1866, the Lazarist Fathers, who had been in charge of Inner-Mongolia, finalized the turnover of the entire province to the Belgian missionaries.

February 23, 1868: While on a tour of his mission stations, Father Verbist fell ill at the village of Laohugou and died. While he was not the first European priest to die early in China in those days, the impact on the new Congregation was significant; however, history would prove God’s blessing over the young congregation as it managed to overcome this terrible trial.

Father Verbist was (1) a pioneer of the foreign mission; he was (2) compassionate and his actions were (3) transformational, as they led to the creation of a new congregation in just a few years, and in the establishment of the Belgian Mission in China, in a region known for its harsh climate, its huge distances, poor roads, and often unsafe travel conditions.

As a pioneer, Father Verbist had a cosmopolitan interest in the universal church, as the good news of Jesus is addressed to all peoples. Father Verbist developed a special interest for the church and the society of China, showing exceptional creativity and flexibility in the realization of his initial plan just to form a community of Belgian priests there. His openness of mind was combined with a strong faith in the success of his plans, his trust in Divine Providence never wavering. This made him also a pronounced optimist, confident that God would complete his project and bring it to a good end. This could already be seen at the start, as he expressed this belief: “All in all,  my dear, we have a good and beautiful mission” (Letter 73, to J. Bax, January 14, 1866) and “In the end, we have found here a poor country, that’s true, very poor even, but really interesting, where animal life leaves no wish unsatisfied, and where the climate, thanks to the furs by which one is covered, is very bearable, almost nice even.” (Letter 74, to Cardinal Sterckx, January 14, 1866).

Of course, Father Verbist was also a realist: “What makes the life of a missionary truly difficult are the huge distances that he has to cross to carry out his holy ministry, without finding along the road things of basic need, and to have to undergo through the deserts of Mongolia, not only an intense cold, but twisters of dust and snow that are challenging his days” (Letter 74).

The news of the death of his fellow-pioneer and good friend Father Van Segvelt left him devastated, but not hopeless: “God has been so good to us, who knows if in his love he hasn’t taken the soul among us that was most mature for heaven, to provide the Mission with a guardian angel, a special protector” (…) “Courage! Let’s accept our adversities. We know for whom we are suffering, isn’t it?” Missionaries don’t give up, as their concern for charitable works keeps them going: ”When one is missionary, one easily learns to accept, my friends.” (Letter 454, to J. Bax, April 24, 1867).

In spite of the hardships, Father Verbist remained compassionate, therefore, such as when he intervened – not long after his arrival – with the Great Chinese Mandarin to save a man who was imprisoned to make up for a crime committed by his brother: “I have thought to be committing an act of charity in soliciting the attention of the great Chinese mandarin for this innocent man.” Fortunately, Father Verbist’s diplomatic skills did not fail: “Upon arrival at home, we learnt that the mandarin had kept his word (…); and that the captive after having been brought to freedom, was already searching for his brother to convince him to come and turn himself freely in to his judge.”

 

Last of all, Father Verbist’s actions were transformational. This was already manifested both before departure from Belgium and right after their arrival in Chinese Mongolia. Father Verbist needed a generous dose of perseverance to convince Church authorities that he was serious about his missionary plans, and a lot of effort was also needed to find badly needed additional financial resources – from the Holy Childhood and the Propagation of the Faith, but also from various private benefactors. Most of all, however, Father Verbist attributed the transformational impact of his works to God’s grace, upon the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Echoing the spirit of Magnificat, he wrote to his spiritual adviser: “I admit it to you, dear Father, if I open my heart in feelings of thankfulness in front of him, and if I put before my eyes all happy circumstances, all special favors obtained until now, needed to realize this conceived project, I am losing myself and I am frightened by the faithfulness that I will need to faithfully reply to so many important favors” (Letter 167, to B. Bossue, May 23, 1866).