Fr. Peter Beckx – biography.


By all accounts, the volume now Yale, Beinecke MS 408 had lain in a trunk that had accompanied Fr, Beckx for some years, but then lain unopened from the time of his death until its contents were noticed and offered for sale, first to Wilfrid Voynich who speaks of seeing the manuscript, still in the trunk, among others which he bought. The inference is that the books had been in that trunk from the time of Beckx death in 1887 until about 1911 or so, when Voynich was first approached as potential buyer.

For this reason, the movements of Fr. Beckx during the years between when he was elected Head of the Jesuit order (‘General’), until the time of his death, are of interest.

The following account of his life is extremely detailed and is at once a biography and an obituary, being published in the Jesuits’ own Journal only a few months after Beckx’ death, while memory of his last years was fresh in the minds of all who knew him.. It will be noticed that some often-repeated statements (found even in otherwise reliable sources) are flawed. Beckx did not return to Rome for the election of his successor and did not die in the Villa Mondragone or Collegium Romanum. Beckx own words will be found further below, but I repeat them here:

“Is it not a strange thing that the Father General of the Society of Jesus should be obliged in the city of Rome, within a few yards of the Gesu, of the Roman College and San Andrea, to go and seek in a hotel a lodging where he may die in peace. But God’s will be done. It is now nearly seventy years since I began to learn in the school of Him who had not whereon to lay his Head.” It was a student hostel – not exactly a student college but near enough. Since it was a hostel for German students, it raises questions about just when the line of marginalia on f.116v, and some of black-ink additions to the calendar’s anthropoform figures were first added.

I have made a few more paragraph spaces in what follows; have put the footnotes by the paragraphs to which each refers with sequential numbers. No other changes were made.




(from: Woodstock Letters, Volume XVI, Number 2, 1 July 1887 pp.180-189.)

The following sketch of the life of our late Father General, who died piously at Rome on the 4th of March, 1887, after having wisely governed the Society for over thirty years, has been compiled mostly from the Précis Historiques of April, 1887.

Peter John Beckx was born on the 8th of February, 1795, in the little Belgian town of Sichem, which is situated about three miles from Diest, the birth-place of Blessed John Berchmans. While he was yet a child his widowed mother took up her residence with her brother M. Pierre Theyskens, who imparted to young Beckx the first rudiments of learning, and watched over his advancement with a father’s care. But having lost this devoted relative in 1803, the little scholar was committed to the tutorship of an old Carthusian Father, named Moreels.

In the month of October, 1808, he left Fr. Moreels in order to begin his humanities at a Latin school of the neighboring village of Testelt. One can scarcely believe to-day in what a humble college the future General of the Society of Jesus began to acquire his knowledge of belle-lettres. A large room, with a floor of hardened clay, very low ceiling and but one small window through which the light of the sun could enter, was the school wherein about a hundred boys of the country around learned their Latin and catechism, and prepared themselves for the priesthood or for professional careers. The master, John Baptist Peeters, was a finished Latin scholar, who had studied for the church, but had been prevented by the outbreak of the French revolution from following his vocation. The esteem in which he was held in the neighboring country shows that he was an effective teacher ; that he was moreover a model teacher, who taught his pupils something more than profane learning, is proved by the fact that he merited under the Empire the honor of persecution. His establishment was closed in 1812, by the French government, and his pupils forced to abandon their studies for the time being.

In 1814, however, on the arrival of the allies Peeters re-opened his school and transferred it to Aerschot, where it soon made notable progress. Hither came young Beckx after two years diligently employed in private study and under this excellent man finished his Rhetoric with a success which presaged a brilliant future. But the young student had been as remarkable for his virtues as for his talents; it was with no surprise then that his friends learned that he felt himself called to the ministry of the altar. On the 15th of September, 1815, Peter Beckx was received into the Grand Seminary of Mechlin, where he studied theology and philosophy.

Among the seminarians he was distinguished for his perfect regularity and his love of the interior life, as well as for his earnestness in study and the rapid progress he made in the sacred sciences. One of his professors, M. I’Abbe Sterckx, afterwards Archbishop of Mechlin, and Cardinal, used to take pleasure in saying that Fr. Beckx had been one of the best students of the Seminary, and a youth who in all his conduct manifested the virtues of St. Aloysius. At that time —perhaps earlier even —the fervent seminarian entertained the design of one day entering the Society. He had read and re-read the life of his saintly compatriot, Blessed John Berchmans, and often expressed the wish that he too might devote himself to God under the standard of St. Ignatius.

His superiors in the Seminary to whom he manifested his desires, approved and encouraged his religious vocation, but gave him to understand that by entering the Novitiate directly from the Seminary, he would attract upon them the bad will of the Dutch Government. Shortly before the King of Holland had condemned to exile the young Jesuits who, having been expelled from their residence at Destelbergen, had again resumed community life in the buildings of the Archbishop of Ghent. He was obliged, then, to wait until he had finished his studies and had passed some time in parochial duties before he could accomplish his pious purpose. He was ordained priest in the metropolitan church of Mechlin, by the Prince-Archbishop de Mean, on the second Sunday of Lent, the 7th of March, 1819, and on the 11th of March celebrated his first Mass in his native town of Sichem. After spending eight months as curate of the parish of Uccle, situated near the gates of Brussels, he resigned his charge with permission of his Superior, in order to enter the Society.

The Jesuits had just opened a novitiate at Hildesheim, the Episcopal see of which was at that time occupied by Prince Egon de Furstemberg, who loved and protected the Society. Formerly there had been at Hildesheim a flourishing College. ‘The Prince-Bishop, on the publication of the Bull of suppression, had retained Jesuits in charge of the teaching in their ancient College. Little by little, however, death thinned their ranks and in 1816, there remained but Fr. Francis Xavier Liisken, then president of the Seminary.

With the permission of Very Rev. Fr. General Brzozowski this worthy priest had again entered the Society re-established by Pius VII. In order to provide for the future of the College, he had asked from Fr. General new auxiliaries. Fathers Van Everbroeck and Van der Moere were accordingly sent from Ghent in the month of September, 1817, with seven Belgian scholastics, who were to finish their theological studies. In the following year after the dispersion of the Novices of Ghent, it was determined to establish a Novitiate at Hildesheim.

Here Fr. Beckx arrived on the 28th of 0ctober, and had for his first guide in the spiritual life, Fr. Van Everbroeck, who had entered the Society at Polotsk in Russia, June, 1805. After the usual two years of probation, Fr. Beckx again took up the study of theology and was appointed to teach the seminarians the elements of canon law. At the same time, as he had already familiarized himself with the German language, he employed himself in the ministry of preaching, hearing confessions, and giving retreats to clergy and laity. In 1825, the Duke and Duchess of Anhalt-Kothen, having been converted to Catholicism while in Paris, by Fr. Ronsin of the Society, asked of Fr. General Fortis a Jesuit chaplain. The choice fell on Father Beckx.1

1. During his novitiate Fr. Beckx had read carefully Fr. Aquaviva’s ‘lnstructions for Confessors of Kings.’ The book had been put into his hands by his Master of Novices, who, guided by his insight into the character of Fr. Beckx, foresaw the future usefulness of such reading.

The position of a Jesuit in a city almost wholly Protestant was one of extreme delicacy and full of difficulties. The sweetness of manner of the young chaplain, the prudence and firmness shown by him and by his protector happily surmounted all obstacles. The Duke officially announced his conversion to Catholicism on the 13th of January, 1826, and on the 25th, Mass was said in the ducal chapel for the first time since the Reformation. In a short time Fr. Beckx had the satisfaction of seeing rooted prejudices disappear before his zeal and prudence. The Catholics, heretofore oppressed, suddenly rose in the esteem of their now tolerant countrymen ; a church was built for the Catholics of Kothen, a school for their children, a hospital for the sick and aged and a residence for the pastor of the new parish.

In 1830, when, on the death of the Duke, Fr. Beckx accompanied the Duchess to Vienna, he left behind him a flourishing little Catholic community where he had found but twenty Catholics and these strangers in the city. He returned for a while to Kothen in 1833, in order to be present at the solemn consecration of its church. It was in this same year that Fr. Beckx was calumniated by the President of the Consistory of Brunswick, who accused him of attempting the life of a Lutheran minister, through the intermediary of a self-styled Jesuit convert. The affair created a great uproar in Germany, but redounded finally to the honor of the Jesuit, who was twice declared wholly guiltless by Protestant tribunals.

Fr. Beckx was stationed at the capital of Austria for more than twenty years, as chaplain of the Duchess-dowager of Anhalt. For a long time he was the only Jesuit residing at Vienna. By his zeal, his charity, his good judgment, his wisdom in guiding others, he contributed greatly to raising the reputation of the Society in the esteem of very many persons of rank and influence, whom the prejudices of Protestantism and the Josephism of the last century had deceived. During his residence at Vienna besides the office of chaplain which he filled to the Duchess of Anhalt, he preached in the various churches and chapels of the capital, with an unction and force that was productive of very important results.2

2.Several of these sermons preached in German have been published. See De Backer, Bibliothtque des Ecrwains de la Compagnie de Jesus. 2 e Edition, tom. 3, col. 1956.

Very Rev. Fr. Roothaan, then General, put great trust in the wisdom and counsels of Fr. Beckx. He had opportunities of knowing him intimately and of appreciating him during his occasional sojournings in Rome. From 1830 to 1849, Fr. Beckx was entrusted by Fr. General with very delicate and important missions in Lombardy, Bavaria and ‘Hungary. In the latter year he was recalled to his native country to act as secretary to the Belgian Provincial. On the 10th of October he was appointed Rector of the Scholasticate at Louvain. Many eminent qualities, but above all his tender charity during the raging of a contagious disease had endeared him to his community. It was natural, then, that his departure from them, even though called to a field of greater usefulness, should cause feelings of deep regret. In February, 1852, he was charged by Very Rev. Fr. Roothaan with a new and important mission in Vienna. On the 8th of September of the same year, Fr. Beckx was named Provincial of Austria. Shortly after, he had the pleasure of seeing removed by imperial decree the obstacles which opposed the re-entrance of the Jesuit Fathers into their houses at Innspruck, Lintz and Lemberg, etc., whence the revolutionary movement of 1848 had expelled them.

In the month of June, 1853, he was obliged to go to Rome to attend, as Provincial, the General Congregation convened by order of Fr. Roothaan. The latter died on the 22nd of June and on the 2nd of July, Fr. Beckx was elected on the first ballot, General of the Society. From this time the life of Very Rev. Fr. Beckx becomes a part of the history of the Society, of which he was head.

His Generalship, as that of all his predecessors —more especially, perhaps, in our disturbed times —had its trials and consolations, its sorrows and joys. It is the glory of the Society and its heritage to take a part, humble though it be, in the combats and triumphs of the church militant. We shall mention briefly, only the principal events of both kinds which fell to the share of our late General. ‘ Father Beckx brought to his arduous office exceptional qualifications, gifts of nature which grace had perfected. He brought the experience and merits of a life religiously spent even among those taken up with the vanities of the world ; a judgment far seeing and prompt; a profound knowledge of men and the affairs of men ; faultless manners and a refined sense of propriety ; a firmness and dignity which knew how to command when there was need of command, but which ordinarily was hidden by his fatherly goodness and humble simplicity ; a spirit of faith ever active which made him seek only the greater glory of God ; a confidence that nothing could shake ; a serenity which, in spite of an extreme sensibility of heart, was undisturbed in the severest trials. This harmonious blending of strength and sweetness, the ascendency of which was felt by all who approached-him, merited for him the filial love and respect of his great religious family. Briefly, his. government may be characterized by the the two words: suaviter et fortiter. His generalship, longer than that of any of his predecessors, one only excepted,3 was at the same time one of the most prosperous and full of trials.

3. Fr. Claudius Aquaviva governed the Society for three months longer. He was elected on February the 19th,. 1581, and died at the age of sixty-two, January the 31st, 1615, having been General for thirty-three years, 11 months and thirteen days. Fr. Beckx was elected July the 2nd, 1853, and died March the 4th, 1887, having been General thirty-three years, eight months and two days. But no General of the Society attained the patriarchal age of ninety-two years.

The membership of the Society was more than doubled ; many of its ancient provinces were re-established in Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain and America; new missions were created and those existing extended ; the education of youth, a work so dear to the Society, was developed with such success as often to cause, the withdrawal of the moiety of civil liberty already conceded to the Jesuits. Numerous letters addressed to the Society remain as monuments of his wisdom and piety, and watchful zeal. Lastly, a legion of new models and protectors was obtained by the canonization or beatification of more than eighty Jesuits, all, with the exception of three, missionaries or martyrs.

Such are in larger outline the fruits of his productive government. But these were gathered through many difficulties and at the cost of many sufferings. At the very beginning of his Generalship, a persecution raised against the members of the Society in Spain, groundless accusations of political intrigue made against them in Naples and the spoliation of those at Fribourg, prepared him for more sorrowful trials. He saw in 1859 and 1860, his religious expelled from nearly the whole of the Italian peninsula; in 1866, banished from the Province of Venice, in 1868; driven out of Spain, in 1871 ; massacred in Paris, as in 1860, they had been in Syria; in 1873, proscribed in Germany on the inauguration of the Kulturkampf, and finally in 1880, forcibly ejected from their houses and Colleges in France and all her colonies.

We say nothing of South America, where the expulsion of the Jesuits seems to recur every four or five years, with the regularity of a periodic fever. And under his very eyes, after the sacrilegious invasion of Rome by the Piedmontese, Fr. Beckx had seen the ancient heirlooms of the Society, the churches where repose the bodies of her saints, the Colleges, libraries, museums and observatories, created and built by her scholars and scientists, suddenly become the possessions of a hostile government.

The protest which he addressed on this occasion to Victor Emmanuel, was so replete with religious eloquence and force as to draw admiration even from the despoilers. In 1873, on the expulsion of the Jesuits from the professed house of the Gesu, Fr. General was kindly received by M. I’Abbe Van den Branden, Rector of the Belgian College. His stay here was of short duration. It was recognized that the residence of the General in Rome was at the time impossible.

The unsettled state of affairs prevented any definite resolutions from being taken. Finally, Florence was chosen as a temporary resting-place, whither Fr. Beckx, accompanied by Mgr. Van den Branden and Fr. Anderledy, then Assistant for Germany, set out on the 30th of October, 1873. This provisional arrangement lasted longer than had been anticipated. Fr. General spent more than ten years in the ancient convent of San Girolamo at Fiesole, whence he continued to govern the Society, until the advanced age of ninety warned him that it was more prudent to lay the burden on younger shoulders. A General Congregation was then convoked at Fiesole, on the 24th of September, 1883, which elected as Vicar-General, with right of succession, Very Rev. Fr. Anderledy, and to him six months later Fr. Beckx committed entirely the government of the Society.

The remaining years of his life were spent in Rome. Fr. Anderledy wishing to meet his unexpressed desire, sent him to pass his last days in the quiet and solitude of San Andrea, near the tomb of St. Stanislaus and in the midst of the cherished memories of the old Novitiate of the Society. But even this consolation was to be denied him. The Roman municipality had determined to carry a new street through the Novitiate, and Fr. Beckx was obliged, on the 29th of October, 1886, to leave San Andrea.

After a few days passed at Castel Gandolfo, he took up his residence at the Hotel Costanzi, shortly before acquired as a residence for the pupils of the German College. On entering the building the venerable old man yielding to fatigue and emotion said to his companion, “Is it not a strange thing that the Father General of the Society of Jesus should be obliged in the city of Rome, within a few yards of the Gesu, of the Roman College and San Andrea, to go and seek in a hotel a lodging where he may die in peace. But God’s will be done. It is now nearly seventy years since I began to learn in the school of Him who had not whereon to lay his Head.”

The winter set in very severe. In spite of every precaution and care the health of Fr. Beckx declined visibly. However, on the 8th of February, surrounded by his children of the Society and the students of the German College, he was able to celebrate quietly his ninety-second birthday. Five days after his condition became very serious. The following extract from a letter of Fr. Lavigne, will give an account of his last moments.

“On Saturday, February the 26th, our venerated Father complained of fatigue and was unable to say Mass. We thought this a passing cloud, but were soon impressed with the gravity of his condition. He himself was not deceived, for he said to the physician, ‘These are my last days.’ On the morrow the doctor directed that the Holy Viaticum should be administered, not that there was any immediate danger, but considering the advanced age of the venerable patient, the worst might be apprehended at any moment. During the night he became worse and his mind began to wander. He imagined that he was an exile; that he had been put out of the house and deprived of his habit. In his more lucid moments he took his delirium to be a trick of the devil to prevent him from resting, for I must tell you that his constant endeavor during life had been to preserve peace of soul. He was naturally of an ardent imagination which he had always held in check ; but of late years he was powerless to do so. Sorely grieved at this, he would sometimes tell me, ‘My soul can no longer remain quiet before God; my imagination runs wild.’ And when in these last years, I made answer, ‘Your Paternity should not think of it.’ ‘lt is easy to say that,’ was the rejoinder, ‘but to do it is quite another thing ; I can no longer control my imagination.’ It was for this reason that during his sickness, he was very fond of using holy water, and seemed delighted whenever I sprinkled his bed with it. This he also did himself; and when his hands would refuse him that little service and I would trace upon his forehead as upon a child’s, the sign of the cross with the holy water, his joy and thanks knew no bounds. Once, however, he succeeded in dipping the ends of his fingers in the holy water stoup, and pronouncing the sacred words made, with the utmost solemnity, a great sign of the cross. Then he stopped awhile reflecting that he could not bless the devil, and added with vehemence : ‘May God drive thee off and cast thee back into the nethermost depths of Hell.’ What shall I say of his conformity to God’s will ? When yet at Fiesole, his soul was filled with apprehensions. The execution of the decrees against the Society was hourly expected. A letter came conveying to him the sad intelligence of their publication. Interrupting the reading of that harrowing news, he went to his prie-dieu, and said, ‘lta Pater, thy will be done, my God,’ and resuming his seat he ordered the reader to proceed. He prayed that the spirit of the Society should be kept alive in its members. It was his last recommendation to some scholastics. Showing them his rosary, T shall finish it that God may give you that grace,’ he said. The wandering of his mind fatigued him much. He could enjoy no rest, yet always accepted with joy my offer to say with him a decade of the rosary; prayer would calm him and gradually lull him to sleep. His last words were addressed to one of our Coadjutor Brothers. Shortly before his death, he took the hand of one of them and said : ‘Good bye, Brother, I thank you.’ A great lesson, surely, given us by a Father General of the Society of Jesus.

He loved the Brothers very tenderly, and recommended Superiors in his letters, to take special care of them. He was fast growing worse, both his fever and catarrh making headway. The dear Father himself was unaware that there was any cause for alarm; he even said jestingly to the community: ‘See, you have abundance to eat, and you allow me a little broth.’ On the eve of his death it was expected that a change would occur, which would give the disease a favorable turn. In fact, towards the hour of the ‘Ave Maria,’ a sudden perspiration got the better of the fever, but alas ! it soon returned more violent than ever. The patient’s agitation was extreme; two persons were in constant attendance during that night. I was ordered to bed because I had been at his side all the previous nights. Towards midnight I was sent for. I found the venerable patient in a state of complete prostration. He coughed with great difficulty and the catarrh was choking him. ‘Paternity,’ I said, ‘would you like to receive Holv Communion.’ ‘Oh ! gladly, gladly,’ was his reply. Early in the morning I offered the Holy Sacrifice in a little chapel near his room. He was attentive to every part of the Mass, so much so that on hearing the bell at the elevation, he took off his cap, and bowed his head. He received our Blessed Lord with serenity and happiness and spent one half hour in thanksgiving. He spoke no more, and we scarcely knew if he retained consciousness.

As he had expressed the desire to die holding the crucifix he had brought with him from Fiesole, the same which had received the last breath of St. Aloysius, Rev. Father Rector took it from its case and said, ‘Paternity, here is the crucifix of St. Aloysius. The venerable patient moved his lips as if he longed to kiss it, and raised his head a little. It was then we understood he had still his consciousness. Father Rector aided by two students from the German College administered the rites of Extreme Unction, and in the meanwhile, the dying Father’s breathing became, as we could not fail to notice, very painful. We had, however, full time to recite those prayers he loved so much, the prayers for the departing soul and a little after 5 o’clock, he went to receive his crown, without, as his confessor declared, passing through the cleansing fires of purgatory. Notwithstanding this assurance we must pray for him, for God’s judgments are not ours. One of our Fathers belonging to the German College has taken an admirable likeness of him. He is clad in his Jesuit gown and wears the chasuble. What shall I say of his virtues ? To a casual observer he seemed the most tranquil of men, but he was far from being so in reality. His temper was not what should be called violent, but quick, and his heart, his whole being, sensitive in a wonderful degree. You may judge of this by the following incident which he himself related to me. When a little boy, if the clouded sky announced a coming storm, unable to control himself he would leave the house, and run with all his speed through the neighboring fields. Grace alone could master that ardent nature, and so successfully did it do so, that in health or in sickness no unevenness of temper was ever noticed in him. The keenness of his sensibilities was the cause of great suffering to him. The slightest want of regard gave him pain and he was quick to perceive the smallest breach of charity. Hence his sedulous care to avoid whatever might hurt others.

The Coadjutor Brother appointed to wait upon him, had filled that office for thirty years. ‘ln those latter days he would help him even to put on his stockings. Sometimes the Reverend Father would offer some suggestions as to how those little duties should be performed ; then fearing that he had spoken harshly to the Brother he would repair to his room and beg his pardon ; the Brother scarcely knew why. And this was our Father’s practice not once a year but well-nigh every week. The prayers of the Liturgy always had a great attraction for our venerable Father, especially the Ave Maris Stella , on the words of which he loved to dwell. He generally prayed according to the second method of St. Ignatius without aiming at rising to the high contemplation of ecstasy. He sought God’s good pleasure and often repeated, ‘May God be satisfied with me.’ . On setting out for a walk, ‘Let us do it to please God,’ was the unfailing remark ; and again : I should so like to know if God is pleased with me !’ Every day, I read for him during a quarter of an hour or a half hour. When he felt fatigued he would tell me, ‘Let us have a chapter of the Imitation.’ ‘But, Paternity, you are tired.’ ‘Yes; but one verse ; God will see my good will and be content.’ He had a word of thanks for everybody, and never failed to return the salute of each one who passed him, were it even the least of the novices. Sometime before his death, I was obliged almost to carry him, so difficult and painful had walking become to him. One day, we met on the way the seminarians of the German College, As they doffed their hats to him, he insisted on returning each one’s salutation. I interfered, ‘Your Paternity should have a care where you place your foot. It is their duty to salute you, but you expose yourself to a fall in saluting them all. ‘You are right,’ he simply replied. We would sometimes devise some little contrivance to afford him relief in his sufferings. If we failed he would humbly remark : ‘Can I not suffer something? let it be.’

I must close this by requesting of you the boon of your prayers. In a few days, I shall take my leave of Rome, but we shall meet in Paradise with Very Reverend Fr. General. The Mass of Requiem was sung on the morning of the death of Fr. Beckx, and at 4 o’clock in the evening the body, accompanied by three carriages containing Fr. General, the Fathers Assistants and some other Fathers, was conveyed without pomp or ceremony, but quietly and modestly as beseems a General of the Society, to our burial vault in the Campo Verano. The public and official services took place on the following Thursday. 4

4.See Letter of Rev. Father Provincial, p. 150.

Thus ended the earthly career of one who for more than thirty years guided the destinies of the Society and will not cease, we are sure, from the height of heaven, to protect what he loved and governed so well.—R. I. P.