Father Theophile Verbist

The Little Flame of CICM

Fr. Theophile Verbist (1823 -1868)

          It is intriguing to ask what stuff “founders” are made of, as there may well be no common answer. All Congregations are marked by their own charisma, which may be as similar and yet as individualized as two fingerprints. The Vatican, amid all the changes it initiated, took particular care to remind religious institutes to hold on to the charisma of their founder, lest something of the beauty and variety of the religious life in the Church be lost. It is in this rich variety that CICM has its own place. There is something of the fingerprint of the Founder that continues to give CICM its own face, and its own contribution to the Church.

Fr. Theophile Verbist

Fr. Theophile Verbist

          The life story of our Founder, Fr. Theophile Verbist, is not long. He was born in Antwerp in 1823. He had a twin brother, Edmond, who became a lawyer. Theophile studied in the Seminary of the Archdiocese of Malines and was ordained a priest in 1847. During the first years of his priestly ministry, he was on the staff of the minor seminary. Later, he became the chaplain of the military school in Brussels and concurrently served as chaplain of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. In 1860 he was appointed National Director of the Holy Childhood, a pious association that animates its members to support the missions, especially children in need, and more specifically in China.

          His work with this association, combined with his two other appointments, represented the first visible mark of his orientation to the mission. It was not, however, the beginning of his missionary vocation. According to oral tradition, it is in the chapel of the Sisters that, whilst praying, Theophile Verbist set up his plan to become a missionary. The flame was lit in his heart, nourished in gratitude for the faith so easily received in Catholic Belgium, and in compassion for the many who had not yet heard the Good News. It took more concrete shape by his involvement in the work of the Holy Childhood and by his contacts with the missions in this context.

          The founding period of CICM is very short, a mere eight years. However, looking at this period in hindsight, we cannot but call it a kairos, a time full of God’s grace and guidance, and also a time densely filled with the ideals of the Founder.

          The correspondence of the Founder and his first companions covering this period has been published in several volumes, compiled by Verhelst and Daniels. These letters not only tell the history of these founding years, but also give us some insights about Theophile Verbist. Knowing that it is not possible to do justice to all that happened and to all that the Founder had to go through in these founding years, we also make use of a short personality sketch of the Founder prepared by Fr. Albert Raskin in 1982, at that time archivist of the Congregation.

         Fr. Raskin first sees Theophile Verbist as a wise superior.

 “He went about his work with a level head,” Fr. Raskin wrote. This was manifested in the consultations that preceded the founding of the Congregation. “He could take advice and follow it as well.”

          Verbist wanted to found a missionary congregation, but he knew he could not do it without having experienced the mission himself. In a letter of April 1866, Verbist writes, “Every day I thank the Lord that He allowed me to go personally to the mission of the Congregation so that I would learn and experience what the demands of the missionary life are in reality.” At the same time, he also observed the mission critically. To his sister Elisa he wrote: “The missionary would jeopardize the success of his efforts if, before attempting to reform the world around him, he would not first study matters in silence, observe with care, and, above all, exercise an enduring patience.” It is from this experience that he would challenge the novices in Belgium to test their vocation well. They have to make sure their vocation is rooted in a pure love of God.

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          As a founder, Verbist was appointed pro-vicar of the mission of Mongolia. No matter how seriously others worried about the difficulty and extension of this mission, Verbist remained full of enthusiasm and dynamism. Even though he was confronted with the difficult and sensitive take-over of the mission when he arrived in China, Verbist was optimistic that something good would come out of it in the end. Because of his many responsibilities, Verbist had almost no time to focus on the study of the Chinese language. Still, as soon as he could express himself somewhat in Chinese, he got involved in direct apostolate in Hsi-wan-tzu.

          Raskin singles out Verbist’s tactfulness and sensitivity to the needs of others. “Authoritarianism was not in his character. He knew that in the long run you could gain more through quiet dialogue than with force.” For instance, writing from China, Verbist advised the novice master of a young confrere who had just finished his novitiate and had been ordained a priest to keep him in Belgium if possible for another year, “so he could recuperate from his studies and his parents could enjoy having him nearby as a priest for some time.” For the confreres in China, he proved himself a leader of much understanding. “When two new confreres arrived and were assigned to West Mongolia, he insisted on taking them there himself. In this way, he could see with his own eyes how they were housed and judge if their appointment was good,” according to Raskin, quoting from a letter of Verbist.

          “Cor unum et anima una” (one heart – one soul) is the motto of the Congregation. It was officially introduced in the coat of arms of the Congregation on October 5, 1933, but right from the beginning it was a reality lived among CICM missionaries. The Founder had no equal in showing appreciation for the confreres and concern for their well-being. When Father Van Segvelt (1826-1867), the close friend and first companion of Verbist, prepared to leave for Eastern Mongolia, the Superior spent heavily and bought no less than seven horses, two mules and two wagons so that his confrere would not suffer want. The grateful reactions of the confreres and many others are proof of his kind attention and charity. For instance, when the stolid Dutchman Ferdinand Hamer receives a heavy and precious load from Hsi-wan-tzu, that is from Superior Verbist, he turns lyric and writes in his emotion, “Ah, I should write you in verses. Oh Superior! Oh Superior! Nimis amasti me!” (You spoiled me!) Hamer, who later became the bishop of South West Mongolia, died a martyr’s death in 1900 during the Boxers revolution.

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The final legacy

          Theophile Verbist died on February 23, 1868 in a small place in China. He had left Hsi-wan-tzu, the main mission station, for a trip of five months to visit the whole Vicariate before he would go back to Belgium. The travel was done by ox-cart which moved slowly, and shall we say “painfully” because it had no suspension, over the rocky roads and through the mountain passes. He did not want one of the confreres to travel with him so as not to deprive one of the Christian communities of their priest. After 10 days, on Feb. 13, he arrived sick and feverish in Lao Hu-kou, a small village with a few poor Christians. He was far away from confreres and Chinese priests. The villagers took care of him as well as they could and a messenger was sent to look for assistance. The first priest who reached the place was a Chinese priest, Fr. Mathias Chang Ching Hsiu. When he learned the news, he was at a distance of three days’ travel from Lao-hu-kou. He found Verbist on a Chinese heated bed-oven, already unable to speak. He showed Verbist the small violet stole priests usually have with them to administer the last sacraments to the sick. Verbist nodded and the priest administered the sacrament of the sick. Two hours later, Verbist passed away.

          The Founder’s task was finished. He left behind a legacy, not of words – these we find in his many carefully written letters – but of a life given to the end in the service of the mission. The little flame that had been lighted in the chapel of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur had continued to burn the candle till the end.

          The death of the Founder, in a little forgotten village of China far from his confreres and his home country, left a flame burning that marks CICM. One might have expected the flame to be extinguished when the Founder died, but the opposite proved to be true. His death left a call for others to continue the mission with a total gift of self. If anything marks CICM, it is the call to leave everything for the sake of the mission. There is in CICM a call to brotherhood that has grown over the years. It has taken the shape of internationality and universal brotherhood. At the bottom of it all lies the call to be available totally, to be sent for a lifetime in the service of the Proclamation of the Good News.

          There was no sense of discouragement among the other missionaries when the Founder died because Verbist had not worked alone. In setting up his Congregation he had followed advice, even though it made him change his first concepts of the mission and made him move more slowly than he wanted. He had always worked closely with his companions. He rightly believed that he was doing God’s work and that the budding missionary institute was the Congregation which the Lord loved from the beginning. Notwithstanding the pain of loss and the restructuring that was needed, when he died, the torch was taken up with continuing enthusiasm.

          For more than sixty years, the body of the Founder remained in China, in the company of the confreres who had taken over his work, until the General Chapter of 1930 when Fr. Constant Daems (1872-1934), missionary in China as well, was elected Superior General. As the Congregation was growing and spreading its activities over more continents, he decided that the time had come to bring the mortal remains of the Founder to the Central House of CICM in Scheut, Brussels. The more immediate reason was that this General Chapter had to deal with the threat of a beginning rift in the membership about the understanding of the religious character of the Congregation. Thus, the return to the Founder was a call to conversion to the authenticity of our vocation and an urgent call to oneness of heart and mind.

          The museum of Scheut carefully keeps two small souvenirs that are symbolic of Verbist as a Founder. One is a nicely polished wooden box with the writing implements he used for his letters. It was given to the Founder’s relatives by a Chinese priest who had helped Verbist during his short mission in Hsi-wan-tzu; Fr. Verbist used to call him appreciatively “my right arm.” It stands as a symbol not only of Verbist’s enormous work of keeping contact with people in leading the young missionary congregation and in managing the Vicariate. This fine attention of the Chinese priest for the family of Verbist also tells a lot about how much the Founder was loved and appreciated. The other small relic that is kept, beside his handwritten documents of religious vows and other personal belongings, is a small Chinese riding whip. It stands for his many travels in the service of the mission.

A CICM confrere prays before the mortal remains of Fr. Verbist at the Mother House, in Scheut, Belgium

A CICM confrere prays before the mortal remains of Fr. Verbist at the Mother House, in Scheut, Belgium

         When the mortal remains of the Founder were deposited in the memorial Chapel of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Scheut on March 30, 1932, it was a triumphant homecoming. Verbist, who had died in solitude, was now in the midst of his growing family. His tomb, together with the original statue of Our Lady of Grace, have become a place of pilgrimage for many CICM members who go there to pray in gratitude for their missionary vocation and also to rekindle the flame that was lit first in the heart of the Founder and continues to burn, even today, in the hearts of his followers. May it continue to be our guiding light.

Source: Fr. Gabriel Dieryck, CICM in the CICM Centennial Coffee-table Edition

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