Berchmans, John


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Jesuit scholastic. One of three unusually young Jesuit saints (see Gonzaga and Kostka), Berchmans was a Fleming and (unlike the other two) of modest social origins. This would have prevented his receiving a good education but for the intervention of Canon Froymont of Mechlin, who took him into his household. In 1615 the Jesuits opened a school there and Berchmans entered the Society as a novice in 1616. Soon afterwards his mother died and his devout father gave up his profession of shoemaker and became a priest in 1618. In the same year John was sent to Rome to study philosophy, in which his exemplary achievements matched those of his novitiate. His father died the same year.

When he had completed the course in 1621, he was asked to defend ‘the entire field of philosophy’ in a public disputation. This was held in July, following shortly after his finals examination. In August he was asked to represent the Roman College at another disputation at the Greek College. At this distance it seems that these demands on a young man of 22, in the extreme heat of a Roman summer, were excessive. The day after the second disputation he fell ill with dysentery. Incurable fevers then set in, he became weaker and weaker, and died only a week after. Many came to see him before he died, as he had an outstanding reputation as a man of prayer, and for constant cheerfulness and perfect obedience. This must, however, not blind the reader to very real tensions in his life. ‘My penance,’ he would say, ‘is to live the common life.’ There are even some reports that he found the regime intolerable and wished to leave it. However that may be, he was very rapidly esteemed and invoked, especially in Flanders, where thousands of representations of him were soon printed. Contemporary accounts of his attractive character survive: he was always joyful and ready for any task. He was buried in the church of St Ignatius at Rome, but his heart was taken to the Jesuit church in Louvain. He was canonized in 1888. Feast: 13 August.

A. Poncelet, ‘Documents inédits sur S. Jean Berchmans’, Anal. Boll., xxxiv (1915), 1–227;early Life by V. Cepari (1627);others by H. Delehaye (1921) and J. Daly (1921);see also J. N. Tylenda, Jesuit Saints and Martyrs (1983), pp. 427–9.

Subjects: Christianity.

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