Bollandists Step Out of the Shadows

By Rory Watson for the Bollandist Society

The Bollandist Society Library in Brussels, Belgium (photo courtesy of Irini de Saint Sernin)

The Bollandist Society Library in Brussels, Belgium (photo courtesy of Irini de Saint Sernin)

In spite of its pedigree of hagiographic scholarship stretching back four centuries, the Bollandist Society, based in Belgium, is largely unknown, even in learned religious circles. It is now remedying that by reaching out to a wider audience, particularly the Jesuit family and those educated in its traditions.

The reasons are twofold. First, to increase awareness and appreciation of the contributions that its independent research and unique historical resources bring to the development of human understanding and knowledge. Second, to explore possibilities for collaboration on hagiographic scholarship.

The Society’s genesis dates back to 1607, when Rev. Heribert Rosweyde, S.J., a Jesuit in Antwerp, Belgium, decided to publish early texts on the lives of saints. Several decades later, his fellow Jesuit, Rev. Jean Bolland, S.J., continued the project. This eventually led to the publication of the most authoritative collection of works on saints: the Acta Sanctorum. Compiled between 1643 and 1940, this includes 67 volumes of detailed studies and sources on all saints in Eastern and Western Christianity.

Today’s Bollandists (named for Fr. Bolland) continue the work of their forbears, critically analyzing the extensive literature on thousands of saints. Their scholarship encompasses various academic disciplines, such as theology, hagiography, linguistics and history. In addition, their texts frequently produce revealing insights into aspects of bygone life that are of particular interest to anthropologists and political scientists.

Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, recently highlighted the importance and breadth of this multidisciplinary approach. In a letter to potential benefactors last October, he paid tribute to the Bollandists’ “highly specialized work, and … vast field of study, covering all continents, centuries, languages and Christian churches.”

The Bollandists’ research is based out of their library in Brussels. This houses half a million books, over one-thousand periodicals and a similar number of manuscripts in a wide range of languages. As part of a broader modernization strategy, the Society is digitally cataloging some 22,000 books published before 1800. This ambitious three-year project has been made possible through the support of a €538,000 ($611,943 USD) gift from the Belgian non-profit organization, Le Fonds Baillet Latour.

With just under a year to go, the project is on track toward completion. The electronic catalog can be accessed on the platform of the Université Catholique de Louvain. Its existence is giving scholars, wherever they are based, a clearer picture of the range of literary resources in the Bollandists’ safekeeping.

The Society willingly shares access to the library’s contacts with hagiography researchers from around the world. Interest has traditionally focused on post-1800 publications, but as the digital catalog develops and becomes better known, demand for earlier works is increasing. Subject to certain conditions, academic researchers may also consult the hagiographic material in the private library itself. “Rarely a week goes by without receiving several requests for scans of pages in our collections,” explains Rev. Robert Godding, S.J., who has served as director of the Society since 1998.

As part of the modernization strategy, the Bollandists are also increasing their outreach. In 2017, they appointed Irini de Saint Sernin, a multilingual Greek Orthodox, to the new post of external relations and development manager. For Saint Sernin, the role is one of ‘advancement,’ in which she answers the question, “How do I advance the Bollandists’ mission and cause?”

It is a mission that takes her increasingly to North America. In June 2017, Saint Sernin addressed the World Union of Jesuit Alumni (WUJA) in Cleveland; it was the first time that the event featured a presentation on the Bollandists. To her surprise, many attendees were unaware of their existence as an independent center of critical research. She received a warm welcome and emphasized the importance of the Bollandists as custodians and promoters of an important part of our shared Jesuit heritage: an institution of which Jesuit alumni can feel justifiably proud.

In 2018, Saint Sernin explained the Society’s work to a number of North American audiences at Saint Louis University, Georgetown University, Boston College, Fordham University and Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. She is scheduling more visits to the United States in the coming months.

The last two years have ushered in other innovations for the Bollandists. A Facebook page has over 5,000 followers, helping to popularize the Bollandists’ specialized knowledge to a wider audience. This page regularly offers a historical insight and critical commentary on a saint, linking when possible to a topical event. The Bollandists’ website (bollandistes.org) is currently being reshaped to provide visitors with more comprehensive and accessible information. And additional exposure came last month through an article published in America.

The Bollandists’ embrace of change includes a recent new member, Rev. Marc Lindeijer, S.J., whose specialty is hagiography from the 16th century onward. His arrival underscores how few in number the Bollandists are: he is only the 69th Bollandist over the past 412 years. Even now, there are only three Jesuits and two lay members.

But far more remains to be done. Only 25% of the library’s books are cataloged online. All those acquired before 2003 are still on card indices written over the past 150 years. Funding would make it possible to recruit more lay staff and expand research facilities. Both will be required if, as is likely, requests continue to increase, either online or in person, to access the library’s resources.

As Fr. Godding, the Society’s director, explains, “Bollandists have always cultivated discretion, confident that the quality of their work was the best guarantee for the institution’s reputation. Our creed has not changed, but we have to acknowledge that today’s many challenges require us to be more proactive in promoting the Society. Our hope is that more people can be convinced that this great institution, which does not receive any public funding, deserves to be generously supported in its service to the Church and more broadly to Christian culture.”

The Bollandists’ proactive strategy has Fr. Sosa’s full support. “The Society,” he wrote in his letter, “both deserves and needs more general support, especially now that Jesuit resources in Western Europe are in shorter supply.”

Over the centuries, the Bollandists have weathered excommunication by the Spanish Inquisition, total suppression for 40 years, censorship and turmoil from revolutions and wars. To keep their scholarship alive, they have had to adapt to the times. They are doing so again as they address the financial, technological and communication demands of today’s world.

Rory Watson is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium.

All donations to the Bollandist Society are channelled through the King Baudouin Foundation, a U.S.-based 501(c)3 organization. For more information, please contact Irini de Saint Sernin: saintsernin@bollandistes.be.