St. Robert Bellarmine: Theologian, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church
Today is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Italian cardinal and theologian. One of the great saints of the Jesuit order, he has also been declared a Doctor of the Church and the patron of catechists.
Robert Bellarmine was born on October 4, 1542 in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano. He was the third of ten children born to Vincenzo Bellarmine, a nobleman, and Cinthia Cervini, sister of Pope Marcellus II.
As a young man, Robert was educated by the Jesuits and in 1560; he entered the Jesuit order himself. He studied philosophy for three years in Rome, then taught humanities at Florence and Mondovi until 1567, when he began a study of theology at Louvain that lasted until 1569.
In 1570, Robert was ordained to the priesthood in Belgium, where his sermons attracted crowds of both Catholics and Protestants. In 1576, he returned to Italy and took up an academic position addressing theological controversies.
As a member of the Society of Jesus, he ranks among its greatest men, renowned for his illustrious intellect and learning as well as for his great sanctity, humility, and simplicity of heart. He defended the Apostolic See against the anti-clericals in Venice and against the political tenets of James I of England. His most famous work is The Controversies, a collection of the lectures he delivered at the Roman College. In it, he set out the teaching of the Fathers, the Councils and the Church Law to victoriously defend the dogmas of the Church which were being attacked by heretics.
Near the end of the 1580s, the eminent theologian became “Spiritual Father” to the Roman College. He served as a spiritual director to St. Aloysius Gonzaga near the end of his life, helped Saint Francis de Sales to obtain formal approval of the Visitation Order, and assisted in creating the authoritative Latin text of the Bible called for by the recent Council of Trent.
At the end of the century, Robert became an advisor to Pope Clement VIII. The Pope named him a cardinal in 1599, proclaiming him to be the most educated man in the Church. Robert played a part in a debate between Dominicans and Jesuits regarding grace, though the Pope later decided to appoint and consecrate him as the Archbishop of Capua.
In the early years of the 17th century, the cardinal took a public stand for the Church’s freedom when it came under attack in Venice and England. He also attempted, though not successfully, to negotiate peace between the Vatican and his personal friend Galileo Galilei, over the scientist’s insistence that not only the earth, but the entire universe, revolved around the sun.
He was very pastoral and dedicated to providing for the needs of the poor. His cardinal’s ring was frequently in pawn in order to provide funds for the needy. He also donated the expensive drapes in his apartment to the poor, explaining, “Walls cannot catch cold.”
In 1621, Cardinal Bellarmine retired due to health problems. Two years before, he had set out his thoughts on the end of earthly life in a book entitled The Art of Dying Well. In that book, he explained that preparing for death was life’s most important business, since the state of one’s soul at death would determine the person’s eternal destiny.
St. Robert Bellarmine died on September 17, 1621. Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1930, and declared him to be a Doctor of the Church in 1931.
“Charity is that with which no man is lost, and without which no man is saved.” ~ Saint Robert Bellarmine