Saint Robert Bellarmine
Jul 18, 2020 / Written by: America Needs Fatima
Feast September 17
Roberto Bellarmino was born into impoverished Tuscan nobility at Montepulciano on October 4, 1542. He was the third of ten children born to Vincenzo Bellarmino and Cinthia Cervini, a sister of Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who later became Pope Marcellus II. Educated at the Jesuit College in Montepulciano, he entered the Society of Jesus at the age of eighteen.
After studying philosophy at the Roman College, he taught first at Florence and then at Mondovi. He began his theological studies in Padua in 1567, but was sent to Louvain two years later in order that he might obtain a fuller acquaintance with the heretical teachings of the time.
Bellarmine was ordained a priest in Flanders and quickly obtained a reputation both as a professor and a preacher, attracting Catholics and Protestants alike by his sermons.
In 1576 he was recalled to Italy, and entrusted with the chair of Controversies recently founded at the Roman College. He proved himself equal to the arduous task, and the lectures he delivered were later compiled into his most renowned work, “De Controversiis” - Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith.
Hammer of Heresies
Bellarmine's monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe. It dealt such a blow to Protestantism in Germany and England that special university chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it. Theodore of Blaise, an important Protestant leader who succeeded Calvin, acknowledged that “This is the work that defeated us.”
So numerous were the conversions wrought by it that Queen Elizabeth I of England decreed that anyone who was not a doctor in theology was forbidden to read Bellarmine’s writings under penalty of death. To the present day, it remains an uncontested standard of orthodoxy that has yet to be superseded. In recognition of this, Benedict XV gave Bellarmine the title of “Hammer of Heresies” in 1921.
In 1588 Bellarmine was made Spiritual Father to the Roman College, but in 1590 he went with Cardinal Gaetano as theologian to the embassy Sixtus V was then sending into France to protect the interests of the Church amidst the troubles of the civil wars. While in France news reached him that Sixtus, who had warmly accepted the dedication of his “De Controversiis”, was now proposing to put its first volume on the Index. This was because he had discovered that it assigned to the Holy See not a direct but only an indirect power over temporal authorities.
Bellarmine, whose loyalty to the Holy See was intense, took this greatly to heart; it was, however, averted by the death of Sixtus, and the new pope, Gregory XIV, even granted to Bellarmine’s work the distinction of a special approbation. Gaetano’s mission now terminating, Bellarmine resumed his work as Spiritual Father, and had the consolation of guiding the last years of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who died in the Roman College in 1591.
Many years later he had the further consolation of successfully promoting the beatification of the saintly youth. It was also at this time that he sat on the final commission for the revision of the Vulgate translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Becoming a Cardinal
In 1592 Bellarmine was made Rector of the Roman College, and in 1595 Provincial of Naples. In 1597 Clement VIII recalled him to Rome and made him his own theologian as well as Examiner of Bishops and Consultor of the Holy Office. “The Church of God has not his equal in learning,” he stated when making him a Cardinal in 1599. Bellarmine’s appointment as Cardinal Inquisitor soon followed. In 1602 Bellarmine was appointed as the Archbishop of Capua and consecrated by Pope Clement VIII himself, an honor usually accorded as a mark of special regard.
Three years later, Clement VIII died, and was succeeded by Leo XI who reigned only twenty-six days, and then by Paul V. In both conclaves, especially that latter, the name of Bellarmine was much before the electors, greatly to his own distress. The new pope insisted on keeping him at Rome, and the cardinal, obediently complying, demanded that at least he should be released from an episcopal charge the duties of which he could no longer fulfill. He was now made a member of the Holy Office and of other congregations, and thenceforth was the chief advisor of the Holy See in the theological department of its administration.
Bellarmine became one of the most important figures of the Counter-Reformation and the period will be forever marked by his method of confronting heresy: he understood that one cannot do away with a heresy by only preaching the truth; it was also necessary to attack and smash the error. By this method he converted heretics, bringing them back into union with the Church. The profound spiritual treatises that emanated from his pen earned for him the title of Doctor of the Church. But while he was a champion of orthodoxy and a brilliant polemicist, Bellarmine was also a man of capable of dealing with the most sensitive souls guiding them to sanctity as he did with St. Louis Gonzaga. This prodigious apostolate could only spring from a great calmness of spirit and deep interior life.
Death and Canonization
His death in the summer of 1621 was most edifying and a fitting end to a life which had been no less remarkable for its virtues than for its tremendous achievements. Accordingly, there was a general expectation amongst those who knew him intimately that his cause would be promptly introduced and swiftly concluded. However, reality proved to be otherwise.
Although he was declared Venerable in 1627, technical obstacles arose in regards to the beatification process, delaying the progress of his cause for 300 years. Bellarmine was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930 and declared a Doctor of the Church and patron saint of catechists the following year.