Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (September 17)

St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.

St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.

Today is a special day on the Church calendar as it is the feast day of two Doctors of the Church: St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.  You can find information on St. Hildegard of Bingen here.  This post is on Robert Bellarmine.

Robert Bellarmine was born on October 4, 1542 at Montepulciano in Tuscany, Italy, to a noble but impoverished family and was a nephew of Pope Marcellus II. As a boy he knew Virgil by heart and became adept at writing Latin verse. One of his hymns, on Mary Magdalen, is in the Breviary. He could play the violin and was good at debating. In 1560, at the age of 18, he entered the Jesuits and made his studies in Rome, Padua and Louvain. During his time of formation he also taught Latin and Green in Florence and Piedmont for a number of years. He was ordained priest at Ghent in 1570. Bellarmine obtained a reputation both as a professor and a preacher.

He was the first Jesuit to teach at the university, where the subject of his course was the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. His residence in Leuven lasted seven years. In poor health, in 1576 he made a journey to Italy. Here he remained, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology in the new Roman College (now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University. These lectures would become the basis of his Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei (Disputation on the Controversies of Christian Faith). This was a comprehensive presentation of Catholic teaching. It showed such erudition in Scripture, on the Fathers and Protestant theology that it was believed to be the work of several scholars. It met with immediate acclaim but was banned in England by the government. Robert was also involved in a revision of the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible), the production of a famous catechism which would still be in use 300 years later.

Following the death of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent a legate to Paris to negotiate with the League, and chose Bellarmine as his theologian. Bellarmine was in the city during its siege by Henry of Navarre who would become king.

In the latter part of his life, one appointment followed another. In 1592 he was made Rector of the Jesuits’ Roman College. Two years later he became the Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Naples. In 1597 Pope Clement VIII made him his theological adviser and two years later named him to the College of Cardinals (as a Cardinal-Priest). These honors did nothing to change his austere lifestyle. He lived on a diet of bread and garlic and was known to have used the curtains of his apartment to clothe the poor. In 1602 he was made Archbishop of Capua and immediately was deeply involved in pastoral and welfare work. But he resigned his see after only three years when he was called back to Rome in 1605 by Pope Paul V to become Prefect of the Vatican Library as well as being active in several Vatican Congregations. His reservations about the temporal power of the Papacy are said to have put him out of favor with Pope Sixtus V  and even to have delayed his canonization. He was, however, vindicated by later theologians. In the famous controversy on the relationship of the sun to the earth, Bellarmine showed himself sympathetic to Galileo’s case but had urged the scientist to proceed more cautiously and to distinguish hypothesis from truth. In his old age he was allowed to return to his old home, Montepulciano, as its bishop for four years, after which he retired to the Jesuit college of St. Andrew in Rome. He received some votes in the conclaves which elected Popes Leo XI, Paul V, and Gregory XV, but only in the second case had he any prospect of election.

During his retirement, he wrote several short books intended to help ordinary people in their spiritual life: The Mind’s Ascent to God (1614), The Art of Dying Well (1619), and The Seven Words on the Cross. He died in Rome on 17 September 1621 at the age of 79. Though physically a small man, he was a giant in intellectual ability and personal warmth. He prayed every day for the Protestant theologians with whom he disagreed and never (as was often the case on both sides) made abusive attacks on them.

Although he was one of the most powerful men in Rome, Bellarmine lived an austere life. He gave most of his money to the poor. Once he gave the tapestries from his living quarters to the poor, saying that the walls wouldn’t catch cold. While he took little regard for his own comforts, he always saw to it that his servants and aides had everything they needed.

He was canonized in 1930 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1931. His remains, in a cardinal’s red robes, are displayed behind glass under a side altar in the Church of Saint Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College, next to the body of his student, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, as he himself had wished.


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About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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2 Responses to Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (September 17)

  1. Lynda says:

    Saint Robert Bellarmine is a name we don’t hear too often and yet he is a Doctor of the Church. He is also the patron of catechists so it is a very special day for you and also for me as we are catechists. I will mention Saint Robert Bellarmine tonight at RCIA! Thanks for this extensive information on one of the Church’s great apologists.

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