Saint Robert Bellarmine SJ, Bishop and Doctor

St Robert Bellarmine SJ, Bishop and Doctor (Memorial)

Robert Bellarmine was born on 4 October 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 Greek in Florence and Piedmont for a number of years. He was ordained priest at Ghent in 1570.

He then went to Louvain and began a long career in the teaching of theology. He lectured on the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas, while attacking the opinions of Baius on grace and free will. He also authored a book on Hebrew grammar. After seven years there his health deteriorated under the pressure of his studies and his ascetical life. He returned to his native Italy to restore it. He was kept in Rome by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology, dealing with the controversial issues of the day, in the newly opened and Jesuit-run Roman College. 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 honours 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 favour with Pope Sixtus V and even to have delayed his canonisation. 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.

He was canonised in 1930 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1931. Considered the outstanding theologian of his age, he is remembered for his dedication to the truth, charity in disputation, and austerity of life. (As one person commented: “The man wore only one Cardinal’s outfit. Despite his friends’ best efforts to get him some new clothes, his patches had patches.”)

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