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St. Robert Bellarmine
Doctor of the Church

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Great Catholic Books Newsletter
Volume I, Number 9

St. Robert Bellarmine was born in 1542 in the tiny village of Monte Puciano. He died at the age of 79 in Rome in 1621. Canonized in 1930 and a year later made a Doctor of the Church, Bellarmine's, along with Peter Canisius, canonization were delayed for so long a time because of strong objections to having these two Jesuit champions of the Papacy declared saints in what was beginning to become the Ecumenical Age. Significantly, Bellarmine's mother was the half sister of Pope Marcellus II who reigned for less than a month. He was a nephew of a pope who later as cardinal came within a hair's breath of being elected pope and escaped the papacy, as it were, by pleading and urging his fellow electors not to make him pope.

Robert was naturally very brilliant. As a youth of seventeen, his teachers declared he was the best in the school in his studies and not far from heaven. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Society of Jesus and for the rest of his life was plagued with poor health. Because of his poor health, his superiors sent him from one city to another, and from one country to another, in the hope of restoring his health. Because Bellarmine was appointed to preach even before his ordination to the priesthood, everywhere he was sent he would preach. Bellarmine was ordained in 1570 and appointed professor at the University of Louvain in Belgium where he lectured on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.

It was at Louvain that Bellarmine first encountered the rising tide of Protestantism. He discovered at the University professors who were, to say the least, tainted with Protestantism. The most famous of these professors was Baius, a man who is not well known today, but is important because he influenced Jansenius, who gave the world Jansenism, a heresy that afflicted the Church for centuries. Even as a young professor, Bellarmine took to refuting his colleague because Baius, in common with the early Protestants, denied man's free will. Bellarmine more than any single man in Christendom analyzed Protestantism to its roots. When he was sent to Rome to teach in the Roman College, now called the Gregorian University, he established a new department that had never existed in any university – the Department of Controversial Theology. This theology controverses – which means refutes – the errors of the Protestants.

He gradually published his lectures that became a series of volumes covering all the major areas contested by the early Protestants. By Bellarmine's day, the Council of Trent had already finished. It had opened in 1545 and closed in 1563. Bellarmine therefore had not only all the writings of the Protestants who were his contemporaries at his disposal but also the teachings of the Council of Trent. In his writings he directly quotes at great length from Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cramer. He picks out the heart of their error, quotes them verbatim, and then after sometimes several pages of quotation, refutes them point by point.

Bellarmine wrote a famous catechism and many treatises on the spiritual life. He has a wonderful treatise on Purgatory in which he urges the faithful to avoid venial sins because even these so-called small sins offend the infinite majesty of God and are punished by Him. In this treatise he relates the story of a German mystic, St. Lutgardis, a religious who lived during the reign of Pope Innocent III, one of the most famous popes in the history of the Church. The just deceased Innocent III appeared to St. Lutgardis in her monastery to thank her for the prayers and sacrifices she had offered for him during his reign as Roman Pontiff. Innocent III said that it was her prayer and penance that saved him from hell. During his pontificate he was not strong enough and destined to be condemned to hell. But before he died, he made his peace with God and the Lord revealed to him that it was her prayers and sacrifices that saved him. But now he was in purgatory destined to stay there until the end of time; so he asked her to redouble her prayers and penances to free him from purgatory before the consummation of the world. St. Lutgardis heeded his plea and years later he reappeared to her resplendent in glory to thank her for obtaining his release from purgatory.

Bellarmine also has a treatise on martyrdom – one of the fifteen marks of the Church. The true Church has been sealed by the blood of martyrs in every age from St. Stephen on the last one who has died for the faith. Bellarmine points out there would be no martyrs unless they looked forward to dying for Christ. Of course, martyrdom is naturally painful but every martyr Bellarmine observed, faced death with joy.

In writing on the Holy Eucharist, Bellarmine defended the Real Presence from the attacks of John Calvin who argued that the Real Presence is unnecessary. The gist of Calvin's argument is that when a child is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do not say that the Holy Trinity is in the water. In other words, Christ who is God does not have to be present in the Eucharist to give us grace, so why concoct a Real Presence to produce grace that Christ can bestow without really being present. Bellarmine refutes Calvin by pointing out that if we measured God's goodness by what He has to do, none of us would exist. Nor did God have to become man. He could have redeemed the world without becoming man – simply by an act of the Divine Will. And after becoming Incarnate neither did He have to suffer and die for our salvation. The least act of Christ's human will would have been enough to save a thousand worlds. Bellarmine said that Calvin's problem was that he did not realize how much God loves us. If Christ said, "he that eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has life in him" then who is John Calvin to contradict the Son of God?

A man of Bellarmine's prolific genius would have all kinds of enemies. Many wanted to refute Bellarmine because they knew if they could defeat him, more Catholics would be taken in by the errors of the so-called reformers. His most famous adversary was the King of England, James I. By this time England had already been robbed of its faith by Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and now James I. Bellarmine refuted the king in defending the papacy. Bellarmine also wrote extensively against a famous Servite, Paulo Sarpi.

St. Robert Bellarmine had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. Bellarmine urged that there be a special feast in honor of the five stigmata of St. Francis. Bellarmine had an important position in the Vatican and he made sure that the feast was introduced in the Church, despite strong opposition. As Providence arranged, Robert Bellarmine died on the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis, September 17. And in the revised liturgical calendar St. Bellarmine's feast, which used to be celebrated on May 13, has been moved to September 17. Among Franciscans September 17 is the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis. In the Universal Church it is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine.

Bellarmine's name should be held in benediction by every American. The concept of our form of government was first developed by the Jesuit philosophers in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially Robert Bellarmine. Our founding fathers relied heavily on Bellarmine in forming their idea of our constitutional government.

The first mark of Bellarmine's spirituality was his devotion to the Vicar of Christ. He was a great defender of the Holy See, especially of Papal infallibility. At the first Vatican Council, the bishops of the Catholic Church mainly used the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine to finally chisel out the definition of papal infallibility.

Another characteristic of his spirituality was an all embracing charity. As a contemporary of those who had severed the Mystical Body of Christ and divided Christendom, Bellarmine's attitude towards the Protestant leaders was one of consummate charity. We must hate error with a holy hatred; we must love the people who are in error. That characterizes the spirit of Bellarmine. Despite his poor health and super-human activity, he was a very cheerful person.

Bellarmine's spiritual life was one of the deepest; though he was not a mystic like saints Alphonsus Rodrequez or Stanislaus. Ecstasies that we commonly associate with those we call mystics were quite foreign to his spirituality. For years he found writing an effective way of praying. It is good to know that when Bellarmine was a superior, he had a reputation for being a very mild superior. He would encourage, even when he had to reprimand; he was kind even to those he had to correct.

One thing that Bellarmine teaches us is that the root of evil is error and the root of error is ignorance. If we want to root out evil, we must teach the truth. It is not enough to believe. With God's grace, which means reflection and prayer, you must understand what you believe.

Bellarmine, though a bishop and a cardinal, insisted on living in a Jesuit house, though by Canon Law he would have been exempt from that obligation. He especially wanted to practice poverty. One day his superiors came into his room and discovered that all the window and wall hangings in his room had been removed. They had been put there because of the dignity of his office. He had taken every strip of silk and velvet and damask and had given the cloth to the poor so they might keep warm. He reasoned that the walls do not catch cold, but people do. Rome can be very cold in winter; however, members of his community never remembered him having heat in his room.

Bellarmine wrote one little book that has gone through countless printings in numerous printings: The Assent Of The Mind To God. The title is revealing; Bellarmine had a big heart, but he realized the most important faculty that God wants of us to use is our mind. He saw God in everything, and as the little treatise explains, every creature, even the lowliest, is a ladder by which we can climb to God.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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