The Importance of Being a Saint: Learning From Saint Robert Bellarmine

St. Robert Bellarmine as a thinker, polemicist, man of action, distinguished spiritual director, he fought for the Holy Catholic Church in every way. But why was he all this? Because he was a saint.

Newsdesk (18/09/2022 12:10 PM, Gaudium PressRoberto Francesco Romolo Belarmino was born in Montepulciano, Tuscany, on 4 October 1542. His father, Vincenzo Belarmino, of impoverished nobility, had held the office of governor of the city for many years. His mother, Cinzia Cervini, was the sister of the future Pope Marcellus II, who ruled the Church for only 22 days in April 1555.

From an early age he applied himself to study, learning with ease everything to which he devoted himself, including music. But he also loved visiting the Blessed Sacrament and, despite his young age, he observed the fasts of Advent and Lent.

Encountering a religious vocation

At the age of fourteen he entered the college of the Society of Jesus, where his vocation as a great preacher and polemicist began to blossom. A small episode of that time illustrates this tendency.

Slanderous rumours were spread around the city about the quality of teaching given in that college, which left Robert indignant. To put an end to them once and for all, he took some of his companions and challenged the best students from the other educational institutions to a public debate. On the appointed day, it fell to him to make the opening speech in the municipal hall where the event took place. The victory of the Jesuit students was resounding!

With his straightforward words, methodical and logical reasoning, and above all sincere piety, the young saint began to be invited to preach at retreats and other events. Success was knocking at his door. Being, moreover, the nephew of a Pope, even though his reign was short-lived, his father had high hopes of seeing him elevate the family name, perhaps as an outstanding member of the papal court…

Robert, however, weighing the dangers of the golden path that lay before him, decided to become a Jesuit.

Early years in the Society of Jesus

After overcoming his father’s resistance and a year of trial in his own home town, he was transferred to Rome, where he took his first vows of consecration in the Society and began to study philosophy at the Roman College.

Despite his weak and sickly constitution, his intelligence was very acute. He also possessed a memory so privileged that a simple reading was enough for him to retain the content of a book. Thus, his academic successes were remarkable. In the defense of his thesis in philosophy, he stood out for the certainty and clarity of his reasoning with which he explained the subject and answered the proposed objections. This earned him a position as professor of Humanities at the Florence College, despite his age of 21.

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Besides teaching, he also had the task of preaching on Sundays and holy days before prelates and ecclesiastics, as well as the intellectual elite of the city. His listeners were amazed, more than by his eloquence, to see him practising consistently what he preached in his sermons.

In view of the rapid progress that he had made, Saint Francis of Borgia, then Superior General, ordered him to go to Louvain, where men of talent were needed to defend the “Deposit of Faith”, strongly questioned at the time by Lutheran intellectuals.

An excellent preacher, though still without a stole

The University of Louvain was a bastion of true doctrine. Robert came there to stay for two years, which turned into seven, according to the prediction that he himself had made.

Small of stature, the young Jesuit was a giant in the pulpit. On Sundays he preached in Latin in the church of the Athenaeum, which was filled with an audience accustomed to listening critically to the most learned preachers. The fruits of these sermons were precious: hesitant Catholics were confirmed in the Faith, many young people consecrated themselves to God’s service, many Protestants were converted. There was no lack among them of people who, having come from Holland or England to hear him and refute his arguments, returned repentant.

In Ghent, on March 25, 1570, Robert received the priesthood.

The most fruitful period of his life

Fierce controversies marked the period. The problems raised by the Protestants led Fr. Bellarmine to study Hebrew in order to acquire even greater exegetical knowledge.

St. Robert also studied the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors, Popes, Councils and Church History. He thus prepared himself for a solid form of teaching, oriented towards a kind of apologetics in which errors were always impugned with respect and prudence.

This was the most fruitful period of his life. The major universities of Europe, including Paris, were vying for him to be professor of theology. Even St. Charles Borromeo requested him for Milan. At only 30 years of age, he bore immense pastoral and academic responsibilities, which he carried out with virtue and talent. This led his superiors to bring advance early his solemn profession.

Controversies: the “Summa” of Bellarmine

Some time later, Holy Obedience made him return to the Eternal City. Gregory XIII had founded in the Roman College a chair of apologetics called Controversies, with the aim of teaching true doctrine against the errors that abounded within the university centres of the time. Saint Robert took charge of it for twelve years, during which time he exquisitely refuted the objections of the Protestants. His teachings during this long period were compiled, by order of his superiors, in the monumental work Controversies.

Considered the “Summa” of Bellarmine, it was received with great enthusiasm and translated into almost all European languages. Saint Francis de Sales, the great Bishop of Geneva, claimed to have preached for five years against the Calvinists in Chablais, using only the Bible and the Controversies of Bellarmine.

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Even Protestants bore witness to the efficacy and value of this work.

Thus the living faith and profound wisdom of the saint, as well as his Thomistic method of arguing – always beginning by impartially expounding upon the reasons and arguments put forward by the opposing party – were of incalculable value for the defense of the Church. If the greater part of Austria and almost a third of Germany still remain Catholics today, we can say that it is due in good measure to the apostolate of St. Robert Bellarmine.

Cardinal in the name of Holy Obedience

The fruitful activity of St. Robert Bellarmine in the Eternal City was not limited to the Roman College, of which he became Rector in 1592. Among other duties he was the theologian to Pope Clement VIII, consultant to the Holy Office and the theologian of the Apostolic Penitentiary. He was also part of the commission in charge of preparing the Clementine edition of the Vulgate, the official version of the Bible for the Latin rite until 1979, when it was replaced by the Neovulgate.

His appointment as Cardinal was inevitable. He, however, refused to accept the post, claiming incompatibility with his vows. But Pope Clement VIII obliged him to accept in the name of Holy Obedience.

With the same religious spirit, disinterestedness and self-denial that had characterized him up to that time, he devoted himself to the often thorny work required of Roman prelates. But in 1602 Clement VIII relieved him of the heavy burden by appointing him Archbishop of Capua, conferring episcopal ordination on him himself.

In charge of the Archdiocese of Capua

Experiencing already in his lifetime the reputation of sanctity, Cardinal Bellarmine was received in the cathedral with great pomp and great concourse of the faithful, who touched him with their medals and rosaries.

His administration began with a general reform of the clergy. He interviewed each of the priests in private, showing goodness and evangelical firmness towards the erring ones. He was ready to forgive the gravest sins to those who repented, but he maintained a complete inflexibility towards the recalcitrant: either a change of life or a change out of the habit.

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In the cathedral he gave new life to the choir, taking part himself in the recitation of the Office. He often devoted himself to preaching, as was his custom, using this means to convert souls. He also visited the whole territory of the archdiocese, stimulating the piety of the faithful and helping to rebuild decaying convents. But, as a good son of St Ignatius, he attached particular importance to formation: he himself taught the Catechism in the parishes and in the cathedral on Sundays.

In the midst of all these occupations, his spiritual life was a masterpiece of serenity. He managed to organize his time so as to find time to think, meditate, pray, study and write, without neglecting his obligations to his flock. On the contrary, it was from recollection and prayer that he drew the strength for pastoral action.

The election of the new Pope

On the death of Clement VIII, Cardinal Bellarmine returned to Rome to take part in a Conclave for the first time. The Pope elected was Leo XI, who died less than a month later.

In the second Conclave, St. Robert had a good number of votes. But, just as he had refused the honors of Cardinal, he reveals in his Autobiography that in those days he had asked God that someone more suitable be chosen, praying insistently: “From the Papacy, deliver me, Lord!

When Paul V was elected, he was called to be at his side, being made to leave the Archdiocese of Capua forever. Bellarmine spent another sixteen years in Rome, holding the highest offices in the service of the Holy See and intervening in the most important affairs, where his advice had a decisive influence.

Serenity in life and death

Feeling his death approaching, Saint Robert asked the newly elected Pope Gregory XV for dispensation from all his offices in the Curia and withdrew to the Novitiate of Saint Andrew’s in the Quirinal, in order to “wait on the Lord”, as he used to say. He ‘arrived’ for him on September 17th, 1621. After a short illness, having been visited by many illustrious people – including the Pope himself – who asked him for his last advice and a blessing, he took his leave of this earth with a most serene death.

Pius XI canonized him on June 29, 1930, and declared him a Doctor of the Church the following year.

Text adapted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, n. 105, Sept. 2010.

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