His lively faith and profound wisdom were of inestimable benefit to the Church. The fact that a significant portion of Austria and Germany remains Catholic to this day is largely due to the apostolate of this son of St. Ignatius.
In his will, he had requested a simple funeral—befitting a member of the Company of Jesus—but Pope Gregory XV wished to add pomp and splendour to the burial rites of the Cardinal who had done so much good for the Church of Christ.
He was clothed in the red vestments he had received 22 years earlier and laid out in the church of the Jesuit house. Crowds gathered to pay their last respects, and an honour guard was formed to curb the enthusiastic devotion of the people.
The entire Sacred College participated, and the Consistory register recorded his death in these words: “This morning, the 17 of September 1621, at the twelfth hour, the Most Reverend Bellarmine, Cardinal priest of Montepulciano, departed from this land of death for the dwelling-place of the living. He was an extraordinary man, an eminent theologian, a fearless defender of the Catholic Faith and hammer of heretics. He was as pious, prudent and humble as he was charitable to the poor. The Sacred College and the entire Roman Court deeply feel and mourn the death of such a great man.”1
These concise and expressive words, laden with the spirit of the age, aptly reflected the feelings of the Roman people toward the Cardinal whom they acclaimed with the cry: “Ecco il santo!—There is the saint!” as he passed by.
Precocious in studies and preaching
Robert Francis Romolus Bellarmine was born in Montepulciano, in Tuscany, on October 4, 1542. His father, Vincent Bellarmine, of impoverished nobility, was governor of the city for many years. His mother, Cinzia Cervini, was the sister of future Pope Marcellus II, who governed the Church for only 22 days, in April of 1555.
His abilities showed themselves early; he easily assimilated the material he studied—including music. He loved to visit the Blessed Sacrament and, despite his youth, he observed the fasts of Advent and Lent.
Discovery of a religious vocation
At 14, Robert entered the college of the Company of Jesus, where his vocation as a great preacher and polemicist began to take shape, as an incident from that period illustrates.
Calumnious rumours had begun to spread throughout the city, challenging the standard of teaching at the college. This raised the indignation of Robert and, in order to quell the gossip, he joined with some of his colleagues to challenge the best students of the other institutions to a public debate. The opening speech fell to him, and he delivered it in the chamber of the city hall with such aplomb that he became the key figure in a resounding victory for the Jesuit students.
A gifted orator, endowed with logical and methodical reasoning—and especially a sincere piety—the young saint was soon invited to give retreats and to preach widely. Success was knocking on the door, and as the nephew of a Pope, even if of a fleeting reign, his father had hopes that Robert might ennoble the family name as a distinguished member of the pontifical court.
The young Bellarmine, however, carefully weighed the dangers of the prestigious ascent opening before him: “Thinking at great length about the dignity to which I could aspire, the fleeting nature of temporal things continually came to my mind. Moved by these impressions, I developed a horror of this life and resolved to find a religious order in which there was no danger of receiving such honours.”2
He decided to become a Jesuit.
First years in the Company of Jesus
After overcoming his father’s objections and being admitted to a year’s probation in his native city, he was transferred to Rome, where he made his first vows in the Company and began studying philosophy at the Roman College.
Despite his weak constitution, his sharp intelligence and exceptional memory—demonstrated by the ability to commit an entire book to memory after a single reading—afforded him marked academic success. He defended his thesis with assurance and clarity and won the office of Professor of Humanities at the College of Florence at only 21 years of age.
Besides teaching, he was also responsible for preaching on Sundays and holy days to the prelates, clergy and intellectual elite. These distinguished listeners admired him for his eloquence and for his sincerity in practicing what he preached.
Twelve months later, the young Robert was sent to Mondovi as a professor of rhetoric, and remained there for three years. When the Father Provincial heard him preach, he sent him to Padua to study Theology in preparation for major orders.
In view of his rapid progress in Padua, St. Francis Borgia, the Superior General at the time, sent him on to Louvain, where gifted men were needed to defend the “Depository of the Faith,” which was being fiercely opposed by Lutheran intellectuals.
An eminent preacher even without a stole
Located less than twenty kilometres from Brussels—in the vicinity of various states that had adhered to the theses of Luther—the University of Louvain was a bulwark of true doctrine. Robert was posted there for two years, which were extended to seven, fulfilling a prevision he himself had made.
Although 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 brimmed with a public with an ear tuned for gifted preachers.
These sermons bore precious fruits: wavering Catholics were confirmed in the Faith, numerous youths consecrated themselves to God’s service, and many Protestants converted. Some, who came from Holland and England to hear and refute his arguments, returned home repentant.
Robert received priestly ordination in Ghent, on March 25, 1570.
The most fruitful period of his life
It was a fiercely polemical epoch, and the questions raised by Protestants prompted Father Bellarmine to learn Hebrew, to acquire greater exegetical assurance. He even wrote a Hebrew grammar for his own use, but it also proved to be of much assistance to his students.
St. Robert also delved into the Church Fathers, Doctors, Popes, Councils and ecclesial history, arming himself to provide solid teaching, guided by an apologetic style that prudently and respectfully refuted errors.
It was the most fruitful period of his life. The major universities of Europe, including the University of Paris, vied for him as theology professor. Even St. Charles Borromeo contended for him for Milan. At age 30, he was shouldering immense pastoral and academic responsibilities, with virtue and aptitude, leading his superiors to hasten his solemn profession of vows.
The Controversies: the “Summa” of Bellarmine
Some time later, obedience obliged him to return to the Eternal City. Gregory XIII had founded a chair of “Controversies” in the Roman College, with the apologetic goal of teaching true doctrine against the errors sprouting up in university circles of the time. St. Robert was entrusted with this chair for twelve years, during which he magnificently refuted Protestant objections. His teachings during this period were compiled, by order of his superiors, in the monumental work known as the Controversies.
Considered the “Summa” of Bellarmine, it was enthusiastically received and translated into almost all of the European languages. St. Francis de Sales, the great Bishop of Geneva, affirmed that he preached for five years against the Calvinists in Chablais, using only the Bible and the Controversies of Bellarmine.
Even Protestants affirmed the efficacy and importance of this work. Guiène declared that the holy Jesuit was worth all the Catholic doctors combined. Bayle confessed that there had never been a writer who had better upheld the cause of the Church and the admission of the Calvinist, Théodore Beza, has made history; bringing his hand down on the Controversies, he said to his confreres: “This is the book that has brought about our defeat.”3
Thus, the saint’s ardent faith and profound wisdom, together with his Thomistic method of argumentation—always beginning by impartially exposing the opponents’ reasons and arguments—were of incalculable value for the defence of the Church. It can be safely affirmed that a significant portion of Austria and Germany remains Catholic to this day largely due to the apostolate of St. Robert Bellarmine. “‘Oh! If you only knew how many children have been brought back to Christ,’ wrote Duke William of Bavaria, in asking him permission to translate the ‘Controversies.’”4
Friendship and admiration among saints
Many Jesuits of heroic virtue, worthy of the honours of the altars, lived during that turbulent juncture of Church history and St. Robert Bellarmine had close contact with some of these.
As spiritual director of the Roman College, he became the confessor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. This Jesuit novice admired the Cardinal as an angel, and for his part, St. Robert claimed to have never dealt with a purer or more delicate soul.
Subsequently, on a visit as Provincial to the school of Lecce, in southern Italy, he met St. Bernardine Realino. The two Jesuits fell to their knees before one another and embraced. When St. Robert took his leave, the other said, “A great saint has left us.”5 These two Jesuits, united from that moment by an entirely supernatural friendship, venerated each another as saints.
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 his other duties, he was papal theologian of Clement VIII, consultor of the Holy Office and theologian of the Apostolic Penitentiary. He was also part of the commission entrusted with the preparation of the Clementine Vulgate, the official version of the Bible for the Latin Rite until 1979, when it was replaced by the Neo-Vulgate.
His nomination as Cardinal was inevitable, yet he refused the office, alleging incompatibility with his vows. Pope Clement VII, however, obliged him to accept in the name of Holy Obedience, declaring: “We have chosen you because there is no one in the Church of God comparable to you in knowledge and wisdom.”6
With his characteristic religious spirit, detachment and abnegation he undertook the arduous work demanded of a Roman prelate. However, in 1602, Clement VII freed him from this demanding office, appointing him Archbishop of Capua, and conferring this Episcopal ordination personally.
At the forefront of the Archdiocese of Capua
Renowned as a living saint, Cardinal Bellarmine was received in the cathedral with pomp. An enormous gathering of faithful touched medals and rosaries to him.
His administration began with a general reform of the clergy. He privately interviewed each priest, exercising kindness and evangelical rigour with those who had strayed. He showed himself ready to pardon the gravest sins of the repentant, but remained inflexible toward the recalcitrant: aut vitam aut habitum—a change of life or a change of habit.
He rejuvenated the cathedral choir by personally participating in the recitation of the Divine Office. He preached often and zealously for the conversion of souls. He visited every part of the Archdiocese, encouraging the devotion of the faithful and helping to restore decadent convents. As a true son of St. Ignatius, he focussed primarily on formation, and personally provided catechesis in the parishes and the cathedral on Sundays.
Amid these multiple occupations, his spiritual life was a model of tranquillity. He organized his affairs to allow time to reflect, meditate, pray, study and write, without neglecting his obligations toward his flock. In fact, it was from his recollection and prayer that he received the strength for his pastoral activity. What a beautiful example of the thesis of Dom Chautard: the apostolate is an overflow of the interior life!
Election of the new Pope
With the death of Clement VIII, Cardinal Bellarmine returned to Rome to participate in his first conclave. The Pope elected was Leo XI, who died less than one month later.
In the second conclave, St. Robert received a large number of votes. Nevertheless, just as he had refused the dignity of Cardinal, he revealed in his Autobiography that he had asked God during those days that another, more capable than he, be chosen. He insistently prayed: “From the Papacy, deliver me, Lord!”7
After his election, Paul V drew Cardinal Bellarmine into his close confidence, obliging him to take definitive leave of the Archdiocese of Capua. He would spend a further sixteen years in Rome, fulfilling the highest duties at the service of the Holy See. He intervened in crucial matters and their resolution was decisively influenced by his opinion.
Serenity in life and death
Feeling death approach, St. Robert asked the recently elected Pope Gregory XV for dispensation from all curial offices, withdrawing to the Novitiate of Sant’Andrea in Quirinal, to “await the Lord,” as he put it.
He arrived on September 17, 1621. After a short illness, and after having received the visit of many illustrious personages—including the Pope—who requested a final counsel or blessing, he bid this life farewell with a most serene death.
He was canonized by Pius XI on June 29, 1930, and was declared a Doctor of the Church the following year. He who had so earnestly fled from honours and dignities during life became the only Jesuit inscribed in the catalogue of saints as Bishop and Cardinal. ◊
1 MENDES, SJ, João Rodrigues. O Santo Cardial Roberto Belarmino. Porto: Apostolado de Imprensa, 1930, p.66-67.
2 IPARRAGUIRRE, SJ, Ignacio. San Roberto Belarmino. In: ECHEVERRÍA, L., LLORCA, B., BETES, J. (Org.). Año Cristiano. Madrid: BAC, 2005, v.IX, p.479.
3 MENDES, SJ, op. cit., p.23.
4 VASCONCELLOS, Roberto de. Biografia de São Roberto Belarmino. In: SÃO ROBERTO BELLARMINO. Elevação da mente a Deus pelos degraus das coisas criadas. São Paulo: Paulinas, 1955, p.12.
5 ECHAINIZ, SJ, Ignacio. Paixão e Glória. História da Companhia de Jesus em corpo e alma. São Paulo: Loyola, 2006, t.II, p.23.
6 IPARRAGUIRRE, SJ, op. cit., p.481.
7 PEPE, Enrico. Martiri e santi del calendario romano. Roma: Città Nuova, 2006, p.546.