On the Feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine

On the Feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine
Saint Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church

Over the course of a number of staff meetings this past summer, we learned about and eventually settled on Robert Bellarmine as the patron whose prayers we will especially be invoking for this apostalate dedicated to biblical studies. Today, September 17, is his feast day.

Robert Bellarmine was born at Montepulciano on October 4, 1542. He began his extended priestly formation in 1560 and was ordained ten years later in Louvain. He served the Church in various capacities and in various places as Spiritual Father to the Roman College, then Rector, then as Provincial in Naples. In 1597, Clement VIII called him back to Rome to be his personal theologian, as well as the Examiner of Bishops and Consultor of the Holy Office. But Clement wasn’t finished. In 1599 he made Bellarmine a Cardinal, explaining as his reason for the promotion that “the Church of God has not his equal in learning.”

Bellarmine served as the correspondent for the Church’s initial inquest into Galileo’s research—which he found fascinating—and was on friendly terms with the scientist whom he regarded as another fellow of great learning. But his health began to fail before the matter reached its later stages, and he died at Sant’ Andrea, on September 14, 1621. He was beatified on May 13, 1923 by Pope Pius XI, who canonized him a saint on June 29, 1930, and named him a doctor of the Universal Church in 1931.

Bellarmine is a saint for our time. His most famous work is his three-volume Controversies of the Christian Faith in which he addresses, in a systematic fashion, many of the challenges that rose to prominence during the so-called ‘Reformation’ which began in the early 16th century. Just as many Christians then were becoming jaded about the Church and confused by the controversies that developed between the Protestant Reformers and the Church’s leaders, so today, many Christians are again becoming jaded about the Church, even to the point of questioning whether Sacred Scripture really is—not figuratively but actually—the speech of God to mankind, or whether the eucharist really is—not figuratively but actually—the body of our Lord, given as food for the nourishment of our souls. Likewise, many Christians in the 16th century had become confused about the nature of the Church itself, and this confusion has remained to the present.

So, through the careful interpretation of Scripture according to the way Jesus taught his apostles to read it and understand it, Bellarmine shows how the Bible truly is a trustworthy word which God speaks to reveal himself to his people; how the Church truly is the mystical body of Christ present in the world, over against alternative understandings put forward by Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin; and how the actual and abiding source of our faith is not a set of doctrines, but rather the person of Jesus Christ who lives in the Church continually and never ceases to draw people to himself.

Bellarmine is a saint for our time. Today we are affluent and obsessed with image; with buying, with having, and with enjoying. Bellarmine lived simply and frugally, limited his household expenses to the essential, and restricted his diet to what food was available for the poor. Much like our Lord, he ate with the lowly as the lowly. Tradition has it that he once ransomed a soldier who had deserted from the army, and he is known for having used the hangings from his rooms to clothe the poor, explaining, “The walls won’t catch cold.”

For Bellarmine, loving from the heart was not merely compatible with being scholarly of mind, but followed from it. His great learning made him more humble, not less; it made him into a practical and useful man—an effective instrument in God’s mission toward those who struggle with matters of the faith, or with no faith.

May we at The Emmaus Institute follow in his path, and devote our minds and our hearts to the transforming power of God’s Word, which will not go out and return empty, but will accomplish God’s purpose, and prosper in the thing for which it was sent (Isa 55:11).

Saint Robert Bellarmine, teacher of Sacred Scripture, defender of Christ’s body, patron of catechists, pray for us.

(Updated September 17, 2020)