September 16, 2016

St. Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

St. Robert Bellarmine
September 17th, is the optional memorial of Saint Robert Bellarmine, (1542-1621) a 16th century Jesuit theologian, cardinal archbishop and Doctor of the Church. While not widely known to Catholics in the United States, in his native Italy, he is greatly venerated. Bellarmine was a "Spiritual Father" to many, including Saint. Aloysius Gonzaga. He helped write the authoritative Latin text of the Bible called for by the Council of Trent. He is one of the great figures of the Counter-Reformation.

Robert Francis Romulus Bellarmine was born October 4, 1542 at Montepulciano in Tuscany. His father, Vincent Bellarmino, was a member of a noble family that had fallen on hard times. His mother, Cynthia Cervini, was the half-sister of Cardinal Marcello Cervini, a leader of the Counter-Reformation Church, who was elected Pope Marcellus II in 1555. Marcellus II reigned for one month before his death. His nephew (Robert Bellarmine) would seek the priesthood a short time later and complete his uncle's mission to restore and renew the Church.

In 1560, Bellarmine entered the Society of Jesus, enrolling in the Roman College of the Jesuits (present day Pontifical Gregorian University) to study Philosophy. From the outset, his piety and intellectual acuity were evident. Ill health plagued Bellarmine throughout his life. After completing his philosophical training, he was sent to the Jesuit college in Florence to rest and to teach. One year later, he transferred to Mondovi to teach Cicero and Demosthenes, despite not knowing Greek. It was at Mondovi that Bellarmine first began to preach. His sermons were so popular that people came from far and wide to hear them.

The Superior General of the Jesuits, Saint Francis Borgia, sent Bellarmine to the Catholic University at Louvain Belgium. Reformation theology had permeated the University and Borgia recognized the brilliance of Robert Bellarmine to reverse this trend. In 1570, Bellarmine was ordained to the priesthood and appointed to a professorship at Louvain, the first Jesuit to do so. For six years he lectured on the Summa Theologica, preached regularly, and learned Hebrew.

Exhausted, Bellarmine journeyed to Rome where he was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII as the Chair of Controversial Theology to lecture on polemical theology at the Roman College. There he would write his most important work, Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith, in four volumes. To this day, it is considered one of the most important texts of Catholic theology ever written. Venerable Pope Pius XII's Encyclical, Mediator Dei, cites St. Bellarmine's commentary on the Sacred Liturgy: "St. Robert Bellarmine teaches, according to the mind of the Doctor of Hippo, that in the sacrifice of the altar there is signified the general sacrifice by which the whole Mystical Body of Christ, that is, all the city of redeemed, is offered up to God through Christ, the High Priest: nothing can be conceived more just or fitting than that all of us in union with our Head, who suffered for our sake, should also sacrifice ourselves to the eternal Father."

Pope Clement VIII named Bellarmine a cardinal in 1598, saying of him, "the Church of God has not his equal in learning". Four years later, Clement VIII appointed him the archbishop of Capua. Despite his lack of pastoral experience, Bellarmine successfully implemented the reforms of the Council of Trent in his archdiocese. He traveled everywhere, preaching and evangelizing. He visited his clergy as well as religious extolling them to renew the Church.

Bellarmine was integral in trying to resolving the controversy between Galileo and the Church. He died at Rome in 1621 at the age of 79. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930; the following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His remains, in a cardinal's red robes, are displayed behind glass under a side altar in the Church of Saint Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College. He is the patron saint of religious education. O God, who adorned Saint Robert Bellarmine with wonderful learning and virtue to vindicate the faith of your holy Church, grant, through his intercession, that in that same faith your people may always find joy.

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