September 17, 2017

St. Robert Bellarmine, Patron of Religious Education

Saint Robert Bellarmine

Optional Memorial - September 17th

(In 2017, this feast is superseded by the Sunday liturgy.)

It is fitting that the month that heralds the beginning of a new school year is also the time in which the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine. A Jesuit priest during the Catholic Reformation, he won renown for his scholarship and theological insights. Bellarmine was a "Spiritual Father" to many, including Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. He was a consequential figure in the Church's renewal.

He was born in Italy in 1542. His mother, Cinthia Cervini, was sister to Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who later became Pope Marcellus II. Educated by the then "new" order in the Church—the Society of Jesus—the young Bellarmine entered the Jesuits in 1560 at the age of 18. He was ordained 10 years later and became the first Jesuit professor at the Catholic University at Louvain, Belgium, where he taught theology. He remained until 1576, when he was appointed to the Roman College founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (later the Pontifical Gregorian University).

St. Robert Bellarmine ministered in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and was thus part of a Church that simultaneously defended Catholic teaching while working to reform its own shortcomings. His gift for scholarship was remarkable and needed. He was appointed a cardinal in 1599 because, as Pope Clement VIII said, "he had not his equal for learning." His most famous work of theology, the Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith, sought to "systematize the teachings of the Church against the attacks of the Protestant Reformers."

Though a scholar, his life was not without controversy in the political sphere. He upset the monarchists in both England and France by demonstrating, through his writing, that the theory of the "Divine Right of Kings," (which held that kings derive their authority from God, not from their subjects) was indefensible. The idea of Divine Right, or God's mandate, had been unquestioned for centuries. Bellarmine also alienated Pope Sixtus V, when he further asserted that the pope's involvement in temporal matters, or worldly affairs, should be indirect.

His scholarship extended beyond these questions, however. He helped to revise the Vulgate Bible, which had been translated by Saint Jerome in the 4th century, and had become the official Latin translation used by the Church. As a theologian to Pope Clement VIII, he assisted in the preparation of two catechisms which would subsequently have an immense influence on Catholicism and catechesis.

His personal life was marked by prayer, humility, and care for the poor. While serving Clement VIII, he lived in apartments at the Vatican. It is said that he ate only the food which was available to the poor, and took the hangings off the walls of his room to clothe them. He reportedly remarked, "The walls won’t catch cold." He died in Rome in 1621 at 79. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930. The following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His remains are displayed under a side altar in the Church of St. Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College.

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