By CAROLE BRESLIN
Two days a week I attend Mass in Flushing, Mich., at the Parish of St. Robert Bellarmine. The altar is beautiful, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the decorations for Easter with an empty tomb on one side, the risen Christ on another, and across to the back side draped in white linen all surrounded with beautiful, fragrant flowers. There was much more with which the patron, St. Robert Bellarmine, must have been so pleased. St. Robert has not been as universally popular as the Little Flower, but he certainly offers much to write about since he is one of the few who have been designated as a doctor of the Church.
In 1542, the Protestant Reformation or Revolt was well on its way, drawing many of the Catholics in Europe away from the folds of Holy Mother Church. Into this controversial era Vincenzo Bellarmino and Cinzia Cervini — half-sister to Pope Marcellus II — welcomed their son, Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino, known to us as St. Robert Bellarmine.
The Jesuit school recognized him as “the best of our school, and not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” He was 17 at the time, being devout, brilliant, and articulate. Even at this young age he impressed his superiors with his debating skills.
Robert found his experiences at the Jesuit school very rewarding and decided he wanted to enter the Jesuit order. However, as happens with saints, his father was opposed to the idea since he had other plans for his promising son.
His mother, again like most saints, finally won over his father so that Robert left for Rome in 1560. So impressed was the father general of the order with Robert’s abilities that his novitiate was shortened so that he could enter more quickly into the studies for the priesthood.
After Robert spent three years studying philosophy, health reasons made it necessary for him to move back to Tuscany, where he began teaching. Not long afterward he went to Monrovia to teach Greek to the students — a subject that he had to teach himself since he knew no Greek. Similar to John Bosco, Robert Bellarmine did not approve of the flogging of young boys.
When he began preaching, crowds would flock to hear him. When his provincial superior heard his sermon, he promptly transferred the young man to Padua where he was to prepare for Ordination.
However, the father general, Francis Borgia — not one of the more infamous and corrupt Borgia family — sent him to the Louvain in Belgium to complete his studies. Borgia sent him there to counteract the many heresies and controversies propagated by the Protestants.
Bellarmine stayed there for seven years, once again drawing crowds despite his plain appearance and short stature. His heart burned within him during his sermons so that his face glowed with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
After his Ordination in 1570, he became a professor at the University of Louvain, lecturing on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. These lectures on the Summa Theologiae became the channel by which the Truth of the Church was taught and errors refuted.
His zeal led him to teach himself Hebrew in order to better study Holy Scripture. Thus he also became an expert on the Bible as well as on the Fathers of the Church. A side benefit of this study was that Robert published a Hebrew grammar book, which became widely popular.
Again his health broke down. He traveled to Italy where St. Charles Borromeo sought to get him assigned to Milan, but to no avail. Robert ended up at the chair of controversial theology at the Roman College. While there, he wrote his unequaled Disputations on the Controversies, refuting the claims of the Protestants that they were the true Church established by Christ.
The four volumes were so thorough with such a grasp of Scripture, dogmatic teachings of the Church, and the writings of the Church Fathers that the Protestants insisted that not one man, but many Jesuits, cooperated to write them. Their demand, even in England where they were forbidden, continued for centuries and hold great importance even to this day.
In 1589, he went to France under obedience to arbitrate between Henry of Navarre and the Catholic League. The mission failed, but Robert learned much of suffering. He returned to Rome at the death of Pope Sixtus V. The new Pope, Clement VIII, assigned him to prepare the Latin Vulgate for publication as a follow-up to the Council of Trent.
While working in Rome he provided spiritual direction to the youthful St. Aloysius Gonzaga, requesting that when he died he wanted to lie at the feet of Aloysius, who died very young. Then, in 1592, he became rector of the Roman College. Two years later he was made provincial of Naples before returning to Rome to become a theological adviser to the Pope.
Under the authority of Pope Clement VIII he wrote his two catechisms, which became the most widely published catechisms ever written. In 1598, having been nominated cardinal, he tried to elude the office, but Pope Clement VIII raised him under order of obedience. Though Robert stayed in the cardinals’ palace, he lived simply, giving food to the poor and maintaining his previous austere lifestyle. He allowed no fires in winter and subsisted on bread and garlic. The luxurious hangings in his residence were taken down to make clothes for the poor.
In 1602, he left for Capua to become a pastor and leave the life of academia behind. He evangelized and tended his flock tirelessly. Catechizing, visiting the parishes, exhorting the priests to live holy lives now became his work. However, once again he was recalled to Rome, by Pope Paul V.
He entered the fray with those denying the authority of the Pope. His stinging retort to King James I of England demolished the king’s rationale for his stance. His booklet denying the divine right of kings was burned by the leaders in France, but he was also denounced by others when he said the papal jurisdiction over foreign rulers was indirect.
He was also an associate of Galileo, whom he admonished for his unproved theories. His last years in Rome were spent writing more spiritual commentaries than apologetics. The popularity of these volumes became evident when they were translated into several different languages, including English.
As Bellarmine’s health deteriorated, the Jesuits allowed him to return to the novitiate of St. Andrew. On September 17, 1621 he died — a date he requested be established as the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. In 1930 he was canonized. The very next year, he was declared a doctor of the Church. Although his feast is now celebrated in September, in the old calendar his feast was celebrated on May 13.
Dear St. Robert, how we need champions of the faith to refute the errors of our day! Obtain for us the grace to study our faith, to learn our faith so that we too may lovingly proclaim the Truth which alone can bring joy to the world. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)