St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.: 13 May

Br. Columba Maria

Early life

Roberto Francisco Bellarmini was born to pious parents, Vicenzo and Cynthia, on 4 October 1542, in the little hill town of Montepulciano in central Italy, the third of twelve children: five boys and seven girls.

Robert was a delicate boy, indeed he never enjoyed good health, and was given to solitude and reflection. His mother had a great devotion for the Jesuits, and when they opened a school in the town, Robert and his brothers were quickly transferred there. Like all Jesuit schools then, it was free, which was just as well, because the Bellarmini were not well off. Robert’s intelligence was apparent to all and his father tried to nurture in him a desire of worldly advancement, but the teenager, to his mother’s delight, desired only to be a Jesuit. Eventually his father agreed. When Robert and his cousin, Riccardo Cervini (nephew to Pope Marcellus II), arrived in Rome in September 1560, they were clothed in the cassock and took their first vows that same day (a thing unusual then and not possible now).


By spring 1569, Bellarmine had mastered his formal philosophical schooling, taught at several universities, perfected his beloved Latin, and was one of the most sought-after preachers in Italy. He was sent to Louvain in Belgium as the Sunday Latin preacher and to complete his priestly studies. He was ordained a priest and remained seven years in the university town which was then the bulwark of Catholic resistance to Protestantism.

The priest, Bellarmine, gave himself to militant theology in order to attack the errors of the day, chief among which were the errors of Lutheranism. Lutheranism specifically undermined those articles of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body”.

Besides preaching every Sunday to over two thousand people, lecturing daily to a hundred, many hours in the confessional, and meetings in the parlour, he somehow still managed to read all the Fathers and annals of Church History.


When Bellarmine was recalled to Rome in 1576, he was ordered to bypass Milan, lest Saint Charles Borromeo, his contemporary, kept him there! He was appointed professor of Controversial Theology at the Roman University by Gregory XIII and among his students and confrères were many an English martyr, including Ralph Sherwin, Luke Kirby, William Hart, John Lowe, Christopher Buxton, Edward James, Edmund Duke, John Ingram, John Cornelius, Henry Walpole, Robert Southwell, Henry Garnet and Edward Oldcorne.

Writer & Controversialist

Bellarmine volunteered himself for the English mission, but was retained in Rome. When Queen Elizabeth died, many saw in King James, the son of Catholic parents, a godsend to relieve them of the Elizabethan burdens. Two years beforehand, James had sent an ambassador from his Scottish court to Rome, and received a papal blessing with, amongst other things, a commendation from Bellarmine to return to the Church, from whose head he could expect every favour. Unfortunately, James’ advisors were the same as Elizabeth’s, including Walsingham, and he became even more anti-Catholic, and tried hard to deny that this earlier interchange ever took place.

King James entered into controversy with Bellarmine and showed keen insight into the issues at stake, but was ultimately blinded by his attachment to his earthly crown. Bellarmine, in contrast, scrupulously guarded his vow of poverty regardless of the honours bestowed upon him.

To keep abreast of developments, Bellarmine made sure that any new Protestant work was promptly despatched to him for analysis and refutation, and, reciprocally, it was mostly to his works that the Protestant “divines” addressed their own. For example, Against today’s papist heretics; in the first place Robert Bellarmine was a work written by one Whitaker, professor of theology at Cambridge. John Donne, the poet, had copies of his works, even though they were banned to the public at large. Saint Francis of Sales said of his five dogged years converting the Chablais back to Christ, that he carried only his Bible and his Bellarmine! James I’s personal chaplain, having read the Controversies, slipped across to Europe under the pretext of a medicinal expedition, was received into the Church and never returned.

The first of these his volumes appeared in 1586 and treated of Scripture and Tradition; Christ, Head of the Church, the Pope His vicar and Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant. Later volumes covered the Sacraments, Free-will, Grace and Justification. A catechism for boys and another for men were the Church’s standard until the first Vatican council. He painstakingly looked up all the sources himself and worked so hard that he needed surgery to ease the neurosis of his right arm.


As a priest, Bellarmine, was an advisor to the papal legate at the protracted and tortuous siege of Paris. After the city’s successful resistance to the eventual king Henry, they returned to Rome, where Bellarmine was made rector of the Jesuit college there. He was the last confessor to St. Aloysius Gonzaga, to whom he remained devoted.


In 1599, Pope Clement VIII appointed him Cardinal. Bellarmine, on request, provided the pope with a list of the most important duties of a pope, and the top places were filled with matters episcopal: the appointment of bishops (men suitably qualified,) their subsequent diligence (resident in the cathedral unless urgently needed elsewhere) and perseverance (not transferring them).

Cardinal Archbishop

In 1602, Clement consecrated him Archbishop of Capua with felicitous results. Pastors were appointed to towns languishing without a priest, churches were restored and religious houses saw a return to stricter observance. He always assisted at the Divine Office in choir, preached every Sunday and holiday, and gave catechism lessons to the poor and children. His dealings with the Spanish kings of Naples, with whom St. Alphonsus clashed two centuries later, drew from him this statement:

It is very difficult to defend the Church’s liberties without incurring the wrath of princes, and it is very difficult to be remiss in them without incurring the wrath of God.

His successor in Capua was ever away on diplomatic business, so much so that Cardinal Bellarmine wrote to him:

Your flock cannot follow their good shepherd since they never see you, nor know your voice since they never hear you [preaching].

Declining years

His last years were spent almost entirely at the Vatican, where his daily duties on papal business, interspersed with Divine Office either in choir or on his knees, were followed by nightly writings of letters to friends and suitors, and books that have been translated and reprinted many times. Both his writing and his conversation people always found sweet and endearing, like his friend and contemporary, St. Francis of Sales. His last two books, The Ascent of the Mind to God by a Ladder of Created Things, and The Art of Dying Well, could be retitled "Saint Robert Bellarmine’s guide to living well". To the laity, and something he himself practised unceasingly, he recommended almsgiving as the safest, surest way to heaven:

A tongue that can lie promises ten for every hundred and the repayment of the whole sum borrowed, and the lender believes. God, Who cannot lie, promises to him who gives alms a hundredfold in heaven and life eternal, but men cling in distrust to their gold and cannot be persuaded to believe Him.

Cardinal Bellarmine gave anything of value to the poor, and was constantly besieged by them. When news filtered out that he was on his death bed, and had received the viaticum from the Pope himself, the Jesuit novitiate was inundated with callers, and his bed was like a shrine, so many rosaries, medals—anything at all—were laid on it to receive his last blessing. When he did die on 16 September 1621, his last prayer was the Creed: “ vitam aeternam. Amen”.


St. Robert Bellarmine's feast day, however, is on 13 May, on which day in 1923 he was beatified. He was canonised on 30 June 1930 and declared Doctor of the Church the following year by Pope Pius XI. The saint was laid to rest next to his dirigé, St. Aloysius, in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Rome.

St. Robert Bellarmine is the patron saint of catechists.

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