The Life of St. Robert Bellarmine

By Matthew August

The school of Christ is the school of love. In the last day, when the general examination takes place … Love will be the whole syllabus — St. Robert Bellarmine.

On Sept. 17, Catholics around the world celebrate the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine. But many don’t recognize the name of this man, who was at the center of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Bellarmine was one of the brightest theologians of his time, and is hailed as the patron saint of catechumens and catechists. His work involved countering the heresy that flooded out of the Protestant Reformation.

Bellarmine was born on Oct. 4, 1542, to a poor Italian family. Belonging to a noble line, Bellarmine’s father had high hopes that the young man would eventually work as a politician and restore the family’s wealth. However, Divine Providence had a different plan. Bellarmine followed his mother’s wishes for him to enter the Society of Jesus.

Bellarmine displayed extraordinary intellectual skills from a young age. Upon entering the Jesuit Order in 1560, he went on to teach philosophy and the humanities. As Bellarmine delved into his studies in theology, the Lord was sharpening the saint’s mind for the next stage of his life.

The saint spent over a decade writing the Disputations on the Controversies, three volumes of Catholic apologetics that defended the statutes of the faith against the attacks of the Protestant Reformation.

He quickly gained a reputation for being a brilliant professor and a skillful preacher. Bellarmine’s fiery sermons attracted both Catholics and Protestants from all walks of life. Large crowds gathered to listen to what he had to say.

Pope Clement VIII made him a cardinal in 1599, stating that his intelligence and knowledge had no equal. Bellarmine would become the Pope’s personal theologian. The Pope also appointed Bellarmine to the position of cardinal inquisitor, where his primary role was to combat heresy. [Editor's Note: To some readers, that may signal that he was a proponent of putting heretics on the rack, then burning them at the stake, etc. In reality, he was one of the first Catholic writers (Erasmus of Rotterdam may have been the first) to argue for a measure of religious tolerance, He stated that heretics should normally be assumed to be treated like wayward children who need discipline and guidance, not like moral criminals seeking to ruin souls and subvert the social order.]

Bellarmine understood that if he were to combat the overwhelming heresies during the time of the Reformation, he would need to be guided by the powers above. It was for this reason that Bellarmine had an undying devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The Rosary devotion was initially given to St. Dominic in the 13th century specifically to combat the rising heresies of the time. And it’s proved itself to be powerful, as the great spiritual writer Blessed Columba Marmion recounts in Christ — the Ideal of the Priest.

“You remember the story of David who vanquished Goliath,” wrote Blessed Columba. “What steps did the young Israelite take to overthrow the giant? He struck him in the middle of the forehead with a pebble from his sling. If we regard the Philistine as representing evil and all its powers: heresy, impurity, pride, we can consider the little stones from the sling capable of overthrowing the enemy as symbolizing the Aves of the Rosary.”

By his devotion to Our Lady, Bellarmine was made into a powerful tool in the hands of Our Immaculate Queen. Each Saturday the saint would fast in her honor, and devoted every morning to the recitation of the Office of the Blessed Virgin.

There are few who defended the Virgin Mary more than Bellarmine. One of his primary undertakings as cardinal was organizing a special commission to teach and defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This was nearly three centuries before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was defined by the Church.

The Mother of God rewarded the saint’s passion with incredible insight, all in the service of her divine mission to crush the heresies of the world.

“Saint Robert Bellarmine is to be numbered among the greatest men in the history of the Church, whom God in His providence has endowed with exceptional learning and sanctity to teach the truths of the Catholic Faith and defend its integrity against the attacks of the heretics,” said Pope Pius XI.

After spending the majority of his life fiercely defending the faith, Bellarmine retired to the Jesuit community in Rome and died in 1621 at the age of 78.

Let us follow his example and take up Marian devotion, especially the First Saturdays and the daily Rosary for peace, so that error may fade and truth may shine all the more clearly.

Saint Robert Bellarmine, pray for us!

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