Several years ago, a man came to the door of the rectory at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Andover, Massachusetts and announced to the pastor: "If this is the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine, you must be Jesuit!" He was rather amazed to find out that the pastor was not a Jesuit, but Jesuit-trained and a member of the faculty of the local Jesuit college. The visitor turned out to be a native-born Italian who had graduated from a Jesuit college in Italy.
All this is to emphasize that Robert Bellarmine is practically unknown to the Catholics of the United States, even though is the Patron Saint of Religious Education and a Doctor of the Church. He is one of the great figures in the era of the Counter- Reformation or the Catholic Reformation. A member of the Roman Curia for most of his active life and a Cardinal of the church, he was not raised to the altars of the Church until 1930. We will try to understand this a little better when we know something more of this kind, generous and brilliant man who blessed the world of his time with his holiness.
The 16th century was one of the most difficult in the history of the Church. The attacks on the Church by the original "Reformers" caused tremendous losses to the Church in numbers, property, power and prestige. Whole nations abandoned "mother Church", rejected doctrine after doctrine, denied the validity of the sacramental system and eliminated the central worship of the Church, the Mass. The rejection of the authority of the Church, the personal interpretation of Scripture, the importance of tradition endangered the entire future of Christianity. If the Church had not responded, it would have been destroyed. But respond it did! Some historians use the terms "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reformation" to describe how the Church fought back.
The Church went into council—the famous Council of Trent—to revitalize the practice and truth of the faith. The Reformers had not been entirely wrong in their criticism. There was much wrong with the Church, especially in its practice. The challenge was to restore the Church to its original purity, especially in the life of the spirit and the people of God. It is the view of the Church today that the Providence of God sent to the Church at that time a man named Robert Bellarmine, who would be a key leader in defending the Church and moving it forward to better days.
Robert Francis Romulus Bellarmine (Bellarmino) was born in 1542 at Montepulciano in Tuscany. His father was Vincent Bellarmino, a member of a noble family, but one that had fallen on hard times. The family was not at all wealthy or powerful His mother, on the other hand, Cynthia Cervini, was the half-sister of Cardinal Marcello Cervini, one of the outstanding leaders of the Counter-Reformation Church, who would be elected Pope Marcellus II in 1555. Unfortunately, Pope Marcellus II reigned for only one month before his death. However, a grateful Church would advance the nephew as he sought the priesthood. These were the early days of the existence of the Jesuit order. St. Ignatius Loyola recognized the need for a strong educational system within the Church to defend it against Protestantism and to clarify the teaching of the apostolic Church. The Jesuits made this their major work when to the present day.
There was a Jesuit college in Montepulciano. The young Bellarmine, a very small, frail but lively fellow excelled in his studies, especially Latin and Italian poetry. It didn’t take long for it to become obvious that he wished to join the Society of Jesus. The rector of the college described him as "the best of our school and not far from the kingdom of heaven". In 1559, Bellarmine’s father, who wanted him to be a medical doctor, agreed that he could spend a year at home pondering his vocation. In 1560, at the age of 18, Robert Bellarmine applied for admittance to the Society of Jesus. He was sent to Rome to pursue his novitiate, even given credit for the year he had spent at home (it’s nice to be a relative of a Pope!). At the same time, Bellarmine was enrolled in the "Roman College" of the Jesuits (in modern times known as the Gregorian University) to study Philosophy.
Bellarmine would be plagued throughout his life with ill health. When he completed his philosophical training, he was sent to Florence in his native Tuscany to rest and to teach at the Jesuit college there – Rhetoric and Latin poetry. As is so characteristic of the Jesuits, the assignment only lasted one year and he was sent to Mondovi in Piedmont. There he discovered that he was expected to teach Cicero and Demosthenes. The problem was, he knew no Greek! It is told that he burned the midnight oil staying one lesson ahead of his students! It was at Mondovi that Bellarmine began to preach. He was so small that he had to stand on a stool in the pulpit. His ethereal looks made him very popular as the "boy preacher".
Crowds came to hear him. At the college, Bellarmine showed great courage by objecting to the practice of flogging unprepared students, something that was common at that time. The story is told that the Jesuit Provincial went to hear Bellarmine and was so impressed that he transferred Robert to Padua to complete his studies for ordination and to preach to the college community there. Again, this was not to last. The Superior General of the Jesuits, Francis Borgia (now St. Francis Borgia) sent Bellarmine to the great Catholic University at Louvain Belgium. Reformation theology had permeated the University and Borgia recognized the brilliance of Robert Bellarmine to counteract this trend. Robert lectured preached and studied for the next seven years. In 1570, Bellarmine was ordained to the priesthood and appointed to a professorship at Louvain, the first Jesuit to hold such a post. For six years he lectured on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, preached regularly and taught himself Hebrew. He wrote a Hebrew grammar text to help his students, which became very popular.
All this was too much and Bellarmine suffered a serious breakdown. He was recalled to Rome although St. Charles Borromeo tried to lure him to Milan. In Rome, Bellarmine received the key appointment of his life – to the "Chair of Controversial Theology" at the Roman College. Its purpose was apologetical: to defend the church against the attacks of Reformers. Bellarmine would hold this post for 11 years, until 1587. It was during this time that he wrote his classic work, " Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith", in four large volumes. To this day, it is considered one of the most important texts of Catholic theology ever written. Three hundred years after its publication, it was called "the most complete defense of the Catholic teaching".
The disputations were rewritten to defend the church against " The Centuries of Magdeburg", a Protestant series which purported to prove that Protestantism represented the church of the apostles in all Christian centuries. In such a period of controversy, tempers were always high and personal attacks were constant. Bellarmine’s work was known for the kindness and respect he gave the Reformers. The result of this was that the "Disputations" became the basic text for all controversies used by Catholic and Protestant leaders alike. Bellarmine’s work received the greatest compliment of being banned in England! One English bookseller of the day said: " I have made more money out of this Jesuit than out of all the other divines put together.
Bellarmine’s success was so great that he became one of the most powerful men in the Church. He was sent on many papal delegations even suffering the siege of Paris in 1589. When he returned to Rome, Pope Clement VIII gave him an enormous task. The Council of Trent felt that the " private interpretation of Scripture" proposed by the Reformers was very dangerous for doctrinal purity. It suggested that the Pope take the responsibility for preparing an official version of the Bible so that a consistent text would be available to all scholars. Sixtus V, unfortunately, decided to prepare the text himself. Unfortunately, his text was found to be inaccurate and unusable. The Church had used St. Jerome’s Latin text of the Bible, " The Latin Vulgate" edition of the Bible for centuries. It was time to apply the advances in Scriptural understand to a new official text. After the death of Sixtus V, Clement VIII turned to Robert Bellarmine for an up-to-date official text of the Vulgate, which is still in use today.
It is only in the last few years that work has begun on a modern text of the Vulgate. Robert Bellarmine’s "Preface" is still in use today. The significance of this is great. For centuries, all translations of the Bible into the vernacular were done from the Vulgate text (e.g. Douai Bible; Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Bible). Today, many new translations are based on the original languages: Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. These translations are one level closer to the original texts than the Latin Bible. However, Bellarmine still makes his contribution.
During these years, St. Robert’s reputation continued to grow. He continues to be one of the most powerful men in the Church, yet insisted on living the life of a simple priest. He lived in the Jesuit community at the Roman College where he became the Spiritual Director. It was here that he met and directed the young Aloysius Gonzaga. He was present at Aloysius’ deathbed. So deeply attached was he to the future patron saint of youth, he called him "my dear ghostly child" and directed in his will that he be buried at the feet of the young saint. The story is told that Saint Robert reveled in the living community life. He washed the dishes after every evening meal! Soon Robert was mad e rector of the Roman College.
Later, after a short term as Jesuit provincial in Naples, he was called back to Rome to become the personal theologian of Clement VIII. The Pope commissioned him to write two catechisms of Catholic doctrine. Luther had invented the Catechism style to propagate Protestant theology. The history of Bellarmine’s catechism is nothing less than incredible. The first was the instruction manual used by Jesuit missionaries all over the world. It was translated into sixty-two languages. Only the Bible itself and the famous " Imitation of Christ" surpass this record. The second catechism was used ion most of the diocese of Italy until the publication of the new master catechism of the Church only in the early 1990’s.
In 1598, Bellarmine was stunned to be named a cardinal by Clement VIII. Jesuit’s are not supposed to receive honors from the Church by their Constitution, but the pope declared: "He was not his equal for learning". Cardinals who are full-time members of the Roman Curia, the top administrative body of the Church, live in apartments in the Vatican itself. The are supported by benefices so that they can keep up an office and staff. This was against the religious vow of poverty! Bellarmine continued his usual austere life. He ate the food of the poor- bread and garlic. He did not heat his apartment in winter and gave most of his income to the poor. He even distributed the wall hangings of his rooms to the poor for clothing with the very wry comment: "The walls won’t catch cold".
Much to the amazement of all, at the height of his career, at the age of 60, Pope Clement VIII appointed Robert Bellarmine the archbishop of Capua. Bellarmine had never been in pastoral ministry. Never the less, he began a new dimension of his priesthood with his usual enthusiasm. He would spend the next three years introducing the reforms of the Council of Trent in his archdiocese. He traveled everywhere, preaching to the people. He visited his clergy as well as religious men and women to encourage them to renew the Church. He won the love of everyone.
But, it was not to last. In 1605, Paul V was elected pope and immediately called Bellarmine back to Rome. He would not leave again. He became the head of the Vatican Library, one of the great sources of the world. He was appointed a member of the most congregations of the Curia. He would continue to write in defense of the Church, but the tone of his works would not have the same bite of controversy. One of his subjects was the power of the papacy, especially in relation to the civil power of kings. Bellarmine wrote two pamphlets against the views of King James of England regarding the "divine right of kings", the power to control the Church in their countries, the first a spoof of James’ poor Latin, the second a devastating destruction of his arguments. Bellarmine’s "De Potestate Papae" (The Power of the Pope), was burned publicly by the Parliament of Paris!
Robert Bellarmine was the " point man" in the famous controversy between the Church and Galileo. Actually, the two men were close friends. Galileo dedicated one of his books to Bellarmine. Bellarmine was able, then, to approach Galileo on a very personal basis. However, so tension filled was the issue that the friends could not resolve it. The controversy was to become one of the most important in history: the relationship between Science and Theology, the relative importance of human observation and revealed truth. Galileo was one of the first users of the telescope. His measurements led to the proposal of the Heliocentric Theory – that the sun was central to our world that the earth moved around the sun and not the sun around the earth. Yet, the Scriptures talk of the movement of the sun. In Joshua 10, 12, Joshua, the Israelite general, is pursuing an enemy force in retreat. He prayed that God would stay the movement of the sun: " Stand still, O Sun". Also, Christian theology that always taught that the earth was central to our world (Geocentric Theory) because it was home to the most important creation of God, the human race. Now, this doctrine was being threatened.
Galileo represented the beginning of modern science; Bellarmine the truth of scripture as literally interpreted. The Galileo Controversy has been used for centuries to suggest a fundamental conflict between science and faith. In recent years, correspondence and documents have been discovered which throw new light on the details of the controversy. Bellarmine urged Galileo to be patient. He was confident that apparent conflicts would be resolved by even better understanding of truth. Galileo, unfortunately, refused to wait. He published his theory and was dismissed from his teaching position. He was even subjected to house arrest. Today we understand that Galileo’s contribution was not just a fact of the natural world but a major sign that the Scriptures cannot be interpreted literally.
The Later Years
Robert Bellarmine died at Rome in 1621 at the age of 79. If his early career featured brilliant polemics and his middle years gentle, loving, pastoral life, his final years brought him transcendent peace. His writings turned spiritual. He wrote several works, the classics being "The Ascent of the Mind to God" and "The Art of Dying". He wrote that this was his way of preparing for death and to move closer to his God.
Why So Long?
It seems incomprehensible that the consummate renaissance man would have to wait until 1930 to be elevated to the altars of the Church – 300 years for a man of his achievement and holiness. The answer probably lies in the title of his greatest work – "Controversies". People who are active in controversies become controversial themselves. The church has its priorities and thinks far ahead. It was not interested in offending Protestantism by recalling the conflicts of the past or Modern Science which it wished to encourage and embrace. By 1930, these considerations were no longer imperative. The church was able to say that it had a new saint, a new doctor of the church and a patron for religious education.
Bellarmine and the Declaration of Independence
In the children’s chapel of Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Andover, MA, you will find a rather unique but impressive stained glass window. It is quite large and in four panels. Three of the panels represent the breath of the United States, geographically, economically and politically. The fourth panel is not a "picture" or a symbol. It is a series of quotations. These quotations are culled from the political writings of Robert Bellarmine and the Declaration of Independence. There is an amazing correspondence between the two, something that has been remarked by many philosophers, theologians, and legal experts. For example:
Bellarmine: "In a commonwealth, all men are born naturally free and equal" (De Clericis, Ch. VII)
Virginia Declaration of Rights: "All men are born equally free and independent." (Preliminary draft – The Virginia Declaration of Rights, a seminal document for the Declaration of Independence, was written by Madison, Mason and Jefferson. The final draft read: "All men are by nature equally free and independent".)
Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal".
The similarities between the writings of Bellarmine and these basic documents of American Democracy and freedom focused considerable historical study on Bellarmine and his possible influence on Thomas Jefferson. A search of Jefferson’s personal library at Monticello found no sign of the writings of Bellarmine. Research proved that while Jefferson had a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, it probably would not have sustained a serious reading of Bellarmine’s works. On the other hand, a most interesting discovery was made. Jefferson had a copy, notated and underlined in pencil, of the "Patriarcha" of Sir Robert Filmer, the personal theologian of James I of England. He had written his book in defense of the divine right of kings and, since Bellarmine had written a classic work against this political theory, Filmer quoted copiously from Bellarmine. It is these quotations which were underlined in Jefferson’s copy.
We have no way of determining if Jefferson himself did this annotating but it is exactly these quotations from Bellarmine which show up in the wording of the Declaration of Independence. These are also the quotations used in the stained glass window described above.
From the initial article written by Gaillard Hunt, an archivist at the Library of Congress and a convert to Catholicism, in 1917 studies were published supporting both sides of this debate in the pages of many of the most scholarly journals of our country. The debate did not fade away until 1945. It had become obvious that no definitive conclusion could be reached. The window in Andover, MA commemorates the debate rather than any one determination. Modern scholars feel that Jefferson did not know Bellarmine’s writings first hand. Bellarmine, on the other hand, was the best known protagonist of the Christian Democratic theory based on the "consent of the governed" rather than on the "divine right of kings", thinking which came out of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism. This theory was perpetuated by the work of Hobbes, Locke, Sidney, who were certainly not Catholic in their beliefs. It is well known how the founding fathers were influenced by these political philosophers. At most, we can say that Bellarmine could have indirectly contributed a wording of this theory, which appeared in the Declaration of Independence itself. This should be enough to make Bellarmine, in the words of his biographer, James Broderick S.J., "a patron saint of the United States".