Reading: Wisdom 7:7-10, 15-16
The passage from Wisdom an appropriate introduction to the life of St. Robert Bellarmine, whom the church celebrates today. Bellarmine was a Jesuit and Cardinal who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. He was born shortly after Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, and the Council of Trent began when he was a child, ending during his philosophy studies in Rome. His entire theological career was marked by the decisions made by the Council and by the theology of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. In fact, his writings reveal that he read and knew their theology.
Before doing a little research, I knew only that Bellarmine was a Jesuit and that he must have been involved in education. My initial impressions of him were of a man who craved black and white answers, and who sought to find them in his theological explorations. That impression is not far from the truth, and it still makes me a little uncomfortable. Yet, the more I read about Robert Bellarmine, the more I see him as a good man.
Bellarmine was certainly brilliant and well-educated. He entered the Jesuits at age 18, and he quickly became known as a good preacher, even before he was ordained to the priesthood. He began philosophy studies in Rome in 1560, taught liberal arts from 1563-1567, and then began studying theology. In 1570 he was ordained and appointed professor at Louvain, where he lectured on the work of Thomas Aquinas. During his time in Belgium, he began refuting the Protestant errors he saw in the works of his colleagues. His lectures refuting the teachings of Luther, Calvin and others were published in several volumes. While many Catholics were arguing against Protestant theology, Bellarmine’s lectures were unique in tone. Like Thomas Aquinas, he first learned the arguments of his opponents, then refuted them using logic and reason.
Bellarmine’s genius cannot be denied, and it extends beyond doctrinal issues to canon law, architecture, spirituality, and even science. Yet, the brilliant mind was found in a man who loved the poor and wanted to provide the best of the reforms Trent promoted. When he was appointed archbishop of Capua in 1602, Bellarmine personally attended to the needs of those in poverty. He established a Jesuit college there, which brought with it research and a library. By living out the Tridentine goal that the bishop reside, work, and preach in his own diocese, Bellarmine lifted up the status of a small, poor town in rural Italy.
Robert Bellarmine was an unfailing champion of the Roman Catholic Church, a voice necessary for the time in which he lived. We can learn from him about fidelity, and about careful theological exploration and education. We learn also that true dialogue requires us to understand positions we may not agree with, and to treat those who hold them with respect. Most of all, we learn that a good education, and even positions of ecclesial or civil power, do not remove our personal obligation to care for those in need. In the words of Pope Francis, “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.”