Saint Robert Bellarmine: Servant of the Truth and Doctor of the Church

Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Faith / 1 September 2021

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Four centuries ago, on September 17, 1621, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s earthly life ended in Rome. He was almost 79 years old and his name was known throughout Europe.

In 1599, Clement VIII, during a consistory in which he announced the names of cardinals, pronounced what one might well consider an apt eulogy: “We choose one who has no equal in the Church of God as far as doctrine is concerned, and is the nephew of the excellent and most holy pontiff Marcellus II.” The pope emphasized his wisdom and his kinship with a reforming pope who had transformed the worldly customs of the Roman Curia in the 21 days of his pontificate.

Bellarmine was loved and hated throughout Europe: loved for his theological teaching and for his Controversies, his spiritual treatises, his Catechism, and, above all, for the passion with which he preached; but he was also detested as the “hammer” of heretics, an acute detector of their contradictions, a critic even of the way they uncritically venerated Sacred Scripture. He was criticized not only in the Reformed camp, but also within the Church, and even by some of his confreres. Yet he never failed in his passionate search for truth, which for him was marked by sincere fidelity to his vocation as a man and a religious: he was truly a servant of truth. His role within the bodies of the Curia and in the main Roman Congregations, especially the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Index and the Holy Office, was not an easy one, with the resulting responsibilities, was not an easy one

When news of his impending death spread, he was visited by the newly elected Pope Gregory XV and many prelates. Most already venerated him as a saint. However, his human and spiritual qualities, as well as his dedication in carrying out the tasks entrusted to him, also brought him adversaries, who came out into the open after his death. They were decisive in blocking the process of beatification: Bellarmine, considered a “saint” in life, was not canonized until three centuries later, on June 29, 1930.


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