The reading at Mass today from the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy enumerates the virtues required of a bishop. Among these we find that he should be “temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach.” These traits, most outstandingly the last, accurately characterize the saint whom the Church celebrates today. St. Robert Bellarmine was a diocesan bishop for only two brief periods of a few years each, but during these times—and indeed throughout his life—he distinguished himself for his zeal and ability in preaching and teaching the faith.
Born in Montepulciano in Italy, he joined the Jesuits at a young age. He played an important role in all the great theological controversies of his day, and he used his abilities and erudition to serve the Church well in many important and high profile positions. Among these were the chair of controversies at the Roman College, trusted consultant to several popes, cardinal of the Holy Office, and, in the middle of his career, archbishop of Capua.
In his time as archbishop he dedicated himself to bringing his people into closer union with God by instructing them in the faith. One biographer reports that, at a time when sermons were common in Capua only during Advent and Lent, St. Robert dutifully preached every Sunday and feast day in Capua and went to great trouble to get to the remote portions of his diocese during the week in order to catechize his congregation. Though he was recalled to Rome for service to the universal Church after only a short period of ministry in Capua, he never ceased to be mindful of the education of the faithful.
In the last years of his life he wrote several spiritual books that became immensely popular among the laity. Reportedly the most famous of these was The Mind’s Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things. He notes in this work how easy it is for man to forget God since he “can neither see nor easily think about him nor cleave to him in affection…” Therefore, following such masters as St. Paul, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas, he offers a series of meditations on the works of God to help bring men to greater knowledge and love of the Creator. He demonstrates that we can come to know just how close God is to us by pondering created reality, for it is a true (though by no means comprehensive) reflection of his majesty and perfection.
For his immense work in teaching the faith St. Robert Bellarmine is now invoked as the patron saint of catechists. May his prayers bring about a great renewal of catechesis in our time (§13).
This post was written by Br. Joachim Kenney, who entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He is a graduate of the University of Louisville. His sister is a cloistered Carmelite nun, and he enjoys his visits home to St. Louis Bertrand Parish.