Robert Francis Romulus Bellarmine was born on October 4, 1542 to Vincent Bellarmino and Cynthia Cervini, a family of impoverished nobles in Montepulciano, Italy. He was third of ten children. His mother was a niece of Pope Marcellus II, and was dedicated to almsgiving, prayer, meditation, and fasting.
Robert was full of life and naturally brilliant, but he was plagued with poor health for most of his life. At the age of 18, he entered the newly formed Society of Jesus. Robert was an outstanding scholar and was appointed to preach even before his ordination to the priesthood in 1570. After ordination, he was appointed professor at the University of Louvain in Belgium where he lectured on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.
When he was appointed in 1576 to the Roman College, now called the Gregorian University, he established a department that had never existed in any university – the Department of Controversial Theology (this theology controverses – which means refutes – the errors of the Protestants). He became its Rector in 1592 and went on to become Provincial of Naples in 1594 and Cardinal in 1598.
Bellarmine wrote a famous catechism and many treatises on the spiritual life. In writing on the Holy Eucharist, he defended the Real Presence from the attacks by non-Catholics. He refuted the heretics of his day and in particular defended the papacy against King James I of England.
He had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. He was considered the spiritual father of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and he assisted St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal as they obtained formal approval in 1610 for the Visitation Order for religious women.
Bellarmine, though a bishop and a cardinal, insisted on living in a Jesuit house, though by Canon Law he would have been exempt from that obligation. He especially wanted to practice poverty. One day his superiors came into his room and discovered that all the window and wall hangings in his room had been removed. They had been put there because of the dignity of his office. He had taken every strip of silk and velvet and damask and had given the cloth to the poor so they might keep warm. He reasoned that the walls do not catch cold, but people do. Rome can be very cold in winter; however, members of his community never remembered him having heat in his room.
Bellarmine wrote one little book that has gone through countless printings: The Assent Of The Mind To God. The title is revealing; Bellarmine had a big heart, but he realized the most important faculty that God wants of us to use is our mind. He saw God in everything, and as the little treatise explains, every creature, even the lowliest, is a ladder by which we can climb to God.
Robert died in 1621. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930 and declared Doctor of the Church a year later. He is the patron saint of catechists. His feast day is observed on September 17.