St. Robert Bellarmine: Doctor of the Church, and Bishop of Mercy

The characters from Les Miserables are unforgettable, but the mercy of one in particular is more memorable than any other. In the story, the main character — Jean Valjean, a man on parole — takes refuge with the bishop for a night, wining and dining, seeking rest and rejuvenation. Despite the reminders from that the parolee may help himself to anything, the man steals the silverware from the cupboards once everyone is asleep. Not getting far, Valjean is brought to the bishop by police who tell the bishop that the convict told a story that the bishop said he could have all the valuables as gifts. To everyone’s astonishment, especially that of Valjean, the bishop affirmed they were gifts. After the others left in disappointment – and likely some embarrassment – the bishop remained true to his words, handing the silver over to Vealjean, exhorting him to use the gifts as a means of righting his life. It’s a short scene in the showcase of brilliant drama, but it’s the pivotal moment in which Valjean becomes a different man – eventually founding a factory and performing good works the rest of his life, many of which mirror the mercy of the bishop.

The story of the good bishop is found in the classic novel from French author, Victor Hugo. The book was written in 1862, and is considered to be one of the most important and popular works of its time. It also has an enduring fanbase. The novel has been developed into five movies, all with high levels of success attracting Hollywood and the West End’s most famous actors and actresses. The musical is the single longest running original production of all time, performing the same in over 42 countries since 1980 and there are no signs the interest has slowed.

It might be fiction, but not all fiction is complete fiction. Around the turn of the 17th century, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was sent to Capua, Italy to become it’s much-needed archbishop. Capua was like a Las Vegas of its time: rampant addiction to gambling, stories of heists and high crime. While the population of Capua was largely Catholic, their faith was less then evangelized or inspiring.

Enter Robert Bellarmine. Most people know that he is a Doctor of the Church, and for good reason. He authored thousands of manuscripts, most of which have still not been translated into English. His talents as a young priest caused contemporaries to pass down stories of his ability to memorize entire lectures after reading them only a single time. In his twenties he became the chair of controversial theology, which was was a brand new curriculum where he basically made the famous Roman College like an anti-heresy Hogwarts. His influence in Catholic academics is almost unfathomable. On behalf of the popes he served, he corrected four kings, bringing one back into communion with the Holy See. He was literally the first to defend Catholic dogma with a synthesis of history, scripture, and the writings of the Church Fathers, making a mold for 21st century apologetics 400 years before it was popular. He’s pretty much the patron saint of hipster apologists. So when people say that the only thing they know about him – other than a mixup with Galileo – is that he is a Doctor of the Church, there’s good cause. But that’s not all he can be remembered for.

A rarity in the Church’s hierarchy, he became a cardinal prior to becoming a bishop, which is what landed him in Capua. One would think that Bellarmine would evangelize the diocese through rigorous investigations of Church teaching, putting his academic prowess to use, et cetera, et cetera. Actually, it was quite the opposite.

While he was Archbishop of Capua, more souls would come to remember him for his incredible acts of mercy. There’s three stories that wonderfully outline his saintly mercy.

In the ancient city that was all but obliterated from the face of the earth by Hannibal and his brute forces of Carthage, Bellarmine was received with rapture by his new flock but he knew he had his work cut out for him. He understood that the people of Capua were highly addicted to gambling. He was prepared to apply an exact remedy: a thundering of condemnation, detailing the sins which resulted from such addictions. In his nature he was as advertised: a calm, humble, short, and eloquent servant of the people of God. He did not, however kind and patient he was, have the idleness to watch his own people subject themselves to eternal punishment. He then outlined and helped the people implement practical steps to gain control over their addiction and to have the public gambling dens closed.

Upon the discovery that his own clerics and other canons were suffering from an identical addiction, not to win riches but to win small articles of clothing for the winter, the Archbishop approached the offenders saying, “Whenever you are tempted to go to those houses in the future, come to my house instead, and I promise to give you each time just a present as you might have been hoping to obtain from the gamblers.” Nipped in the bud.

There is another story from the writing of eyewitness Michaele Monaco, telling of some unjust tax the priests were subject to. Already being poor, they complained to their Archbishop and without delay Bellarmine went to the town hall and observed the documents. He then paid the entire sum for each of the priests. The point was received from the authorities and the tax was abolished.

Religious ignorance was also as rampant as the gambling among his clerics and lay persons. He took assumption of the charge of correcting this, spending time each morning teaching a childrens catechesis course, visiting each parish in his purview until he was satisfied with the level of instruction. Along the way he would find wooden pyxes, copper chalices, and worn vestments. He replaced each of these with the finest materials at his own expense.

How did Bellarmine pay for all of this? After all, he was a meager Jesuit who had always practiced poverty. Poverty, to the Archbishop, was not merely the attainment of earthly goods, but the extravagant and lavish lifestyle that might come with such riches. Bellarmine was not rich in any respect, but he had built an income from his book sales and had some income from a personal choir he would regularly organize which the people of Capua took much delight in. As anyone could see, he did not spend his small fortune for his own things. He enjoyed helping others with whatever money he had.

There was another time a worker was tasked with constructing new décor in the Cathedral, St. Peter’s in Capua. A precious stone went missing. Unknowingly and unwittingly, it was sold for an extremely meager price to one of the canons (a seminarian of the time). This young man was curious as to the cheapness of the precious object and brought the matter to the attention of His Excellency, Archbishop Bellarmine. The mason was brought to Bellarmine and, after some admonishment for the sin of stealing, knowing that the man was very poor, gave to him a large sum of coppers and ten times the price paid by the canon.

How can anyone read this story and not think of the good Bishop in Les Miserables? Truly, Bellarmine was no fictional character – his character was authentic. I like to think, as a Catholic and historical aficionado, Victor Hugo was impressed and inspired by the stories of one of the most popular Catholics of the Counter Reformation. Who wouldn’t be?

His mercy has not become the defining characteristic of Robert Bellarmine, but that’s okay. I like to think that Fr. Bellarmine, who only wanted to be a quiet priest, enjoys his works being hidden as to please the Father in Heaven, rather than himself.

In addition to being privileged to write this post at Catholic Exchange, I have written an entire book on the life of St. Robert Bellarmine. The book tells several popular and clandestine accounts of his life, and offers a summary of his famous contemporary spiritual classic The Art of Dying Well. I invite you to purchase the book and learn more about this extraordinary saint.

image: St Robert Bellarmine by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr

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Shaun McAfee was raised Protestant but at 24, he experienced a profound conversion to the Catholic Church with the writings of James Cardinal Gibbons and modern apologists. He is the author of Filling Our Father’s House (Sophia Institute Press) among other books, and holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology. As a profession, Shaun is a veteran and warranted Contracting Officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has served in Afghanistan and other overseas locations. He devotes his time to teaching theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, is the founder and editor of, co-owner of En Route Books and Media, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and lives in Omaha, NE.

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