On October 4, 1542, Robert Bellarmine was born in Montepulciano, Italy; a walled city known for its production of fine wine. On his mother's side, he was a nephew of Pope Marcellus II (1501-1555).
When Robert was fifteen years old he was enrolled in the newly-opened Jesuit school in his home town, and three years later, on September 21, 1560, he entered the Order, though because of his father's opposition to Father General Lainez, Robert made his novitiate at home. On September 16, 1560, he went to the Father General's residence in Rome and pronounced his vows.
Robert taught in Florence and Mondovi (Piedmont), in 1564; in 1567 he was sent to the University of Padua and then to Louvain for his theological studies. Even though he was young in the Society of Jesus, he was asked to preach every Sunday in all four cities mentioned above. He was ordained a priest in Louvain, on May 25, 1570.
Bellarmine was the first professor of theology in the Jesuits' college in Louvain, and was tasked with "answering" Luther and Calvin. In 1576, he was called to Rome to the chair of Controversial Theology at the Roman College, and was appointed by the Pope to the commission revising the Vulgate translation of the Bible. Between 1586 and 1593, he published the three-volume Controversies, which went through twenty editions.
In 1588 Robert was named spiritual director of the Roman College (now known as the Gregorian University), and in 1592 was named rector of that College, that was both home and school to 220 Jesuits. Bellarmine left Rome in 1594 when he was named Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Naples, but returned to Rome in 1597 when Pope Clement VIII appointed Bellarmine his theological advisor. In midst of these assignments, Bellarmine produced a Catechism, that was translated into sixty-two languages.
Over the objections of Robert and of the Jesuit General, Aquaviva, the Holy Father made Bellarmine a cardinal on March 3, 1599. Bellarmine continued his simple life-style and gave anything extra to the poor. Three years later, the Pope made him Archbishop of Capua, near Naples. The manner of the new Archbishop exemplified his truly pastoral orientation: every week he visited a parish and preached at Mass. He recited the office with cathedral canons and frequently preached in local convents and monasteries.
Bellarmine participated in the conclave of 1605 that elected Pope Paul V, who proceeded to name this Jesuit to the Holy Office and to the Congregations for Rites and for the Propagation of the Faith. In spite of the burdens of these offices as well as several ailments, Bellarmine was faithful to his duties and to the commitments of his Jesuit vocation: he made an annual retreat and, during this period, a thirty-day retreat.
Through most of his years, Bellarmine's writing were more doctrinal than spiritual, but between 1615-1620, he published six works on aspects of the spiritual life, from The Ascent of the Mind to God to The Art of Dying Well, as well as several ascetical works. There have been many translations and editions of these works which are based on Scripture and the Fathers of the Church and on Medieval spirituality.
Bellarmine had asked two popes to allow him to retire, but it was not until August 25, 1621, that Pope Gregory XV gave him permission to move to the Jesuit novitiate. The respite was short-lived. He suffered from a violent fever and died on September 17, 1621. Bellarmine was buried in the Jesuit Church, the Gesu; in 1923 his remains were moved to St. Ignatius Church.
Robert Bellarmine was beatified on May 13, 1923, canonized on June 29, 1930, and declared a Doctor of the Church on September 17, 1931.
The 20th century Jesuit historian and author, De Guibert describes Bellarmine as "the ideal type of the Jesuit man of studies...with a remarkable scientific spirit" that included "integrity in research and serenity in polemics." This author continues, portraying Bellarmine as a person possessed of "a profound and tender interior life" and "exquisite kindness" [pp. 248-9].