Saint Robert Bellarmine and the Virtue of Humility

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Have you ever encountered the virtue of humility as you visited someone’s grave? I remember vividly when I had that experience. During the academic year 1997-1998 I had the opportunity to study theology in Rome. And, during that year, I was able to visit many of the churches in Rome.  Upon visiting the Church of St. Ignatius I remember vividly discovering the tombs of St. Aloysius Gonzaga and St. Robert Bellarmine. I was struck by the location of where St. Robert Bellarmine is buried, and why. 

What makes a great man great? Is it his power? His position? The exalted position of his office? Wealth? Influence? Worldly achievements? So often, whether we realize it or not, we assume that greatness is rooted in the standards that the world tells us. The truth is great men are great because they are virtuous. And, among all the virtues, humility holds a very important place. 

St. Augustine taught, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” 

St. Robert Bellarmine wrote that to practice humility we must humble ourselves before God and before others. And, when speaking about humbling ourselves before others, he wrote: “…we should choose the last place amongst men, because ‘each one should esteem others better than them selves’ as the apostle tells us in his Epistle to the Philippians. They who know themselves and are conscious of their own infirmities, and know not those of their neighbour, find no difficulty in esteeming all others before themselves, and conceding them a higher place. For as pride springs from ignorance, so does humility from a knowledge of one’s self. The heart of the proud man easily sees the vices which others have, because they are all outside him; but his own vices, often very numerous, he sees not, because they are within him; just as the eye does not behold what is within, but only what is without.” (quoted from “Other Considerations on Humility”)

Saint Robert Bellarmine knew that true greatness was found not in position, power, or influence. And, his request for where he would be buried stands to this very day of his recognition of this truth. His burial location remains a powerful witness to his many virtues, including the virtue of humility. 

By all accounts, St. Robert Bellarmine was a man of tremendous influence. He was born on October 4, 1542 and he died on September 17, 1621. He was a member of the Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits), a Catholic priest who became the Archbishop of Capua, and he was named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. He is one of only 36 saints to be given the title “Doctor of the Church”. The publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 is traditionally identified as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And, as it spread, the Reformation quickly posed an existential threat to the Catholic Church. Saint Robert Bellarmine became a leading theologian and figure in what became known as the “Counter Reformation”. It was a struggle for the very existence of the Catholic Church and the fullness of truth and the means of sanctification that Our Lord bequeathed to His Church. St. Robert Bellarmine composed many works in defense of the Catholic Faith and in response to various questions and objections that were raised during the Protestant Reformation.  In 1597 and 1598 he published a summary of the teachings of the Catholic Faith in two catechisms that would go on to be translated into 50 languages and became a best-seller in the 17-19th centuries. We celebrate his feast every year on September 17. 

Among his many duties, he served as a spiritual director for a young Jesuit seminarian named Aloysius Gonzaga. The future Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. During an outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1591, the young seminarian Aloysius Gonzaga volunteered to care for the sick in a hospital that the Jesuits had set-up. He would eventually contract the plague and die. Upon his death, his holiness was immediately recognized and he was buried in the Church of Saint Ignatius. And, when his former spiritual director died in 1621, his request was to be buried near the body of Saint Aloysiuys Gonzaga. And so, to this day, when you visit the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome you will find a glorious altar in honor of the young Jesuit scholastic who died while serving those with the plague. A glorious altar in honor of a saint that had little to no standing in the Church or in the eyes of the world. And, ironically, off to the side, in a remarkably plane burial site, you will find Saint Robert Bellarmine. This man of greatness bore witness in life and in death that what makes a man truly great is his virtue. St. Robert Bellarmine demonstrates humility for us to this very day. 

When teaching on the virtues, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: " ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” (CCC 1803)

Humility is a moral virtue that is acquired by the practice of humility. I encourage you to pray the Litany of Humility to ask the Lord for the grace to grow in this important virtue:  We are called to live the life of Christ. We find perfect humility in Our Lord. Let’s strive through the grace of God to grow in the virtue of humility and thus to become more and more the authentic men we were created to be. 

Fr. Jonathan F. Wilson 

Pastor, St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Westerville, Ohio

Spiritual Director for Catholic Men’s Ministry. 

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