People, including Jesuits, found themselves stunned at the election of Pope Francis in March; all assumed, rooted in centuries of tradition and the simple promises made by Jesuits at their final profession, that no Jesuit would ever occupy the Chair of Peter.
Cardinal Bergoglio certainly was not the first Jesuit to find himself a serious contender for election. Four hundred years previously another Jesuit Cardinal, Saint Robert Bellarmine, emerged as papabile not in one but in three conclaves. Many deemed him unacceptable; they feared that his dedication to truth might undermine the ability of nations to sway his views.
Today, we celebrate Bellarmine's feast day and his stature has not diminished within the Catholic tradition. An eminent theologian whose Catechism remained in general use for over three centuries, Bellarmine also served as diplomat, lecturer, pastor, preacher, spiritual director and adviser to many. Perhaps one key virtue marked his life, a sense of keeping all things in balance.
In an age of profound debates and arguments over theological concerns, Bellarmine's work always remained rooted in a desire for accuracy. Loyalty to the Catholic Church and a desire to explain the beauty of the tradition and its authenticity always characterized his work; so too, though, did a deep care to represent the views of opponents fairly.
He studied carefully the works of Luther and Calvin from his earliest days as a professor of theology in Louvain, responding to their critiques and concerns in a way that made his Controversies necessary reading for the apologists and critics within the Catholic and Protestant communities. Tasked with representing the position of the Pope rejecting Galileo's heliocentrism, Bellarmine sought to act as mediator, moving Galileo to accept the Church's teaching but inviting him as well to continue his scientific research.
Through it all, though, Bellarmine remained devoted to his Jesuit roots. He had entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 17, shortly after the death of Ignatius Loyola. The spark that had ignited his passion for the Society in his first encounter with Jesuit education in Montepulciano never died out; rather it set others alight.
As Cardinal he yearly did his eight-day retreat, though later extending that to a full 30-day silent retreat. These helped nourish his profound writings on theological and spiritual matters. His Ascent of the Mind to God and The Eternal Happiness of the Saints, written late in his life, give ample evidence of the deep spiritual roots that served as foundation to his teaching, research, care of others and concern for communal life.
In many ways, Bellarmine represents a possible model for us today as well. He certainly lived out the commitments that form the core of SLU's mission to pursue truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity. He demonstrated an excellence in all aspects of his life, but always marked by deep humility that allowed him to move freely across the social barriers of his time. In an age marked so sharply by divisions like ours, perhaps his commitment to balance, fairness and a quest for truth that allowed his mind and heart to ascend to God while serving others could be a gift we all could embrace.
— Ronald Mercier, S.J., rector at Bellarmine House of Studies and associate professor of theological studies