Friday, September 17, 2010


The feast celebrated today in the Church’s liturgical calendar is St Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit theologian, teacher and writer; head of the Inquisition (the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); cardinal; and friend of the rich and powerful and influential, most notably Pope Urban VIII and Galileo Galilei.

The opening prayer for today’s Mass remarks on Bellarmine’s “wisdom and goodness”—a combination that, sadly, does not always occur in human life. Bellarmine was brilliant, but he was also humble. He acknowledged, for example, that science might one day prove Copernicus and Galileo correct about the solar system, and if so, there would need to be some re-thinking on the understanding of Genesis on the part of the Church. For his part, Bellarmine was not convinced that this proof had been supplied, and he wished Galileo not to promulgate as fact what was as yet theory. But he was open to the possibility, and he realized (as John Henry Newman put it much later) that “…to grow is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed often.”

Unfortunately, Bellarmine was caught between two figures of towering greatness, both of which had streaks of pettiness in them that made them (though once friends) immovable with regard to one another. Pope Urban was a most forceful personality who knew what he wanted and usually got it (commissioning many of the master works of Bernini in St Peter’s and around Rome, and even having all the birds of the Vatican Gardens killed so he could sleep at night).

Galileo was the greatest scientific mind of his day, and he knew it. When he was convinced he was right, no one could be more stubborn. The story is that at his trial before the Inquisition he was required to recant and admit that the earth does not revolve around the sun, and supposedly he whispered Eppur si muove, which freely translated could be rendered, “Oh yes it does!” Galileo gained the resentment of Urban by making him the butt of an insulting joke in a publication. Urban would never let this slight go unpunished; Galileo didn't apologize.

So both men were marked by tremendous greatness and pettiness at the same time. Is this what has to happen to people in positions of prestige or power?

Bellarmine’s example says this does not have to be the case, but the marks of humility and holiness must be present to counteract the negative power of position and ego. So it is fitting that it is the Jesuit cardinal (imbued with the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius) who is the canonized saint; the two other figures, great as they are, are simply historical figures.

Today especially it seems (taking a cue from another of Pope Benedict’s comments during the in-flight news conference on the way to Great Britain) that bishops need to recognize their primary role is one of humble repentance as the only way to restore a sense of credibility and trust in the structures and institutions of the Church. There is neither time nor place, now, for posturing, only for humble service and ministry. May God bless us with bishops and pastors who understand and live this for the good of the Church, the Body of Christ, the faithful. Let our times sound the death-knell of triumphalistic clericalism and the welcoming of the ministry of service. We clergy all need to be ‘deacons,’ and really, we never need to be any more than deacons.


  1. It seems all individuals, with our dual natures which make temptations the easiest choice, respond best to secular teachers, nuns or priests, even parents, who are able to show empathy. Empathy surely stems from a humble spirit which is conveyed in communication. A high level of intelligence and knowledge can have a negative effect on the beholder, if arrogance, instead of humility is obvious. Our Lord in giving each of us a particular gift also expects an innate wisdom to govern our relationships with others. The signs of our times are the ever emerging books and magazine articles which are entitled 'self-help' for personal growth and success in society. If a spiritual path is a choice, the seeker will get optimal guidance from a
    humble religious or priest, spiritual director, and/or spiritually balanced friends.

  2. Humility - a huge calling which we all share. Food for thought:

    " "Perfect" Humility
    For myself, I try to seek out the truest definition of humility that I can. This will not be the perfect definition, because I shall always be imperfect.

    At this writing, I would choose one like this:
    "Absolute humility would consist of a state of complete freedom from myself, freedom from all the claims that my defects of character now lay so heavily upon me. Perfect humility would be a full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God."

    When I meditate upon such a vision, I need not be dismayed because I shall never attain it, nor need I swell with presumption that one of these day its virtues shall all be mine.

    I only need to dwell on the vision itself, letting it grow and ever more fill my heart. This done, I can compare it with my last-taken personal inventory. Then I get a sane and healthy idea of where I stand on the highway to humility. I see that my journey toward God has scarce began.

    As I thus get down to my right size and stature, my self-concern and importance become amusing. "

    Direct quote - documentation available if necessary.

  3. Sure--give the documentation, please.

  4. Wilson, B. (1967). As bill sees it. "Perfect humility", 106. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. New York, NY

    Please forgive format errors. It has been a long time since I have done a works cited page.

    This is by no means a Christian work, but the spirituality between its covers is incredible.

  5. AA is more Christian (and more Catholic) than many folks realize... Thanks for the citation. It's an authentic view of humility.

  6. You are right, Father David. Many AA members do not even realize how "Catholic" their programs are.