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St. Robert Bellarmine - Preacher

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Robert Bellarmine, as a Saint, scholar and Doctor of the Church, needs no introduction to Catholic readers. When Clement VIII appointed him to the College of Cardinals, he is reported to have said: “We elect this man because he has not his equal for learning in the Church of God.” Shortly before his canonization in 1930, the semiofficial organ of the Holy See, Osservatore Romano, identified Bellarmine with Saints Francis de Sales and Alphonsus Ligouri as one of the three great “masters of Catholicism in modern times.”

As an apologist and controversialist, therefore, Bellarmine is quite as well known among the Protestants whose ancestors he refuted as among Catholics whose faith he upheld. But St. Robert has yet to come into his own as one of the greatest orators and preachers of medieval and modern Christianity. This in the face of volumes of historical evidence, drawn from his own compositions and from the testimony of contemporaries, which fully justify his claim to such a title. Back in 1713, for example, the Theological Faculty of Louvain addressed a letter to Pope Clement XI in which they begged him to raise Robert to the honors of the altar. Their petition began: “Among the wonderful things which, by the grace of God, Bellarmine achieved here…were Latin sermons, sermons all on fire with the Divine Spirit and as full of piety as of learning. So large were his audiences that even the vast spaces of the church could not accommodate them, and such was his success that many men were brought back to the true Faith.”

Our present purpose, however, will not be to demonstrate St. Robert’s title to preëminence in pulpit oratory. It will rather be to examine one out of more than a hundred of these Latin sermons so generously praised by the professors of Louvain and see whether in some small way we too might not capture a bit of that fire of the divine spirit and fullness of piety with which the spoken words were endowed. As the sermon selected deals with Christmas, it should possess a special interest at this season for the readers of this REVIEW.

Panegyric on the Triple Birth

“The birth of our Divine Saviour, which the Catholic Church throughout the world commemorates on Christmas Day, is no simple, single birth like that of the rest of men. For Sacred Scriptures, Apostolic tradition and the prediction of the prophets testify to its being remarkably varied and manifold. There was, first of all, the birth of Christ in heaven without a mother; then on earth without a father; and finally in the hearts of men without either a father or a mother. Furthermore, Christ was born of a mother and without a father only once; He is often born without a father or a mother; but His birth of a Father and without a mother is everlasting and unto all eternity. Or viewed from still another angle, Jesus Christ is born in heaven, of a Father, as God; He is born on earth, of a mother, as man; and is being born in our hearts, without father or mother, as both God and man.
‘‘We see, therefore, that Our Lord has not one but three births which we are bidden to celebrate to-day: a Divine, a human and a spiritual birth. Each of them is so surpassingly wonderful that to all three can be justly applied the prophetic question of Isaias: ‘Who shall declare His generation?’”

At this point, St. Robert proposes to explain in terms of this threefold birth the ancient liturgical custom of saying three Masses on Christmas Day. The original historical background for the custom has been summarized by Dom Butler in the twelfth volume of his “Lives of the Saints”: “It was in the fifth century that these Jerusalem observances - of saying three Masses on the Feast of the Nativity - were duplicated at Rome. At midnight the Pope celebrated Mass at the Liberian Basilica of St. Mary Major, to which the reputed relics of the wooden crib were brought during the seventh century; then later in the day a procession was made to St. Peter’s, where the Pope sang Mass again. In between these two celebrations came another which took place in the imperial church of St. Anastasia below the Palatine. By the middle of the twelfth century, the third Mass was also being sung at St. Mary Major because of the distance of St. Peter’s from the Lateran where the Popes lived…Thus is seen the origin of the three Masses which every priest may celebrate on Christmas Day. And these Masses are still labeled in the Missal with the name of the respective stations, ‘at the crib, at St. Mary Major, and at St. Anastasia.’ Later on, the observance was given a mystical significance.”

Mystical Significance of the Three Masses

The mystical significance of which Butler speaks was the aim of Bellarmine’s explanation of the human, divine and spiritual nativity of Jesus Christ:

“The Catholic Church commemorates this threefold birth of Our Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered by her priests on Christmas Day. In the Holy Sacrifice during the night of the vigil, we celebrate the human birth of Christ when, ‘in the depths of an all-pervading silence, out of the middle of the night, the Almighty Word of God leaped down from His throne in the heavens to take up His abode among the children of men.’ That is why the Gospel beginning with the words, ‘There came forth an edict from Caesar Augustus,’ is read in the Mass at night. It recounts the story of Christ’s temporal birth into the world.
“Later on, at dawn, we celebrate the second Sacrifice, this time in the company of the shepherds. The mystery recalled at the second Mass is the spiritual birth of Christ in our souls. Significantly, too, His coming to us coincides with the first break of spiritual day in our minds and hearts.
“Finally, in the full heat of day, we commemorate that ineffable, everlasting birth by which the Word of God and True Light is generated for all eternity from the heavenly Father of Lights.”

Each of the three nativities answers to Isaias’ inspired text: “Who shall declare His generation?” Bellarmine takes them up one by one with a simplicity that leaves nothing to be desired for clearness and ease in understanding, although the truths we are led to view touch the deepest mysteries of God’s revelation to man.

“The Feast of Christmas is especially concerned with the human and temporal birth of Christ. His generation as man is the principal source of our joy during this holy season. At the same time it is the cause of our keenest admiration at the outpouring of miracles which the mystery calls to mind. Solomon, the wisest of men, after he had penetrated the most hidden secrets of nature, boasted that he could find nothing new under the sun. But to-day we see Christ disproving Solomon’s boast and vindicating the title He claimed for Himself when He said: ‘Behold, One greater than Solomon is here.’ He found what Solomon had searched for in vain. And to help us appreciate the miracles that took place at Christ’s nativity, we shall classify them into five groups, answering to each of the following five questions: Who is it that is born? Of whom is He born? How? Where? And when?”

Who Is Born?

“Who is it that is born? It is a full-grown man. How can that be? Can a man of years be born into the world? ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and so be ‘born again’? And yet, the Man who is born to-day is more than full-grown, He is ancient in years. Till now it was natural for infants to be born and old men to die. But with the advent of Christ, nature reverses itself. In the vision of Daniel, the prophet had said: ‘I looked until thrones were placed and the Ancient of Days sat down. His garment was white as snow and His hair like new-combed wool.’ Christ is this Ancient of Days, whose head is white with the eternity of years, whose existence is without beginning and without end, whose life withal begins to-day. Here is fulfilled the mystery which Jeremias had foretold centuries before when he wrote: ‘The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth, a woman will encompass a man.’ Which means that in God’s own time, a certain woman - or rather a virgin - will encompass in her womb, not an infant or a child, for this would be nothing new, but a Man, indeed a mature and infinitely wise Man. Let us never forget that Christ the Lord is no less wise, no less mature, no less developed, of no less understanding or prudence to-day, as He lies on His bed of straw, than He was when He hung upon the Cross or as He is even now, reigning in the glory of His Heavenly Father.”

Of Whom Is He Born?

In response to his second question - “Of whom was Christ born?” - Bellarmine simply voices the defined teaching of the Church when he says: “Of the Virgin Mary.” Modern critics of the rationalist school have outdone themselves in their efforts to disprove the Virgin Birth of the Saviour. They claim that the words of Isaias: “Behold a virgin shall be found with child,” should read: “Behold a young woman shall be found with child.” They base their assertion on the meaning of the Hebrew word “almah,” corresponding to our “virgin.” The English biblical scholar, Arendzen, easily disposes of their groundless objection in his volume of New Testament exegesis entitled, “Prophets, Priests and Publicans.” He says: “The Hebrew word ‘almah’ is supposed not to mean ‘virgin,’ but merely a young woman of marriageable age. But the Jews themselves before the days of Christ in their so-called Septuagint version, when they were without any bias, translated it by the Greek word ‘parthenos,’ the strictest Greek term for an untouched virgin. Later on, indeed, after Christ, when they rejected the version they once thought inspired, they translated the Hebrew ‘almah’ by the Greek ‘neanis’ which means ‘young woman.’ Surely we have a right to trust the ancient Jews rather than the later ones whose anti-Christian bias is unmistakable.” Bellarmine had none of this higher criticism to contend with. He was able to take the Lord’s Virgin Birth for granted and go on from there.

“Christ was born of no ordinary woman but of the Virgin Mary. Where again is Solomon who said: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’? In what age has it ever been known, in what genealogies has it ever been said, in what books has it ever been read that a virgin conceived or a virgin brought forth and a virgin remained after giving birth? Thirty years later, the Lord will come forth from the tomb that was closed and enter in among His disciples, although the doors were shut against Him. But by then He had already taken on an immortal and spiritualized body. What we witness at His birth, therefore, is in a sense a greater miracle than the Resurrection. Here at Bethlehem we see Him coming forth from His mother’s womb, not in a body that is glorified, but still clothed in the passible flesh of human weakness and mortality.”

Circumstances of the Nativity

There are three more questions to answer: the place, the time and the manner of Christ’s nativity. With an apology for his brevity, St. Robert briefly answers them while cautioning his listeners that, if the matter were treated more deeply, the marvels therein contained would be seen to compare favorably with the tremendous miracle of a God becoming man and His birth as the Child of a Virgin Mother.

“What place did Our Saviour choose to be born in? Bethlehem of Juda! He did not choose a city like Tiberias, the home of kings, or Jerusalem, or any other capital or metropolis. He selects the least likely and most obscure town in Palestine. What is more, even in this almost nameless hamlet He passes over the mansions of the rich and picks for His birthplace an old dilapidated stable. Still more, in this stable He will not be born on a soft and comfortable bed, but on the prickly straw laid in the rough-hewn trough for the beasts of the field. But precisely here, in this incredible choice, we have evidence not only of Christ’s profound humility but of His all-embracing and provident wisdom. Since He was to be praised in birth and execrated at death, He wished to be born in the lowliest and least known of places and die where His death would he best known by the most people. Thus, He gave us an example, in Bethlehem as on Calvary, neither to seek the praise of men nor overmuch to fear their sneers.
“On the manner of Christ’s birth, there is a double miracle awaiting our admiration. While other women do not give birth without the attendant help of others or without such excruciating pain that, whenever the Scriptures wish to describe extremest agony, they compare it to the travails of childbirth, the Virgin Mother was spared all of this. Not only did Mary not require the help of others when she bore her Son, not only did she not have to suffer the usual exquisite pains of parturition, but she brought forth the Son of God with the greatest joy and amid the sweetest of heavenly consolations.”

Time of the Nativity

“Our final consideration, relative to the human birth of Christ, is on the time when He came into the world. We can pass over the remarkable fact that He chose the exact time when He should be born. No less remarkable, though, is the nature of the time He chose. It was neither at the beginning of the world nor anywhere near its end. It was not a period of war but an era of peace. It was not under the rule of a republic but under a monarchy. It was not at the time of the equinox but right at the solstice. It was not during the summer but during winter. It was not during the day but in the dead of night. Shall we call them ‘coincidences’ of time chosen by the Lord for His birthday? Rather let us call them a complexus of that fullness of time of which the Apostle tells the Galatians: ‘When the fullness of time arrived, God sent His Son.’
“We see, therefore, that the Lord in His wisdom did not choose the beginning of the world for His entrance into the work of His hands. If we may hazard a reason, might it not be that, since it was God who was to be born, it were only fitting that His birth take place with all possible dignity and majesty, consonant with the advent of the King of kings? And so, that His coming might be the more desired by men, it was delayed for a period of thousands of years. Yet, all the while the prospect of His advent was kept alive by the mouth of His priests and prophets. On the other hand, the Lord did not choose the end of the world for His nativity. Otherwise there would have been danger that men might forget about the Messiah altogether, because they had to wait so long for His coming. The Lord did not come during a time of war but in a period of world-wide and hitherto undreamed-of peace. Surely a symbol of that peace between God and man, between heaven and earth, which Christ as the true Solomon had come to effect. He preferred to make His entry under the rule of a monarchy instead of a republic, inasmuch as He is Himself the one true and supreme Monarch of all, peoples and the invisible Head of the Catholic Church. He selected the winter solstice, because at that time of the year the sun begins to turn towards us and the days become longer; and significantly, Jesus Christ is the true Sun of Justice who from His birth on began, as never before, to turn towards us and come closer to us. And lastly, He chose the cold and darkness of night to teach us that we should find no light of mind or warmth of heart outside of Him; but that through Him we might hope to receive not only light and warmth but the burning heat of day - nothing short of the glorious vision of God and the consummation of all His love.”

Spiritual Nativity of Christ

For the sake of emphasis, Bellarmine reserves the spiritual birth of Christ for the very end. Meantime he gives passing mention to what he admits is objectively the noblest and greatest of the three nativities honored on Christmas Day.

“According to St. Basil, the mystery of the divine generation of the Son of God is so transcendent that we had best commemorate it not with speech but with a reverent and adoring silence. Assuredly there is nothing more resplendent or more perspicuously clear than this generation by which the True Light is begotten of Light and God is born of God. At the same time there is nothing more hidden or more unfathomable; not because there is any shadow of obscurity in God, but because the Light that is God dwells in regions beyond the pale of all below Him, dazzling the eyes not alone of men on earth but even of the angels and saints in heaven.”

St. Robert’s description of the third nativity of the Redeemer takes the form of an extended allegory. An artistic allegory we should expect from a man of Bellarmine’s poetic temperament. But no “ars pro arte” with him. If there is a striking contrast between the dogmatic character of the earlier part of his sermons and the rhetorical tone of his perorations, there is a reason. We find it in a short essay, De Ratione Formandae Concionis, published shortly before his elevation to the cardinalate, in which St. Robert sums up his ideal of the Christian orator: “A true preacher should have a twofold aim before him, to instruct men in what they ought to know and to urge them on in what they ought to do. He must conceive his aims clearly, and then direct his whole sermon and each individual part of it to the attainment of what he has set before his mind. Thus, for example, he should say to himself: ‘To-day’s Gospel is an exhortation to penance, and therefore I want with the help of God to instill the desire of that virtue into my people’s hearts. For this purpose I shall collect various motives, proofs, illustrations and the like, which bear on the matter’…We must, first of all, appeal to the minds of those who listen to us and endeavor by sound reasons deduced from Holy Writ, by arguments of common sense, by examples and by similes, so to convince them that they shall be forced to acknowledge the ideal of living which we propose as the only one becoming a reasonable man.” How well the Saint lived up to these demands for effective preaching may be gathered from his epilogue to the Christmas sermon we have been rearing:

“If we are reasonable men, we need hardly ask ourselves anymore: ‘Has Christ been born?’ But we may very profitably inquire: ‘Does Christ still live in us?’ Can we say with St. Paul: ‘I live now, not I, but Christ liveth in me?’ Does Christ abide in us by faith and hope and charity? What sign are we to look for and how examine ourselves to find the answer? Here is the sign: ‘You will find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
“That was, of course, the sign which the angel gave the shepherds. In reality, though, it is also a sign for us - the best possible sign to discover whether or not Christ dwells within us. We might picture to ourselves the whole human race as one vast palatial residence in which are to be found endless halls and corridors, great rooms, granaries and store houses, gardens, vineyards, orchards, cellars and sculleries…and, almost outside it all, even stables with mangers in them. Then we see Our Lord entering this gorgeous estate but strangely passing by all the banquet halls and rooms, all the granaries and gardens and - would you believe it? - setting His choice upon the stable and the manger it contains. To recover from our surprise at the unexpected choice, let us listen to the angel once again ‘This shall be a sign to you. You will find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
“Dare we use the figure? Who are these regal halls of which we speak if not your men of vain ambition and pride? Who are the great rooms and chambers but the men of lust? Who are the orchards but the idle and slothful? Who are the granaries but those that are avaricious? Who are the cellars and sculleries except the drunkards and sots? And finally, who are the stables except they who are meek and humble of heart? These, therefore, has the Lord chosen to be born in, and in these does He live.”

Bellarmine in the Pulpit

Cardinal Cavalchini, in his testimonial for Bellarmine’s beatification, is quoted as saying: “Now an old man, I solemnly swear that while Bellarmine was preaching his face appeared to me shining like the face of an angel.” Le Bachelet, Bellarmine’s French biographer, cites a contemporary record which describes the phenomenal effect of St. Robert’s eloquence: “So compelling was the power of his genius that it drew vast crowds after him and caused his preaching to bear fruits almost beyond belief.” On the authority of the English Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta, we are told that: “It was common knowledge in Louvain, during Bellarmine’s seven years in Belgium, that hundreds of Protestants were coming all the way from England for the sole purpose of hearing the famous orator.” Is it too much to expect that the eloquent genius of this humble Italian Saint will one day find its recognized and merited place along with men like St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine, whose faithful pupil he confessed himself to be?

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol.47 - #3, December 1947, pp.186-192

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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