In the traditional Roman rite the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine has been celebrated on May 13. It was on May 13, 1917 that Our Lady made her first apparition to the three children in Fatima. Although St. Robert Bellarmine lived before the Fatima apparitions, there is a relationship between Fatima and the doctrine of Cardinal Bellarmine. For just as Our Lord often spoke in parables, which by their very nature are symbolic, Our Lady provided a vision to the three children at Fatima in the Third Secret, which Sister Lucia described as a “symbolic revelation” (letter of May 12, 1982). And St. Thomas Aquinas explained in the first Question of the Summa Theologica, article 9, the role that symbols play in the communication of revelation. Three centuries after St. Thomas, and another three centuries before Fatima, Cardinal Bellarmine provided the explanation of the symbolism that Our Lady would use in the Third Secret.
In the interpretation of Psalm 86 in his Commentary on the Books of Psalms, this doctor of the Church explains the meaning of the city on a mountain as described in the psalm. In the Third Secret, Sister Lucia describes a “great city,” and in the background is a “mountain.” The following is St. Robert Bellarmine’s explanation of the relationship between this city and the mountains:
The Prophet commences by praising the city, by reason of the holy mountains it has for a foundation. He names not the city, so wrapt in admiration is he with the beauty of the new city he sees descending from heaven, the Church of Christ, whose foundations may be considered in various lights.
Then, while explaining that the mountains upon which the city rests are the Apostles and prophets and the bishops who are the successors of the Apostles, Saint Robert Bellarmine further explains how their work in the sanctification of souls rests upon their holiness:
Those, then, are the holy mountains, upon which the city of God is built, getting the name of mountains by reason of their altitude and excellence; and holy, for their elevation is not by reason of their pride, but by reason of their sanctity, wisdom, and authority.
This holiness of the Apostles and their successors is explained by theologians through their teaching that the episcopacy constitutes the state of perfection within the Church. This doctrine refers to the objective state of perfection, not to the subjective fidelity to grace upon which the sanctity of an individual bishop depends. Following St. Robert Bellarmine, another commentator on Sacred Scripture, Cornelius a Lapide, explained the nature of this episcopal sanctity in his commentary on the first chapters of the Apocalypse, which describe the seven Churches and the angels of these Churches, who represent their bishops. In Apocalypse 3 the bishop of the Church of Sardis merits a rebuke, Cornelius a Lapide explained, for this bishop is described by Saint John as having “the name of being alive, and thou art dead.” Bishops are appointed to teach, govern and sanctify the faithful, but thy are spiritually dead if they fail in their responsibility. And Cornelius a Lapide describes this responsibility as that of protecting their flocks from errors against the Faith.
Today, when the Church is threatened by grave errors against doctrine, both from secular society and from threats to her teaching that have found their way into the Church herself, Catholics who strive to preserve the Faith turn for guidance to bishops who preserve and defend traditional Catholic doctrine. The latest and potentially the most significant recent example of this is the “Appeal for the Church and the World,” signed by three Cardinals and nine Bishops, and initiated by one of them, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The Appeal demonstrates how the coronavirus pandemic has been used by those who are hostile to the Church and to the common good of society in ways that threaten the material livelihoods of people throughout the world, and ultimately the very practice of the Catholic religion.
No sooner had the document been made public than it immediately provoked controversy, when Cardinal Sarah withdrew his signature, in part because of the perception that the Appeal was political, and therefore that it was inappropriate for a member of the Roman Curia to sign it. Many supporters of the Appeal, however, will not view it as being directly political, but rather as a moral defense against an intrusion of government officials into the religious life of the Church, and into the private lives of citizens as they seek to provide for their own material wellbeing.
This is not the first time the Church has been confronted with such a threat. For during the Second Vatican Council, petitions from a minority of bishops sought to have the Council take similar measures, by consecrating Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (signed by 510 bishops), and by condemning the worst threat against the Church, that of Communism (signed by 213 bishops). After the hierarchy at that time did not act upon these two petitions, the errors of Russia, as prophesied by Our Lady of Fatima, continued to spread throughout the world. With the recent Appeal of three Cardinals and nine bishops, on the other hand, these twelve members of the hierarchy are providing spiritual guidance as well as doctrinal and moral leadership, by speaking “to Catholics and to all people of good will,” as indicated in the subtitle of the Appeal.
Saint Robert Bellarmine, whose feast came to be celebrated on the day that is the anniversary of Our Lady’s first apparition at Fatima, wrote his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, which provides Catholics of the present time with an explanation of a psalm that serves to explain the vision of the Third Secret of Fatima. This and other Scriptural symbols that Our Lady used at Fatima are also referred to in our booklet Fatima and the Third Secret.