A Compassionate Saint for Our Times: A Review of Shaun McAfee’s “St. Robert Bellarmine”

At just ninety pages, Shaun McAfee’s recent volume, St. Robert Bellarmine (Proving Press, 2016), may not seem very significant at first glance. Yet, created in commemoration for the fiftieth anniversary of St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church, this book is packed with many wonderful insights. In a straightforward manner, McAfee introduces the reader to one of the great Doctors of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine: a sixteenth-century priest, theologian, and reformer. Weaving together personal anecdotes, historical facts, and commentary on St. Robert’s life, McAfee’s conversational tone makes a complicated saint accessible to the average, everyday Catholic. This book is divided into three succinct sections, which adds to its readability and clarity. In reading this book, I found myself greatly appreciating this fascinating saint—of whom I had little prior knowledge—and also realizing just how greatly a parish can impact a person.

“I was not raised Catholic.” With this bold, blunt statement, McAfee introduces the contents of this book. As he presents a brief—yet engaging—synopsis of his conversion to Catholicism, McAfee reflects on the significance of St. Robert Bellarmine in his own life; most notably, as the patron saint of the parish that McAfee attends. He then launches into a short discussion and timeline of St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church, which is located in Omaha, Nebraska. Although I have never visited this parish, I found myself very interested in both learning about the history of this place and seeing how greatly it has impacted others.

After reading about the parish, I dove into the next portion of the book, to learn about the saint himself. This section spans several pages and discusses the life and accomplishments of St. Robert Bellarmine. While McAfee touches on the major writings, achievements, and controversies surrounding St. Robert, he specifically mentions the pastoral, compassionate, patient attitude of this saint. McAfee notes that “Robert tried very honestly to understand Protestant theology. His approach was not to just condemn his foe, but to dive right into current and recent Protestant ideas.” In this, and other, aspects of St. Robert Bellarmine’s life, McAfee gives us the picture of a man who coupled doctrine and Truth with love.

McAfee draws this book to a close with a summary of one of St. Robert Bellarmine’s famous works, The Art of Dying Well. Walking the reader through each portion of the book, McAfee draws together quotations from The Art of Dying Well and a deep understanding of Bellarmine’s writing to present the main themes and lessons of this rich theological piece. As McAfee does so well throughout the previous sections of this book, he continues to make the writings and thoughts of a sixteenth-century intellectual engaging to the modern reader.

St. Robert Bellarmine, by Shaun McAfee, was very enjoyable. Many times, I will begin reading spiritual books or biographies of the saints only to put them down because they are extremely long or dense. However, this book is easy to read, entertaining, and provides much material for good reflection. By learning about the importance that St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church holds to McAfee, I began thinking about how important my own parish is to myself. I formerly had very little knowledge of St. Robert Bellarmine, and I found myself looking at this complex, deep saint and his writings with wonder and awe. Moreover, as I reflected on the wisdom and actions of St. Robert Bellarmine, I realized how vital his convicted, compassionate example is for Catholics living in the modern world.