A Fascinating Apologetic: Bellarmine on John 4 and the Mass

It was my pleasure to interview Mr. Ryan Grant, of Mediatrix Press, for my most recent Reconquest. Our topic was, “The Mass is a True Sacrifice,” for which Saint Robert Bellarmine’s On the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass provided us with plenty of material for discussion. Ryan has only recently translated and published that work of the great Jesuit Doctor.

Saint Robert develops a fascinating three-page apologetic for the sacrificial nature of the Mass from the words of Our Lord to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Here I will reproduce verses 19 to 23 of that chapter, which contains all the essentials:

The woman saith to him: Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers adored on this mountain, and you say, that at Jerusalem is the place where men must adore. Jesus saith to her: Woman, believe me, that the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father. You adore that which you know not: we adore that which we know; for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.

A modern Protestant reading of the passage might consider Our Lord’s words in specifically non-sacrificial terms of divine worship. Worship now is “in spirit and truth”; it therefore requires no bloodletting, no priestcraft, no sacrifice, no highly ritualized worship such as what the Jews did in the Temple and the Catholics do in their churches. For Quakers, who take this logic perhaps farther than others, even public, social worship is not only mostly silent, but primarily apophatic, as a Quaker once explained to me.

But nothing in the context allows us to read it that way — not at all.

Jesus and this woman are speaking of the controversy that had already existed for centuries in the matter of the schism of the Samaritans, whose temple was on Mount Garizim. That mount loomed over the Samaritan city of Sichar — or Sichem — where Jacob’s well was, at which spot this very conversation in John 4 took place. (For some background, see “The Woman at the Well.”) The passage cited above comes just after Jesus proved His prophetical “credentials” by narrating to this sad woman her grave sins against the sixth commandment. Hence her perspicacious, if understated, comment, “Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.” She then proceeded to ask about the bone of contention: My Samaritan temple versus your Jewish temple — which is the true place of adoration?

If we are speaking in general terms of adoration, there need be no controversy; one can, after all, raise one’s mind and heart in adoration to the true God anywhere at any time. Saint Luke (18:1) relates Jesus telling us, “we ought always to pray, and not to faint”; Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians, “we pray always for you” (2 Thess., 1:11). But it is absolutely not in such general terms that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are speaking. No, by “adoration” in this passage, the Samaritan woman specified an adoration “bound to a certain place,” as Saint Robert Bellarmine says (pg. 90). The woman was speaking specifically of what went on in those rival temples: the cult1 of sacrifice.

Saint Robert argues that it is solemn and public worship, specifically cultic sacrifice that is spoken of here, and he shows how the word “adore” is used to mean such in Scripture, citing three examples:

  • Genesis 22:5 (“[W]hen Abraham was prepared with sword and fire for the sacrifice [of his son, Isaac], he said to his household…” [pg. 89]:) “Stay here with the ass, I and the boy [Isaac] will go with speed as far as over there, and after we have adored, will return to you.” Saint Robert continues: “In this passage, to adore (adorare) means to sacrifice; for otherwise he could have given adoration anywhere, if it only meant a certain bow of the head. But the Lord commanded him to offer sacrifice on the mountain, and he set out for it, as we have said, to offer sacrifice prepared with sword and fire.”
  • John 12:20: “There were certain gentiles among them, who went up to adore [in the Temple] on the day of the feast.”
  • Acts 8:27: “The Ethiopian Eunuch came to adore in Jerusalem.”

After citing these examples, Saint Robert writes, “In these and similar passages, adoration means sacrifice; therefore, men came from far off regions to Jerusalem because they could not duly offer sacrifices to God in any other manner, whereas simple adoration, such as prayers, they could have done anywhere” (pg. 89).

In its forms of worship, modern Protestantism is much like the modern Jewish religion inasmuch as neither has a cult of sacrifice. Protestantism is the religion of book, of pulpit, and of preaching; so is rabbinical Judaism. Catholicism has those things, but she also has what the faithful Jews had in the Old Testament: sacrifice, altar, and priesthood. At the time of Our Lord, there were rabbis, who were “preachers” or teachers, and synagogues, which were places of instruction, exhortation, and prayer, where the Scrolls of the Torah were kept in honor. But the Samaritan woman does not ask about those; rather, she asks about the rival temples. Temples have altars, priests, and sacrifices. Hence, the all-important context of Our Lord’s words: “Woman, believe me, that the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father…. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.”

Jesus is saying, according to Saint Robert Bellarmine, that the adoration of God will now be in spirit (as opposed to the carnal sacrifices of the Jews), and in truth (as opposed to the false sacrifices of the Samaritans). The Eucharist is corporeal, but It is also a spiritual sacrifice inasmuch as the living Victim is Jesus Christ Himself, who offers Himself to the Father through the Holy Ghost. You can’t get any more “spiritual” than that! It is also a true sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered in the context of God’s own Church, not an alien sect like that of the Samaritans, whose temple cult on Mount Garizim was never given divine sanction as was its rival on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah.

Saint Robert adds that when Our Lord says, “The hour comes and now is,” His plain meaning is that a new sacrifice is to be offered. Hymns, prayers, and almsgiving — such “sacrifices” in the wide sense that Protestants were willing to concede as proper religious observance — were not at all new, but were long offered in the Old Testament religion. No, what is new is a new sacrifice, a sacrifice in the strict and proper sense, the very one prophesied by Malachi (1:10):

I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not receive a gift of your hand. For, from the rising of the sun even to the setting, my name is great among the gentiles, and in every place there is offered to my name a clean oblation; for my name is great among the gentiles, says the Lord of hosts.

Saint Robert had already spent eleven pages explaining how the Mass fulfills that prophesy. For some arguments on how it does, please see “The Mass in Type and Prophecy.” Or, better yet, read Saint Robert’s book!

Saint John’s Gospel has a subtle Temple-versus-Temple theme in it. Here, I refer not to Garizim versus Moriah, but Jesus versus the Jewish Temple. Writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Saint John has a different perspective from the Synoptic evangelists. Among other indications of this rivalry, it is Saint John who relates, in chapter two of his Gospel, that Jesus “spoke of the temple of his body” when He had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

In relating the fascinating conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Saint John shows us that the bone of contention between the Jews and Samaritans was soon to be rendered practically moot. After all, both contending temples of stone will soon be replaced and superseded by a Temple not made by human hands, the very Mystical Body of Christ, whose Head and High Priest is Jesus Christ, and whose spotless victim and perpetual clean oblation is the physical and sacramental body of that same Incarnate Logos.

What all this points to is that there is a solemn, public, sacrificial cult of adoration in the true religion that Jesus founded. Given that no other sacrifice in the strict and proper sense of the word has ever been offered by Christians, this true Christian sacrifice is none other than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

1.) Those curious about this use of the word cult are invited to consider the following, from “On Cults and Man Worship, Some Fighting Words”: “The [Latin] word cultus has at least three meanings: ‘to till or cultivate; to protect or nurture; and (in an applied sense) to worship or honor.’ From it, we get the words ‘cultivate,’ ‘agriculture,’ ‘horticulture,’ etc. From it also, we get the word ‘cult,’ as in religious veneration. At Dictionary.com, one can see the different meanings of the word ‘cult.’ This proper religious use of the word is the first listed meaning, while the popular meaning of the word is No. 6. (Knee-jerk reactions to the word ‘cult’ — ‘Ah! So, you Catholics admit you’re a cult!’ — would provide yet more examples of the linguistic bias I wrote of earlier.)” See also the much more detailed explanation at the Online Etymology Dictionary.