On the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by St. Robert Bellarmine

On the Sacrifice of the Mass
On the Sacrifice of the Mass

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St. Robert Bellarmine was one of the best known of the Counter-Reformation theologians by both friend and foe. His apologetic writings were the most widely read treatises on theological subjects during the 17th century, and they also brought numerous conversions to the Catholic faith.
Now for the first time, St. Robert’s amazing treatises are available to you in English! In this treatise on the Sacrifice of the Mass, St. Robert divides his work into two topics: That the Mass is a Sacrifice, and secondly, the nature of that Sacrifice, namely that the Mass is propitiatory, beneficial to others, and that the ceremonies of the Mass are ancient and pleasing to God.
St. Robert takes the fight to the Protestants on their own ground, defending the Mass from Scripture and how the Church Fathers understood it. Then he argues from the consensus of Greek and Latin Fathers and the whole history of the Church to defend the Mass as a sacrifice instituted by Christ Himself.

“St. Robert Bellarmine, in this section of the De Controversiis, provides the reader with an unparalleled defense of the Catholic theology of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Many of the objections raised and refuted by St. Robert are still applicable today amidst the various theological speculations of our times. Steeped in the tradition of the Church, this text addresses many aspects of the theology of the Mass in a depth not seen in writings of modern authors. The timeliness of the book is evident in our current historical context as many priests and faithful are taking a fresh look at the ancient rite of Mass.”
—Fr. Chad Ripperger, SMD

“For five years in Chablais, I preached with no books other than the Bible, and the Great Bellarmine.”
—St. Francis de Sales

Sample Chapter:


Not everything in Mass must necessarily be said in a loud voice

The next question is not much different from the previous one, namely on the manner of voice. Our adversaries impugn the Latin Church because it bids many things in Mass to be said in a quiet voice, which was addressed in the Council of Trent, sess. 22 canon 9. There, from the beginning it must be observed that the question is not, “Whether it is licit per se to celebrate the whole Mass in a quiet voice”, for we are not unaware that the manner of voice does not pertain to the substance of the sacrifice, and these things can be changed according to the judgment of the Church. Thus, the whole question is placed in this: “Whether the custom of the Latin Church of pronouncing certain things in a quiet voice is opposed to the institution of Christ, and hence, is bad and necessarily must be corrected.”

Chemnitz (Exam. 2 part., pg. 890), contends that it is against the institution of Christ that some things in Mass are read in a quiet voice; but the Council defined otherwise. Moreover, these reasons show that the teaching of the Council is very true. Firstly, it is profitable for the reverence of such a mystery that not everything be said in a loud voice. As St. Basil rightly teaches (de Spiritu Sancto, cap. 27), it confers much in regard to the dignity and preserves the reverence of the mysteries that men are not accustomed to hear the same thing very often, or rather, that it not be offered to common ears. What kind of mysteries are they that are announced to everyone’s ears?

Secondly, we have the example of the ancient liturgies, both Greek and Latin. The liturgies of Basil and Chrysostom, which even Chemnitz notes, prescribe certain things to be said in silence and to be concluded in a loud voice. We also preserve the same thing when we conclude quiet prayers, by raising the voice at the words: Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Chemnitz’s response is that this is interpreted as if those liturgies prescribed certain things to be pronounced in a moderate voice, so that they may be heard by all, and then are concluded with shouting and song; but this does not have any validity. For in the Liturgy of Chrysostom, where we read: “The priest prays secretly,” the Greek word μυσικῶς does not mean in a moderate voice, but in a whisper; nor are the mysteries said which are made public with a moderate voice, but which are altogether hidden. And besides, in that liturgy the priest is advised to recite those prayers in secret while the Deacon sings the Litany in a loud voice, or while the cantors sing other things. Hence, the people cannot attend to those things which the priest says, and so they are truly and properly secret.

In regard to the Latin liturgy we have the testimony of Innocent I (Epist. 1 ad Episcopum Eugubinum, cap. 1) where, being asked about the time in which the pax should be given in the mystery of the Mass, he clearly shows that particular part of the Mass is secret; nor does he dare to recount the type of things that are recited before the pax is given. But if the whole people were accustomed to hear everything, certainly nothing would be secret, nothing hidden and they could easily be committed to writing which was commonly known to all.

Thirdly, we have examples of the sacrifices of the Old Law. For (that I might omit the fact that a great many things in the sacrifice were prayed in mind without any words), in Leviticus 16:17, the sacrifice of incense is solemnly described, and the priest alone is commanded to enter within the veil and offer sacrifice, and pray for himself, the people and all others waiting outside, and not only could they not hear the priest, but they could not even see him. We read that Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, offered sacrifice in such a rite in Luke 1:10.

Fourthly, Christ himself in the sacrifice of the cross, which was the exemplar of all sacrifices, carried out the oblation in silence, and he did not speak for the space of three hours to those standing about listening, except for seven very brief sentences, as many sentences as there also are which are pronounced in a loud voice in the Canon of our liturgy.

But let us see what Chemnitz asserts in favor of his own opinion.

1) Firstly, he objects that the institution of Christ, that he commanded to be done in his memory in his Supper, is not through silence, but, as Paul explains, through announcement. And the argument could be confirmed from the example of Christ himself, who pronounced the words of consecration in a loud voice so that everyone who was present could hear.

I respond: The memory and announcement of Christ should not be done in words as much as in reality; for so Augustine writes (Contra Faustum 20, 18), when he says: “This sacrifice is also commemorated by Christians, in the sacred offering and participation of the body and blood of Christ.” Nor can what Paul commanded be fulfilled in another manner, that everyone should announce the death of the Lord. What kind of disorder would take place if all the people in the Church should announce the Lord’s death with words?

What pertains to the example of Christ, it must be known that Christ did not only pronounce the words to consecrate, but also to teach the Apostles the rite of consecrating; this is why it was fitting for him to speak in this way, so that he would be heard by the Apostles. The bishops today preserve this when they ordain priests amidst the solemnities of Masses; for they so pronounce the words of consecration so that all these new priests can hear. There is another purpose for those who celebrate Mass for the people.

2) The second objection: Christ did not institute the sacraments in such a way that the action would be visible and public, so the word, which is a special part of the sacraments, should be hidden and buried.

I respond: The notion of a sacrament is one thing, and the notion of a sacrifice another; at the present we are arguing properly on the sacrifice. Moreover, the sacrifice does not consist in words, but in the oblation of a thing, words, however, are required in the sacrifice of the Mass, not to be themselves the sacrifice, or part of the sacrifice, but only to show the presence of the victim to us. By the words of consecration, as we showed above, it comes about that the Body of Christ is truly present on the altar; this is why the sacrifice will truly be outward and sensible, even if the words, whereby it comes about, cannot be heard. Add, that in the sacraments, to the essence of which the words chiefly pertain, it is not necessary that the words are perceived by those who receive the sacraments, provided they are perceived by those who minister them; otherwise baptism conferred upon infants, the insane, and the deaf would be invalid, which not even Chemnitz would admit. Consequently, we respond to the argument that Christ did not establish the words so they would be hidden and buried, that he also did not establish them in such a way that they must be pronounced to be heard by all who are present. Rather, he only established them to be really applied, and after him it was left to the liberty of the Church to constitute a manner of recitation. Not only do Catholics teach this, but even Chemnitz the teacher and Luther the prophet, in his book On the Formula of the Mass, where he permits the freedom to pronounce the words of the Supper in a loud or quiet voice.

3) The third objection: The Apostle (1 Cor. 14) clearly distinguishes these two things: To speak in Church on those things which pertain to the public ministry, and to speak privately to himself and to God.

I respond: For St. Paul, to speak in Church is to exhort and instruct the Church; to speak within oneself and to God is to pray, or praise God, as he says in verse 19: “But in the Church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also; … (v. 28) But if there be no interpreter, let him hold his peace in the Church, and speak to himself and to God.” Therefore, he distinguishes a sermon from prayer. Moreover, neither pertain properly to the sacrifice; for a sacrifice is not something to say, but to do; or if it is to speak in some manner, it is not to speak in the Church, or to the Church, but to God. When a man offers sacrifice to God, he acts for God, not for men, although he acts publicly and not privately. This is because he does not act on his own behalf, but on behalf of the universal Church.

4) The fourth objection: In the ancient Church, after those who could not be present at the mysteries were dismissed, the prayers were pronounced out loud, the thanksgivings and even the words of consecration themselves. Cardinal Bessarion (de verbis Coenae) hands down this very thing on the word of consecration, and the same is clear from the response “Amen” which was made to the words of consecration in the ancient rite. For Dionysius of Alexandria (cited b Eusebius, Histor. 7, 9) calls it to mind, as well as Augustine (ad Orosium, quaest. 49). It is likewise clear from Chrysostom (Homily 18 in 2 Cor.) where we read that the prayers and thanksgivings in the celebration of the Eucharist were common to the people with the priest. Lastly, the same is gathered from the Novella of Justinian, constitution 123, where the priests are severely commanded to say what they recite in the celebration of the oblation in a loud voice so that the people could hear it.

I respond: We do not deny that the words of consecration in the Eastern Church are customarily recited out loud, since it is quite certain from the liturgy of Chrysostom. Nor do we condemn this; for we do not contend that these words must necessarily be recited in a quiet voice, rather, that the Church is free to establish the rite, and hence neither the rite of the Greeks nor of the Latins can be condemned, nor should they. But although the words of consecration are uttered in a loud voice among the Greeks, nevertheless, certain others are pronounced in a quiet voice and clearly in secret, as we clearly showed from the same liturgy of Chrysostom. As a result, there is no need to respond to the testimony of Bessarion and Dionysius of Alexandria.

To the citation of Augustine, I respond: That book is not of Augustine, as the scholars affirm, nor does it bear on the matter. That author does not speak about the consecration, but the dispensation of the sacrament; for he only says that those who receive the blood of the Lord customarily say “Amen”, while the priest says, “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ambrose also calls this rite to mind (De Sacramentis, 4, 5).

To the citation of Chrysostom, I respond: Chrysostom chiefly meant that the people should not be idle in Church, but should pray for those things for which the priest also prays. The fact is, that can be done even if both the priest and the people pray in silence. Indeed, Cyprian writes (On the Lord’s Prayer) that during the time of the sacrifice Anna the mother of Samuel should be imitated, who prayed in such a way that her lips moved, but hardly a word was heard (1 Kings 1:13), and she was a type of the Church, while she prayed in silence. Also, in our liturgy, it is said to the people: Orate fratres when the prayer is made in secret. Add, that Chrysostom does not say all prayers are common to the people and the priest; this is why even if he spoke on the communion of the same prayers, still our adversaries would gain nothing. For the liturgy of Chrysostom clearly distinguishes what must be said by all, and what must be said by the priest alone, and in secret.

In regard to the Novella of Justinian, the response could be made that in the first place, it does not pertain to the emperor to impose laws on the rite of sacrifice, hence he did not greatly report on what he had ratified. But we also answer that this law is not opposed to our teaching. It only commands that what is customarily said out loud in the Eastern Churches should be said in a loud voice. There were some, as is gathered from the Novella itself, who pronounced what was customarily said in a loud voice quietly, so in that way they might hide their ignorance; they are rightly rebuked both because they acted against the custom of the Church and because they did it because they were ignorant of reading.

5) The last objection: The Popes affirm this is not an ancient usage. Honorius and Belet write that formerly the words of consecration were customarily said in a loud voice, but later it was commanded to be said silently and for this reason: When those words were heard by all, many laity also remembered them. Then it happened that certain shepherds pronounced the words over bread and wine. Immediately the bread and wine were turned into body and blood; and those shepherds, being struck down by God, died. From this history it is gathered that the use of reciting the words of consecration in silence are not ancient, and is born of superstitious opinion, as if those words were magical.

I respond: The miracle which is recalled in this argument truly happened, but different and in a more ancient time than Chemnitz relates. For St. Sophronius writes in his Prato Spirituali, cap. 196, that this miracle happened in his time, but he lived before the time of the Seventh Council, as well as John Damascene. For this book is cited by the fathers of the Seventh Council, in the fourth action, and by Damascene (in Orat. De cultu imaginum, 3). Hence, this miracle happened more or less nine hundred years ago, and it is also recalled by Alcuin (de Divinis Officiis, cap. de celebration Missae), and he lived eight hundred years ago. Moreover, that miracle did not turn bread into flesh, nor kill the shepherds, as Chemnitz gathers from some obscure and more recent authors, rather, when the fire was sent from heaven, the bread, wine and stone upon which these were placed were gone, and the shepherds were astounded to the point that they could hardly speak for a long time. Sophronius does not write that this is the reason why those words should not be said but secretly, although if it were the reason, I do not see what could be objected against it. Certainly, that use is very ancient, even if it did not begin earlier than after that miracle were divinely shown to the world.