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John F. BaldovinSeptember 19, 2023
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Many resources and a great deal of thought have been put into the current National Eucharistic Revival in the Catholic Church in the United States, a revival that began with a statement in 2021 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” and will conclude next July with a eucharistic congress in Indianapolis. I have yet to see in this context, however, any substantial reflection on a practice that many Catholics (and even some non-Catholics) engage in: the custom of making a monetary offering for the sake of “having a Mass said” for someone.

Remembering our beloved dead is a time-honored Christian practice. We know that in the early centuries Christians went out to the cemeteries to visit the graves of their departed family members on the anniversary of their death (unlike non-Christians, who made their visits on the “earthly” birthday of the deceased). For everyone the custom included a picnic, but for Christians it also included the celebration of the Eucharist. We know this from some small eucharistic chapels in the catacombs, like the Roman Catacombs of Priscilla.

A common name for the Eucharist was “the sacrifice of the Mass,” because the celebration united the faithful to Christ’s saving death for us, which the Mass represents. There is certainly a clear logic to this practice. We bring before the Lord our profound concerns in the course of the holiest act we can imagine—participating sacramentally in Christ’s saving acts for us. This much is clear from a fifth-century admonition from St. Augustine in his “On the Care to Be Taken of the Dead”:

In the Book of Maccabees we read that sacrifice was offered for the deceased. Yet even if it were found nowhere else in the ancient Scriptures, the authority of the whole Church, which is not insignificant, is clear regarding this custom. The commendation of the deceased has its place in the prayers of the priest that are poured out to the Lord God at his altar.

Whence the custom of Mass intentions?

The fact that it was customary to celebrate the Eucharist with a specific intention in mind is historically well-established. But at least for the first six centuries or so, one cannot find this kind of special intention being attached to the celebration of a Sunday or feast-day Eucharist. The reasoning is straightforward. Since Christ’s sacrifice is for the salvation of the world, the fundamental or general intention of every Eucharist is for the salvation of all.

What happened to bring us to the situation that we now find normal—to wit, individuals making a monetary offering to a priest in order for that intention to be a special focus of the celebration, even at the weekly communal gathering on Sunday? The current situation is the result of a number of different factors.

For at least the first six centuries of the church, one cannot find this kind of special intention being attached to the celebration of a Sunday or feast-day Eucharist.

First, the “more Masses the merrier” idea was established by the late sixth century in the church, as exemplified by the “value” assigned to 30 consecutive days of Masses for the departed, the so-called Gregorian Masses. In Western Europe, the Christian faith experienced a major change in the early Middle Ages when it “crossed the Alps.” This cultural transformation has sometimes been called “Germanization.” The term refers to a more objectifying/quantifying mentality that tends to favor nouns over verbs. This is one reason why today the term “Eucharist” often is taken to mean more what is received (holy Communion, the consecrated host) than the action of celebration. Here we run into one of the perils of the current U.S. eucharistic revival—objectifying the real presence of the Lord in the consecrated elements over the celebration itself, a celebration whose end is to transform us into the body of Christ.

A second factor in the development of what might be called exclusive over inclusive Mass intentions was the decline of participation in holy Communion and the bringing of material gifts to the celebration. Those gifts represented the people themselves, who were in turn to receive themselves back in Christ in holy Communion. From there it was a short step to people substituting monetary offerings for material gifts and absenting themselves from the celebration, which could be left in the care of the priest.

This change is manifested in an addition to the text of the Roman Canon (the sole eucharistic prayer in the Roman Rite up until the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council). With regard to the agents of the offering, the early manuscripts read: “Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N. and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. They offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them....”

Later manuscripts, however, read: “Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N. and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them....” (emphasis added). The additional phrase makes it clear that the offerers did not need to be present at all. The use of the word “or” may well have originated as a rubric that was mistakenly copied by a scribe into the body text of a manuscript. In any case, in the end it was thought possible that an absent donor could offer the Mass for someone.

In fact, with the subsequent multiplication of Masses, especially among monks, it became possible to have a eucharistic celebration without anyone else beside the priest in attendance except for a server. The server was there to represent the faithful. The stipulation against celebrating without a server remains today (Canon 906) but unfortunately adds “except for a just and reasonable cause.” The “just and reasonable cause” often given is the obligation to celebrate for a Mass intention.

A factor in the development of what might be called exclusive over inclusive Mass intentions was the decline of participation in holy Communion and the bringing of material gifts to the celebration.

These developments are a far cry from what St. Paul refers to as a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, where he makes it clear that “body of Christ” refers both to the consecrated bread and wine and to the assembled church. This is why a few centuries later, St. Augustine, building on St. Paul, can say: “If, therefore, you are the Body and the members of Christ, your mystery is placed on the Lord’s table; you receive your own mystery. Respond ‘Amen’ to what you are, and by responding you give your assent. You hear ‘The Body of Christ’ and you respond ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s Body so that your Amen may be true.”

Codifying Mass intentions

No consideration of Mass intentions can be complete without attention to purgatory. Purgatory is the state of purification that people need after death in order to prepare them to be fully united to God. (Capacitating us for beatitude is a much better way of thinking of purgatory than as punishment.) Fairly early on, even in the early third century, Christians thought that the prayers of others at the celebration of the Eucharist help the deceased along in their progress toward heaven. This is where the idea of indulgences comes in. But what better prayer than the Eucharist, our principal celebration of God’s saving act? Put this together with a more objectified or quantified understanding of sacraments and, voilà, you have excellent motivation even for an absent donor to ask that a Mass be applied for a specific intention, namely to help Uncle Jack or Aunt Ida on their way to heaven.

Precisely how this works has never really been clarified. Great theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner and, more recently, Edward Kilmartin have argued that God responds to our prayers, including the Eucharist, in proportion to our devotion. What exactly do our prayers of intercession do? We do not (and I would argue cannot) know. But what we can affirm pretty clearly is that it has been a basic Catholic instinct that prayer for the living and the dead is an important thing to do.

When St. Paul refers to a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, he makes it clear that “body of Christ” refers both to the consecrated bread and wine and to the assembled church.

Although they would be challenged later by the Protestant reformers, the basic features of what we know today as Mass intentions were in place by the eighth or ninth century. The 14th-century Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus further refined the notion of how our intentions directed the benefits derived from a particular celebration of the Mass (commonly called the fruits of that Mass) with a threefold distinction. The first fruit of the Mass is general. As we have already seen, the sacrifice of Christ is for the salvation of the world. This is the ultimate meaning of “for many” in the eucharistic words over the chalice. But, explained Scotus, a “special” fruit of the Mass could be applied by the celebrating priest for an intention which has been requested by someone else. Normally, but not necessarily, that intention was accompanied by a monetary offering. This has usually been called a stipend, but we will see below that the church’s canon law has made a significant change in terminology here.

Finally, Scotus argued that a “most special” fruit could be applied by the celebrating priest for himself or for his own intention. (In fact, the Roman Missal has a Mass formula “For the Priest Himself.”) As far as I can tell, Scotus’s distinctions have never been accorded the status of doctrine by official church teaching, but they have received widespread and basically unquestioned acceptance.

Contemporary understandings

Enter 20th-century theology, especially the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”) of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent liturgical reform. Pope Pius XII, in his landmark 1947 encyclical promoting the liturgical movement, “Mediator Dei,” had affirmed that the faithful offer the Eucharist along with the priest, although allowing for an unclarified distinction in the manner of offering. The same idea is put forward in Vatican II’s liturgical constitution (No. 38) and the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (Nos. 5, 78, 79). The idea that all celebrate, but each according to his or her function, is also quite clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1140-44).

Most recently, Pope Francis has emphasized the united action of the priest and the rest of the assembly by reaffirming the unity of the assembly in its celebration of the Eucharist (“Desiderio Desideravi,” No. 54), in 2022. These ideas are in fact very traditional, since they reaffirm that our liturgical prayers are always prayed in the first-person plural: “We give thanks,” “we offer….” All are celebrating; the priest is presiding. The presiding priest is, as one early theologian put it, “the tongue of the assembly.”

This is the crux of the question over Mass intentions: What is the priest doing that the rest of the individual members of the assembly and the assembly as a whole are not?

As far as I am concerned, this is the crux of the question over Mass intentions: What is the priest doing that the rest of the individual members of the assembly and the assembly as a whole are not? Still, official teaching is that there is a distinction in the manner of offering between the priest and the rest of the faithful. The catechism (No. 1367) simply restates the Council of Trent here.

In line with Aquinas, Rahner and Kilmartin, I would suggest that in light of the “we” of our liturgical prayer and the unity of our sacrifice with the sacrifice of Christ, the difference is best understood as the priest being authorized and empowered to lead the Christian people in prayer.

Considerations

If this is correct, then a number of things follow. First, it is important to emphasize that the Mass is always offered for the salvation of the world, as all of our eucharistic prayers make clear. Take Eucharistic Prayer IV, for example:

Therefore, Lord, remember now all for whom we make this sacrifice: especially your servant, N. our Pope, N. our Bishop, and the whole Order of Bishops, all the clergy, those who take part in this offering, those gathered here before you, your entire people, and all who seek you with a sincere heart. Remember also those who have died in the peace of your Christ and all the dead, whose faith you alone have known.

Second, it would be inappropriate to assign a different value to a presiding priest’s intention for the Eucharist. Isn’t Mr. or Mrs. Jones’s prayer for a dead spouse as “valuable” as that of the priest celebrant? Common sense dictates, of course, that there are Masses where a clear or primary intention is obvious, like a wedding, funeral, profession of religious vows or confirmation. I would add that even non-ordained members of some religious orders (my own included) have the obligation of offering Mass for specific intentions.

Third, canon law prescribes that at least one Sunday Mass in a parish be celebrated “pro populo,” that is, for the entire parish. I wonder if the spirit of the law would be better interpreted in the sense that since the Sunday eucharistic celebration is by definition the communal celebration of the body of Christ, every Sunday Mass should ideally be “pro populo.” This might be unrealistic, since at times families who want to remember their deceased loved ones or an occasion like a major wedding anniversary could be present only on a Sunday (or Saturday vigil). It makes a big difference if the people who have requested a publicly announced intention for a particular Mass are actually present at it.

I might add that there is much to learn from the longstanding Eastern Christian ideal of holding only one eucharistic celebration in any particular church on a given day. Given the fact that because of numbers and social conditions it is necessary for us to provide Mass several times on a weekend, it is difficult for us to appreciate the essentially communal nature of the Eucharist. This is of course exacerbated by the rampant individualism and consumerism that characterize our culture.

Fourth, and this is where the issue gets tricky: What about money? Canon law devotes an entire chapter to the question of Mass offerings. It is important to take the issue seriously because it is so vulnerable to misunderstanding and even to abuse. With very few exceptions (Christmas and All Souls Day), priests may accept a monetary offering for only one Mass per day. Unfortunately, one could imagine priests lining their pockets by celebrating several Masses per day if this limit were not in place.

Would it not be better for the church to engage in a serious catechesis with regard to Mass offerings and to divorce Mass intentions from a monetary offering altogether?

At the same time, we need to recognize that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (Lk 10:7; 1 Tm 5:18). Mass offerings can add up to a significant amount of income for diocesan priests as well as financial support for religious orders of men. In this vein, it is interesting to note that the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus forbade receiving any monetary offerings for Masses or other sacramental liturgies (called “the gratuity of ministries”) until after the restoration of the Society in the 19th century, when certain exceptions were granted. More recently, the Jesuits interpreted this limitation rather liberally in their 31st General Congregation (1965-66).

Of course, if monetary offerings for Mass intentions were to be done away with, justice and prudence would require that alternate ways be provided for the adequate compensation of priests and financial support for religious orders.

Some confusion with regard to monetary offerings leads to my fifth and final consideration of the issue of Mass intentions. As one canonist put it: “What exactly do people think they’re getting for their money?” After all, canon law stipulates that a priest on receiving an offering has the obligation to offer Mass for that intention (Nos. 948-51). I take this to mean that when a monetary offering is made, the priest has the obligation to either preside at or concelebrate that Mass. How then could the average person not think that there is a quid pro quo in their making that offering, and that at least in some sense the Mass is being paid for?

But one simply cannot pay for a Mass. That has always been considered a sin of simony (see Acts 8:9-24, in which Simon Magus attempts to buy spiritual power from the apostles). To be sure, the church has deliberately changed the terminology with regard to monetary offerings. The Latin word in the current Code of Canon Law is stips (“offering”), replacing the former stipendium(“stipend”), which connotes payment for services. But as far as I know, “stipend” remains in common usage even for parishes and religious orders. Would it not be better for the church to engage in a serious catechesis with regard to Mass offerings and to divorce Mass intentions from a monetary offering altogether?

To be clear—I am not advocating a wholesale rejection of Mass intentions. That would be to oppose the church’s continuous tradition of associating the Mass with our most earnest and fervent prayers. I am suggesting, however, that we clarify the role of the priest with regard to Mass intentions, that we attempt to celebrate Sunday Masses for the people in general and that we eliminate money from the equation even as we seek to provide adequate economic support for priests. At the very least, we should discourage priests from saying, “I am offering this Mass for….”

What I am suggesting may be difficult and challenging, but I do not think it is impossible. I do think it would help us to appreciate the fact that all of us offer the sacrifice of the Mass as the body of Christ in union with our head, Jesus Christ.

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