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Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I seldom ask my parish priest to offer up Masses for a particular need such as a sick person or someone that has just died. Usually I offer up myself the Masses I attend for these needs, but a friend told me this was not valid. My friend said that for the graces to be received by the person in need, a priest had to offer up the Mass. So my question is: May we offer up our Masses for departed souls or those in need without specifically asking the priest to celebrate these Masses? — A.K., Sacramento, California

A: Actually it is not a question of either/or but of and/and.

Any Catholic may offer up the Mass in which he or she participates for any good intention. Certainly, graces will accrue in accordance with the intensity of that person's participation and sincerity.

This is a genuine exercise of the royal or common priesthood of the faithful.

However, the custom of requesting a priest to offer the Mass for a specific intention, even when one cannot be physically present at the Mass, is a longstanding tradition in the Church.

This is because the Church considers the Mass as the greatest possible prayer of intercession insofar as it is the perfect offering of Christ to the Father by making present the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.

Because of the particular role of the priest as mediator between God and man, acting "in persona Christi" when offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is usually considered that special graces may be obtained when he applies the Mass to a particular intention.

The faithful generally make an offering, called a stipend, to the priest in order to apply the Mass to a specific intention. By making this offering, the faithful, by parting with something that is their own (a sacrifice), associate themselves more intimately with Christ who offers Himself in the Sacred Host, and obtain thereby more abundant fruits (See Pope Paul VI's letter "Firma in Traditione" of June 13, 1974).

This sacrifice has an infinite value and indeed there is no objective limitation to the number of intentions that can be offered at any Mass.

The offering of a stipend is also a means whereby Catholics may contribute to the upkeep of the clergy and the Church in general.

However, so as to avoid even the appearance of commerce in sacred things, the Church regulates the practice of offering and receiving stipends in Canons 945-958 of the Code of Canon Law and in some later decrees on specific applications of the code.

Thus, in normal circumstances, a priest may only accept one stipend for any one Mass even though he may offer up the Mass for several intentions.

Likewise, if he celebrates more than one Mass a day he may keep only one stipend for his personal use and must apply the others to some charitable cause determined by the bishop, often to help support the seminary.

When a Mass cannot be celebrated in the place it was requested, the excess intentions are passed on to other priests or the local bishop. They must assure that all Mass requests are fulfilled within the space of one year.

Some places, dioceses, sanctuaries, etc., that receive more requests than can be celebrated within a year, often entrust these intentions and their stipends to other priests who may not have regular intentions, such as monks and retired priests.

In some cases, the extra intentions are also sent to the Holy See, which distributes them throughout the world.

The stipend is usually a fairly small sum by the standards of the developed world. Yet Mass intentions distributed by the Holy See to poor missionaries often prove to be of no small help in their endeavors.

Unfortunately, recent years have seen an increasing dearth of requests for the celebration of Masses in Western society and even the Holy See has felt the pinch.

Among the fruits hoped for from the current Year of the Eucharist is a renewed faith in the Mass as intercession and a consequent return in the faithful to the practice of asking for the celebration of Mass for specific intentions. Such a practice can be of such benefit to the faithful themselves and to so many other souls. (ZE05022220)

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Follow-up: Mass Intentions [03-08-2005]

The feedback on the subject of Mass intentions and stipends (February 22) has been most interesting and allows us to bring the question forward a little.

Before continuing, I must reiterate the essential point that the Mass has the same value as Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, hence infinite and so objectively speaking the number of intentions that may be offered is not limited.

The Church, however, normally allows only one intention with stipend united to each Mass.

In order to grasp the issues involved, it may help to realize what happens when a priest, or his representative, accepts a stipend to have a Mass said for a specific person or intention.

The person who has offered the stipend has not "bought a Mass," a thing which is patently impossible.

What has happened is that the priest has committed himself to celebrate a Mass according to the intentions of the person making the offering.

This intention is most often to recommend the soul of a deceased person but may also be for the personal intentions of the living.

In some cases, the commitment is to ensure that the Mass is celebrated within a year, but frequently also involves other conditions such as a specific time or place for the Mass, especially to coincide with an anniversary of death or when the person requesting the Mass has great interest in personally participating in the celebration.

Once he has accepted the commitment, the priest is bound in justice to fulfill it and may not normally accept or substitute other intentions for the same Mass.

The priest's intention is essentially a spiritual and internal act through which he commends the intention to God in a particular way even though he is free to offer up any number of other personal intentions.

He does not necessarily have to know the person for whom he is offering up the Mass. And, in some cases — for example, if unaware of the customs of the church where he is celebrating — it is enough for him to know that an intention was requested and he celebrates the Mass according to the intention of the donor.

This aspect should throw light on the subject of public proclamation of the intentions. Because the intention is essentially a spiritual act, its publication neither adds nor subtracts from its efficacy. Indeed, publicly announcing the intention is done for the comfort of the living and not for the benefit of the dead.

Provided this is understood, there is usually no difficulty in making some form of announcement. But there are few official rules regarding this aspect.

Some parishes are content with posting a notice on a bulletin board or on its weekly bulletin. Others prefer to announce the intention before Mass begins; others immediately after the greeting. Still others insert the name during the general intercessions.

Any one of these solutions is possible. It is not liturgically correct, however, to use the moment of silence after the "Let us pray" of the Collect nor to habitually insert the name in the Eucharistic prayer, as this option is reserved to Masses for the dead such as funerals, first anniversaries, etc.

Sometimes, mishaps can occur, such as when a priest forgets to read out a name or cannot find it. In this case it is enough that he celebrated according to the intention of the donor.

If, on the other hand, he reads out the wrong name, and consequently celebrates the Mass for a different intention, then the parish should seek to remedy the situation by offering an alternative celebration at a suitable time.

A priest friend of mine was saved from this particular mistake by an attentive 10-year-old altar boy who nudged him while saying, "Father, you got the wrong dead guy."

Sometimes, more people will request Mass intentions for the Masses they attend (assist) than is compatible with parish schedules, a situation ever more common due to the lack of priests.

To address this desire, the Holy See has authorized bishops to allow the celebration of Masses with several intentions. These "cumulative" Masses should not be daily practice. The Diocese of Rome allows parishes one such Mass a week and the faithful must be informed beforehand that there will be other intentions on that day.

The priest who celebrates such a Mass may retain only one stipend and must dedicate the others to the cause determined by the bishop.

The situation of these cumulative Masses is different from that prevalence in some poor countries in which many people ask the priest to remember them at Mass and often offer a tiny sum as a symbolic contribution. Such offerings are not considered stipends as the faithful are accustomed to Mass being offered for many intentions besides their own.

It is also different from enrollment in Mass associations of various types. In this case, a person who makes a donation to a monastery, sanctuary, or religious community, either in their own name or to spiritually benefit another, is remembered in a general way at certain fixed Masses celebrated in the sanctuary or community.

When I was a seminarian, and then later a priest, several people sent me the spiritual gift of enrolling me in such associations — and it is a source of comfort to know that one is being remembered at the Altar.

It is a custom in my native Ireland, perhaps somewhat less so today, to send the family of a deceased friend or relative a condolence card announcing that Mass would be offered for the soul of the departed. In a world of faith, it certainly provides more comfort than flowers.

The usual amount for the stipend offering is determined by the bishops either nationally or locally. The faithful are free to offer more if they desire, and priests are encouraged to celebrate Mass for the intentions of their faithful even if they are too poor to offer a stipend.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch© Innovative Media, Inc.

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