( Latin, Mensa, table).
The Latin word mensa has for its primitive signification "a table for meals"; it designates by extension the expenses, or better, the necessary resources of sustenance, and generally, all the resources for personal support. He who lives at the expense of another, and at his table, is his "commensal". In ecclesiastical language, the mensa is that portion of the property of a church which is appropriated to defraying the expenses either of the prelate or of the community which serves the church, and is administered at the will of the one or the other. Thus, in a cathedral, to which both the bishop and the chapeter belong, the bishop's mensa is distinct from that of the chapter, the former consisting of property the revenues of which are enjoyed by the prelate, the latter by the chapter. The capitular mensa consists chiefly of individual property, for the primitive mensa of the chapter has almost everywhere been divided among the canons, each of whom has his personal share under the designation of a " prebend ". Similarly, in the case of abbeys given in commendam (cf. c. Edoceri, 21, De rescriptis), the abbatial mensa, which the abbot enjoys, is distinct from the conventual mensa, which is applied to the maintenance of the religious community. The curial mensa, which is of later origin, is of the same nature : the property reserved for the personal maintenance of the parish priest, as distinct from that applied to the expenses of worship or to the support of other clergy, has been regarded as curial mensa. To constitute a mensa in the canonical sense, therefore, it is not enough that a certain portion of church property be appropriated to the maintenance of the clergy (for in that case every benefice would be a mensa, which is untrue ); it is necessary that there be a partition made in the property of one particular church so as to appropriate certain property to the maintenance of the prelate or rector, or of the clergy subject to him; it follows, therefore, that the administration of this property belongs to those who enjoy it.
Thus the bishop, the secular abbot, the chapter, the religious community, administer, each within appropriate limits, the property of their respective mensæ, without being liable to any accounting for the employment of its revenues; this is true of the parish priest who has a curial mensa. The other resources of the cathedral or parish church, or monastery, destined for religious worship, pious works, the maintenance of buildings, etc., are subject to the general or special rules for the administration of church property , whether this be done by church committees, trustees, or other administrative organ, or by the rector of the church as sole administrator ; in all cases an accounting is due to the bishop and, in general, to the ecclesiastical authorities, for the administration of such property. There are, however, some exceptions to this principle. Since mensæ, particularly episcopal mensæ, are legal entities, property and foundations have in the course of centuries often been annexed to them for purposes other than the maintenance of prelates ; these properties or foundations may be real "opera pia" or pious works in the canonical sense. In this way some episcopal mensæ control property and houses for the benefit of aged or infirm priests, also for educational and other establishements; to some curial mensæ schools or hospitals are attached, and for these various good works administrative rules may be provided at the time of their foundation. But such cases it is easily seen are later extensions, foreign to the primary and chief aim of the mensæ. Even in respect to these properties the old rule applies, in the sense that they are not common ecclesiastical possessions and are not administered as such, but after the manner of mensal property.
Although appropriated to the maintenance of certain defininte persons, mensal property is nevertheless church property, and its administrator is bound to observe the canonical rules concerning it. As to the administration strictly speaking, he must keep the property in good condition and execute all works expedient to that end; in short, he must act like a good head of a household. But he cannot do anything that would infringe upon proprietary rights, for he is not the proprietor: any alienation, or any contract which the law regards as similar to alienation, is forbidden him, excepting under prescribed juridical formalities, under pain of excommunication (Extrav. Ambitiosæ, "De reb. eccl. non alienandis"; see also B ENEFICE ; P ROPERTY, A LIENATION OF C HURCH ). The chief of these prescribed formalities is the Apostolic authorization, given either directly or by Indult, and that only when the alienation or similar contract is to the advantage of the Church. For the alienation of mensal property, or for making any similar contract, the bishop is, in particular, bound to safeguard himself with the consent of the chapter (S. C. Concilii, 25 July, 1891).
Like all ecclesiastical institutions, the mensa has reached its present juridical status as the result of various modifications. In the first ages, all the church property of a diocese formed but one mass connected, like everything else, with the principal, or cathedral church. The administration of it belonged to the bishop alone, who administered it himself or through his œconomus or his deacons. The clergy received a portion of the revenues of this property, sometimes fixed (one-fourth in Italy, one-third in Spain ; see the collected texts, c. 23-30, C., XII, q. ii; c. 1-3, C., X, q. iii), sometimes left to the equitable decision of the bishop. Soon the churches outside of the episcopal city had distinct administrations of their own, and the wealth appropriated to religious worship or to the support of the clergy was regarded as their property. After the fifth century we find bishops granting to certain clerics church property, by way of "præcarium", i.e. property revocable at will, which such clerics used for their own support. So long as the bishop, the abbot, or the rector of the church remained faithfully in residence and discharged his ecclesiastical functions, there was no reason for surrendering to the inferior clergy, or the monks, a part of the ecclesiastical wealth that they might thence draw their support. But when the early Carlovingians, especially Charles Martel, habitually gave abbeys and churches to their companions in arms, and when bishops nominated by royal favour ceased to reside habitually at their sees, there arose a kind of division and opposition between the prelate, abbot, or bishop and the community of monks or clerics, who were on more than one occasion left in want by greedy or negligent superiors. The remedy for this was the institution of mensæ.
To secure what was necessary to the community, the beneficiary was compelled to reserve for its use a sufficient portion of the property of the church or monastery. Thus the superior's administration was made lighter for him, while he could enjoy in peace and quiet the balance of the property reserved for his own proper use ( indominicatum ); on the other hand the community gained, besides material security, a renovation of religious life, since material privation was inevitably a cause of relaxation of discipline. The Carlovingian reforms, notably those of Louis the Pious, were chiefly responsible for the establishment of mensæ properly imposed and regulated in regard to monasteries ; as to cathedrals the mensa was more commonly a benevolent concession on the part of the bishop, who in this way fostered community life ( vita canonica ) among his clergy. This community life becoming more and more rare after the end of the ninth century, each canon received his own share of the mensal revenues–his " prebend ". Later on, indeed, the canons often had the separate administration of their respective properties, either as the result of partition or, more particularly, in pursuance of provisions made in the foundation. The mensæ, of whatever character, were legally capable of acquiring additions. It was through them that church property, intended, as before the division, not only for the support of the clergy, but for all religious and charitable works, was re-established.
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