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Liturgy: Mass Intentions

And More on Priests in Mortal Sin

ROME, FEB. 23, 2005 (Zenit) - 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 say 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, 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 Catholic 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, until recently, Mass intentions distributed by the Holy See to poor missionaries often proved 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.

* * *

Follow-up: When a Priest Is in Mortal Sin

Our reply on the validity of Mass celebrated by a priest in mortal sin (Feb. 8) spurred several related questions.

One Arizona reader asked: "If a seminarian enters preparation for the priesthood for the purpose of its cover for his homosexual drives, is his vow of holy orders valid?"

Meanwhile, a correspondent from South Africa ...

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