Mass Intentions and Stipends (Part II)

Q1: I know that concelebrating priests may each have their own intentions for the one concelebrated Mass.  But can each of them receive a separate stipend for the one concelebrated Mass?  So for instance, my pastor and I concelebrate.  He takes the stipend for the announced intention of the Mass.  May I also take a stipend for a different intention?

That’s what I’ve been doing.  But another canon lawyer told me differently. –Father D.

Q2: I’m thinking about starting a website to help priests gain Mass stipends, that could also be an App, but don’t want to give any appearance I’m trafficking in stipends.  But I wouldn’t mind making a very modest stipend for myself for the apostolate.

Do you think it would be appropriate canonically to do a project like this?  And take a stipend too?  I was thinking 10%.  $2 on a $20 stipend.  Me facilitating the transfer of a stipend to priests is a service, and laity can ask for their own stipend in the service they give.  Correct?

(Later update:) My wife suggested not requiring anything for myself, but the priest would have the option to give a little to the website. –Christopher

A: The basic rules regarding Mass offerings were discussed back in “Mass Intentions and Stipends (Part I),” where we saw that the practice of giving a monetary offering, or stipend, to a priest in return for celebrating a Mass for our intention is a longstanding tradition in the Church.  Originally, Mass stipends were generally the means by which priests financially supported themselves.  At the same time, giving an offering for a Mass constitutes a financial sacrifice on the part of the person requesting the Mass.  In other words, offering/receiving a Mass stipend has traditionally benefitted both parties in different ways—which explains why today, canon 946 notes that those who make offerings for the celebration of Masses share in the support of the Church’s ministers, and in general this praxis contributes to the good of the Church.

As with anything involving money, the Catholic Church has learned over the centuries to be extremely careful about the “optics” of accepting financial remuneration in exchange for the celebration of a sacrament.  That’s why, as we saw in “Stipends and Sacraments,” when the lay faithful ask their parish priest to confer a sacrament, such as baptizing a baby or celebrating a wedding, there is ordinarily a set monetary offering which they are asked to make (cf. c. 1264 n. 2); but if the faithful are truly unable to make that offering by reason of poverty, they are not to be deprived of the sacraments (c. 848).

When it comes to the sacrifice of the Mass—an action which is the unique prerogative of an ordained priest—the Church is even more careful, if that’s possible, to avoid any semblance of money-making.  Many simple Catholics often refer to offering a Mass stipend as “paying for a Mass,” but of course a Mass is of infinite value and can never be bought!

As we saw in the above-mentioned “Mass Intentions and Stipends (Part I),” any priest who celebrates Mass is entitled to accept an offering to apply it for a particular intention (c. 945.1), although he is not required to obtain either a stipend or an intention from anyone in order to say Mass.  Thus many priests routinely celebrate Masses without having been asked to do so for a particular intention, and without receiving a monetary offering for doing so.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are occasions when priests celebrate more than one Mass on a single day, which in itself is entirely permissable as per canon 905.1.  When this happens, however, a priest is not allowed to receive a stipend for more than one Mass per day (c. 951.1).  This is to eliminate any possibility that a priest might be accused (rightly or wrongly) of celebrating multiple Masses simply in order to get more money.  We can see once again that the Church is concerned about optics: it wants to avoid anything that might lead people—both Catholics and non-Catholics—to conclude that Masses and money are inextricably linked.  They aren’t.

When it comes to the practice of concelebration, and offering Mass stipends for concelebrated Masses, it’s important first to understand what is actually happening at the altar during a concelebrated Mass—and what isn’t.  The code does not define concelebration; canon 902 references it simply by stating that priests may concelebrate the Eucharist unless the good of the faithful requires them to celebrate individually.

This apparent omission in the code should not surprise us. As was seen in “Can You be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” the code does not generally address the celebration of liturgical actions, and so it is necessary to refer instead to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which has the force of law in liturgical matters even though it is not actually part of the code. In the section on Concelebrated Mass, the GIRM not only restates canon 902, but also adds that concelebration “appropriately expresses the unity of the priesthood, of the Sacrifice, and also of the whole People of God.”

When a Mass is concelebrated, each priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass. This means that each priest is able to have his own intention. The fact that they are concelebrating, i.e., are offering their Masses at the same time and in the same location, does not alter the fact that each priest is celebrating a Mass.  If you think about it, it doesn’t make much theological sense to suggest that concelebrating priests are each celebrating a fraction of a Mass!  If ten priests are concelebrating Mass together, the net result is the same as it would be if the ten of them each celebrated a separate Mass: in other words, the sacrifice of the Mass is being offered ten times.

Since each concelebrating priest is really saying a Mass, it is only logical that each concelebrating priest can accept a stipend for offering it for a specific intention.  It’s so logical, in fact, that the code doesn’t even bother to mention it.  That’s why it’s not at all clear why the canonist whom Father D. mentions would tell him anything different.  It could be that this canonist does not have a full understanding of the theological implications of concelebration.

As for Christopher’s question, the answer is quite simple, and is found in canon 947.  This canon tells us that even the appearance of trafficking or trading in Mass offerings is to be entirely avoided.  In fact, someone who traffics in Mass stipends for profit may actually be punished with a censure (c. 1385).  Here again, the Church is striving to avoid bad optics: accepting money in exchange for saying a Mass is permitted, as discussed above, but making a profit on Mass stipends is not!

Oddly enough, it appears that Christopher understands that trafficking in Mass stipends is forbidden.  Yet after declaring that he doesn’t “want to give any appearance [he’s] trafficking in stipends,” he immediately indicates that he wants to do precisely that: “I wouldn’t mind making a very modest stipend for myself.”

It should be obvious that this bizarre scheme to earn 10% profit by collecting Mass offerings is exactly the sort of activity that is forbidden by the canons just mentioned.  Christopher describes this as “an apostolate,” but your average apostolate certainly isn’t designed to earn a financial profit for its founder.

In some poor parts of the world, the Catholic clergy still rely financially on the offerings they receive for the celebration of Mass.  Perhaps the failure to receive one today will mean the priest has nothing to eat!  That’s why there already exist many, many legitimate Catholic organizations which collect Mass intentions and stipends from the faithful, and forward them directly to priests in mission territories who genuinely need them.  Here, for example, is a link to one such organization in Canada, and this is a well known international Catholic charity which does the same.  Note that on these websites, there isn’t the slightest suggestion that the organization itself will benefit—or even wants to benefit—financially in any way.  If you send them money and an intention, they will simply forward your money and intention to a poor priest who will celebrate the Mass.  If anything, the whole process most likely ends up costing these charities time and money of their own, since they naturally have to have an employee and an office to handle the program and all that it entails.

At the same time, bona fide organizations like these need to be very careful, to ensure that the priests to whom they send the Mass intentions and stipends are legit.  As you can see here, this charity in the United States explains the system it has in place to verify that nobody falsely claims to be a priest in a poor region of the world, in order to steal money collected as Mass stipends.  Their site even mentions specifically the need to follow canon law.  Again, there is no mention whatsoever of any profit for the organization itself.

Now contrast this with Christopher’s proposal as he outlines it above.  Even his later, amended version, in which “the priest would have the option to give a little to the website,” violates the law—since it involves profiting from Mass stipends, specifically described in the abovementioned canon 1385 as a punishable offense.  (And let’s be honest: why would anybody want to suggest to a priest in a poor part of the world, who needs his Mass offerings to survive, that he should give some of that money back?)

By now it should be clear that when it comes to Mass stipends, the Catholic Church doesn’t fool around.  Priests have the right to receive them, and in many cases they really need them; but there are restrictions limiting the number they can receive, and nobody is supposed to be making a profit by distributing them.  Ever.

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