Mass Intentions and Stipends (Part I)

Q: The noon Mass last Sunday was supposed to be offered for my deceased grandmother. I scheduled the Mass with the parish secretary and gave a monetary offering long ago. The bulletin listed my grandmother as the intention for that Mass. But when we got to church, there was a visiting priest who concelebrated the Mass with our pastor, and he mentioned several times that he was offering the Mass for the intention of new vocations from our parish. I don’t have anything against praying for vocations, but that Mass was supposed to be for my grandmother! How could they change the Mass intention like that? What should I do?  –Matthew

A: This question touches on the whole issue of Mass intentions and Mass stipends. Let’s examine the general law concerning this issue and all the possible pertinent scenarios that may be encountered, and then we will focus specifically on Matthew’s particular question.

Historically, the purpose of offering a Mass stipend for a particular Mass intention has been twofold. On the one hand, the money that a priest received for saying his daily Mass for a specific intention was essentially his source of income—and in some poorer countries (India comes to mind) it sometimes still is. At the same time, by giving a stipend, the person requesting that a Mass be celebrated made a sacrificial offering of his own.

Nowadays, of course, priests generally are not reliant on their daily Mass stipends to pay for their basic necessities, but the laws surrounding the whole notion remain basically the same. This tradition is referenced in canon 946, which states that those members of the faithful who give Mass stipends are contributing to the good of the Church, for they share in the Church’s concern for the support of its ministers.

A major concern of the Church is that there be no appearance that Masses are being bought or sold. Canon 947 notes that even the semblance of trafficking or trading in Mass offerings is to be entirely avoided; and someone who traffics in Mass stipends for profit may actually be punished with a censure (c. 1385). If perchance the monetary donation that was accepted along with the Mass intention is lost, canon 949 specifies that the priest is still obliged to offer a Mass for that intention. Of cardinal importance here is the request that a Mass be said for a particular intention, and not the money that accompanied that request.

Still, 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. Note that it is also quite possible for a priest to say Mass for the intention for which a stipend has been given, and simultaneously for other intentions as well. He may, for example, celebrate a regularly scheduled parish Mass for which some parishioner has provided an intention (and a stipend), but at the same time he may perhaps have in mind the intention of his elderly mother. In fact, he may have as many intentions as he likes while offering a Mass, so long as he has accepted a stipend for no more than one of them. While on the surface this may seem illogical, keep in mind that the spiritual value of a single Mass is infinite. The intention for which a stipend was offered is not somehow getting short-shrift if the celebrant offers that same Mass for other intentions as well!

As a rule, a priest may only offer one Mass per day, although there are occasions when he is permitted to offer more than one Mass in a single day (c. 905.1). On Sundays and holy-days, for example, a priest may celebrate as many as three Masses in one day; and in areas where there is a shortage of priests, a bishop may permit his priests to say two Masses on an ordinary weekday if pastoral necessity requires it (c. 905.2). In the United States, where one often finds only a couple of priests assigned to a large parish, it is very common for a priest to say (for example) a regularly scheduled weekday morning Mass, and then perhaps a funeral or wedding Mass later that same day. This is entirely within the limits of the law, even though it may not be the ideal scenario.

Does this mean that a priest may accept multiple stipends on those days when he offers multiple Masses? Absolutely not. Canon 951.1 is very clear that, while a priest may celebrate multiple Masses, with a different intention for each one, he may keep only the stipend for one Mass. The diocesan bishop determines what is to be done with the stipend that was received for any subsequent Mass(es). While the ultimate use to which this money is put might conceivably vary from diocese to diocese, it must not be given to the celebrating priest. Thus there can never be any financial incentive for a priest to say more than one Mass per day—which rule greatly helps the Church to avoid any possible misconceptions that Masses are for sale, and/or that priests offer Masses primarily for monetary gain.

Based on what we have seen thus far, it should be clear that since Matthew asked for a Mass for his grandmother and gave a Mass stipend for that intention, and both his intention and stipend were accepted, Matthew’s pastor is obliged by law to ensure that a Mass for that intention is actually said. Since Matthew scheduled that particular date, and it was published in the bulletin, it was entirely reasonable for him to presume that his intention would be the intention for that Mass. On the surface, it appears that this was not done.

But, although the visiting priest mentioned that he was offering Mass for a different intention, that does not mean that Matthew’s grandmother was not the intention for that Mass. The key factor which Matthew notes is that the Mass was concelebrated by both the visiting priest and the pastor of his parish. What happens at a concelebration?

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 Mass.

In the situation that Matthew describes, it was only the visiting priest who announced that his Mass intention was an increase in vocations. Therefore, the pastor presumably offered his Mass for the intention stated in the parish bulletin (Matthew’s grandmother), while the visiting priest offered his Mass for the intention of more vocations. This was entirely sound, both theologically and canonically, even though to the congregation it may have been unclear what exactly was taking place. Under these circumstances, Matthew needn’t worry that his grandmother was not the intention for which Mass was offered that Sunday. It seems clear that she was, even though it so happened that a concelebrating priest simultaneously celebrated his Mass for a different intention.

Part II of this article can be read here.

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