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What is a Mass offering properly called and why is the practice acceptable in the Catholic Church?

What has traditionally been called a Mass stipend is an offering, usually monetary, which the faithful give to a priest and which, on acceptance, obliges him in justice to offer the fruits of the Mass for the intention of that donor. Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law used the word stipend (stipendium) for this offering, the current Code uses the term offering (stips). The reason is that the Latin stipendium means payment or salary, while stips means gift or donation. Since any “semblance of trafficking or trading is to be entirely excluded from Mass offerings” (canon 947), the latter term is more appropriate. English translations of the Code use the word ‘offering’ for stips.

Although every Mass is offered for the benefit of the entire Mystical Body, as is clear from the liturgical prayers themselves (e.g., “for our good and the good of all his holy Church”), it has also been the custom since ancient times to offer Mass for particular intentions or needs of the faithful. The 2nd-century Church father Tertullian urged wives to have Mass offered for their husbands on the anniversary of their death (De monogamia, 10), and St. Augustine said that the “sacrifice of our redemption” was offered for his mother, St. Monica, on the day of her burial (Confessions, 9:12). At the same time, the faithful also participated more closely in the sacrifice by providing the bread and wine as well as other gifts for the support of the clergy and care of the needy. These offerings would often be presented to the priest during the liturgy.

These two practices gradually coalesced, so a gift would be presented to the priest sometime before Mass with the request that the Mass be offered particularly for the donor’s intention. By the 11th century the custom of giving the priest a monetary offering so that Mass would be offered for a specific intention became widespread. This practice provides a spiritual benefit to the faithful while contributing to the material support of the priest, since “those who work in the temple are supported by the temple, and those who minister at the altar share the offerings of the altar” (1 Cor 9:13).

Later theological tradition explained the meaning of this practice. The celebration of Mass produces various “fruits” for human beings: impetratory (spiritual and temporal benefits), propitiatory (forgiveness of sins), and satisfactory (remission of temporal punishment). These fruits redound to the whole Church (“general”), to those participating in the Mass (“special”), to the priest himself (“personal”), and to those for whom the priest is offering the Mass (“ministerial”). The ministerial fruits are applied by his intention in offering the Mass. If he has accepted an offering for the Mass, he is obliged in justice to apply those fruits to the donor’s intention.

The abuses which had crept into the practice of accumulating Mass offerings was one of many factors leading to the Protestant Reformation, so the Council of Trent urged bishops to be vigilant in eliminating any practice that made the acceptance of Mass offerings resemble a business transaction (Session 22). Subsequent enactments of the Roman Pontiffs were codified in 1917 and substantially retained in the 1983 Code.

The fundamental principle is one offering for each Mass, and one Mass for each offering: “Separate Masses are to be applied for the intentions of those for each of whom an offering, even if small, has been made and accepted” (canon 948). A celebrant or concelebrant may accept only one offering for each Mass, although the donor’s intention may include many individuals (e.g., “all my deceased relatives”). The question is not how many people can receive the fruits of the Mass, but how many Mass offerings—only one!—may be accepted for each Mass. If a priest celebrates more than one Mass on a given day, he may apply each Mass for the intentions of the donor who has made an offering; but, with the exception of Christmas Day, he may never keep for himself more than one offering per day. The offerings he receives for a second or third Mass on a given day must be donated to the purposes determined by the Ordinary (e.g., the diocesan seminary or the missions). A priest who concelebrates another Mass may not accept an offering for that other Mass on any grounds (canon 951). The amount of the offering for each Mass is determined by the bishops of each ecclesiastical province. For example, in the province of Chicago (which is coterminous with the civil state of Illinois), the Mass offering is $10.00 No priest, diocesan or religious, may request more for an offering (canon 952).

Contrary to the fundamental principle of one offering per Mass, which the Church has strictly enforced to avoid “any semblance of trafficking or trading,” the practice began to spread in the 1980s of accepting multiple offerings for a single Mass, so-called “collective intentions.” Some of this was due to an inadequate understanding of what application of the fruits of the Mass really means and confusing it with reading out a name in the general intercessions, or with “buying a Mass card.” The practice led some people to think they can drop by the parish anytime and “get a Mass said” for any day or time they want. Whatever the rationale, the Holy See intervened in 1991 as the Vatican stated that the “arguments in favor of this new practice are specious and pretentious if not reflecting an erroneous ecclesiology” (Congregation for the Clergy, Decree Mos iugiter).

At the same time, the Congregation recognized that offering Mass collectively for a number of intentions for which separate offerings have been made can sometimes be acceptable but under the following conditions: 1) the faithful must knowingly and willingly agree to have their intentions combined in a single celebration; 2) the time and place of this celebration is to be publicly announced; 3) such celebrations may occur at most twice a week in the same church; and 4) the celebrant may retain for himself only what amounts to the offering for one Mass, the rest being given to the purposes determined by the Ordinary. A “collective” intention is thus an exception that is permitted no more than twice a week.

 

—Answered by Msgr. Robert J. Dempsey

Pastor of St. Patrick Church, Lake Forest, IL

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