As Catholics, we enjoy the unique custom of offering particular prayer intentions at the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Let’s take a closer look at this practice.
For us, the Mass is the highest and most privileged form of prayer because it contains the Eucharistic sacrifice: the source and summit of our faith (CCC #1324-1327). Our Christian life, activities, and participation in the other sacraments are all oriented toward the Eucharist, where Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is made present in the here and now. We can offer prayers of petition and sacrifice at any time and in all sorts of situations, but it is in the context of the Mass that what we offer is made more perfect, as it is joined to Christ’s perfect sacrifice for us. To that end, we bring what we have to offer, in the form of our intentions and sacrifices, and lay them before the altar.
In a more particular way, we have the opportunity to have a specific Mass offered for an intention of our choosing. The priest, at the celebration of every single Mass should have two intentions. The first intention is to celebrate the Mass in accordance with the prescriptions set forth by the Church for the purpose of universality and consistency throughout all of the Masses offered around the world. The second intention is for the graces from the Mass to be applied for a particular intention. During Mass, you will hear something said along the lines of, “This Mass is being offered for…” Most often, these intentions are for the repose of a deceased soul. In other words, the intention is that the graces be applied to a particular soul in order to be released from purgatory and permitted to enter into eternal paradise. However, intentions are not required to be for the deceased. The Mass can be offered for just about anything, though it’s usually for a person.
The practice of offering specific intentions during a Mass is an ancient one. In the early Church, it was common practice to celebrate Mass on the tombs of known martyrs and saints in the catacombs. The tombs served as altars, with the relics of holy men and women contained inside. Still to this day, you can find on the walls of the catacombs, and some of the altars, inscriptions of Mass intentions, most commonly for the repose of deceased souls. Another early reference to the offering of Mass intentions comes from Tertullian (c. 155-240) who wrote to widows on the importance of offering their sacrifices for their deceased husbands:
Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship with him in the first resurrection; and she offers her sacrifice on the anniversaries of his falling asleep. For, unless she does these deeds, she has in the true sense divorced him, so far as in her lies; and indeed the more iniquitously (wickedly).
Similarly, St. Augustine (354-430) recounted in his book, Confessions, that his mother, St. Monica, made this request of him before her death: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Monica’s words highlight the intense importance of offering Mass for her soul by placing it above even the concern of her deceased body.
Now, we must enter into an explanation of the more commonly misunderstood part of the practice of offering Mass intentions – the monetary donation. The Mass is ultimately a sacrifice – the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, to which we join our own sacrifices for the particular intention. Again, we go back to the early Church, where personal sacrifices were offered in exchange for the Mass to be celebrated according to the person’s wishes. This is very similar to the ways Jews would bring objects of sacrifice, like doves, to the temple in Jesus’ time. So, a farmer might bring a yield from his crops, or a shepherd might bring a lamb. These were forms of sacrifice that people would make as small acts of love back to God for His perfect acts of love for them. While these types of sacrifice were acceptable, particularly for the poor, the practice of a monetary sacrifice was determined to be the best. The primary reason for this was because the items used in the Mass cost money to produce and purchase. So, the person requesting a Mass intention would provide a monetary donation in order for the priest to be able to provide the bread, wine, candles, and other items necessary for the celebration. Often priests would travel around celebrating Masses and would need to procure these items as they went.
The practice of helping provide the physical elements used in the Mass was very sensible in the early days of the Church (and still does make sense for poorer communities throughout the world, today). However, there may be some questions regarding why monetary donations are still requested for well-supported parishes, as well as the potential issue of impropriety with the appearance of an exchange of money for spiritual goods. Let’s take a closer look at what the Church has to say on these issues to clear up any confusion. In 1974, Pope Paul VI wrote in his letter Firma in Traditione:
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.
Again, it goes back to the idea of sacrifice. While a person may be a regular tither to their parish and, in doing so, they financially contribute to the physical needs of the parish, there is a different and special meaning when he or she parts with additional treasure specifically as a sacrifice for a specific intention.
As for the other potential concern – an exchange of money for a spiritual good – this is referred to as “simony” by the Church and is strictly condemned as a sinful practice. Canon law states, “A person who illegitimately makes a profit from a Mass offering is to be punished with a censure or another just penalty,” (Can. 1385). (See Canons 945-958 for specific regulations regarding stipends.) For this reason, a stipend is generally kept small so as not to generate unnecessary and unseemly profit (our parish recommends a $10 donation). Be confident when you are providing a donation for a Mass intention that, when doing so with the proper disposition of sacrifice, you are doing the right thing. Additionally, because these donations are small in nature, it would be considered a good and fruitful practice to add a bit more of a personal and private sacrifice for your Mass intention, such as fasting or forgoing some sort of physical comfort you enjoy, in solidarity with the discomfort Jesus experienced on the cross for your sake.
If you have never done so before, consider offering a Mass for someone so they can reap the spiritual rewards of this highest form of prayer and source of divine grace. Parish calendars, including ours, do fill up very quickly, so it may be necessary to seek out other parishes, shrines, and communities at which your intention can be remembered.