Mass Intentions

And More on Priests in Mortal Sin

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ROME, FEB. 22, 2005 ( 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.

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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 asked if validity of the sacrament was affected by certain illicit practices such as breaking the host during the consecration, or omitting or replacing the Creed and other texts with other songs.

As the Holy See is currently preparing a document on the overall question of admitting homosexuals to sacred orders, I will limit my comments strictly to the question of possible invalidity.

In general, the sacraments retain the presumption in favor of their validity providing the essential conditions are met.

These essential conditions are both external, respecting the rite to be followed, and internal, at least in the case of adults, regarding the minimum intention required in administrating and receiving a sacrament.

The essential external conditions differ for each sacrament but usually involve the use of proper matter, the essential rites and the essential words to be used.

Consequently, should a minister baptize by merely touching the head of the baptized with a damp finger so that not even a drop of water actually flows on the body, then the baptism would be invalid, as would for example a Mass celebrated using rice wine, or corn bread, or omitting the laying on of hands during ordination. Omissions or changes to nonessential rites, while gravely illicit, do not invalidate the sacrament.

The same principle applies to the words used: A change to the essential words of a sacrament that basically alters its meaning, renders a sacrament invalid. But minor changes would not do so.

Accordingly, if a minister were to baptize “In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier,” or attempt consecration saying “This symbolizes my body,” the sacrament would be rendered invalid.

Therefore, the examples furnished by our South African writer do not endanger the validity of the sacrament. But, of course, assuring validity is an insufficient criterion for a worthy, reverent and truly Catholic celebration.

With respect to the intention required for the valid administration and reception (by an adult) of the sacraments, the Council of Trent requires only that the minister or subject intend to do at least what the Church does.

This is a fairly minimum intention and means that a sacrament would be valid even if a minister lacked faith in the sacrament, or were in a state of mortal sin. It is enough for him to intend to do what the Church does when administrating this sacrament.

This refers only to the intention; some sacraments, such as matrimony and hearing confessions, have additional requirements for validity such as formal authorization or proper canonical procedures.

Normally the celebrant’s and subject’s intention may be presumed. Indeed, in order to invalidate the sacrament, either one would usually have to make a positive act of rejection in the very moment that he was administrating or receiving the sacrament.

For example, a bishop would have to say to himself, while in the very act of laying his hands on the ordinand, “I do not intend to ordain this man,” or the subject “I do not intend to receive ordination.”

Such a simulation of a sacra
ment would be extremely grave and is severely punished in canon law.

For this reason, declarations of nullity of sacraments such as ordination or baptism are rare, basically because it is difficult to make them invalid.

In the case presented by our Arizona reader, I believe it is impossible to give a general answer. It would be necessary to see how far, in the case of the person involved, the motivation of entering the seminary as a cover for his condition affected his will and his capacity to make a correct intention.

In general, I would say that the presumption would be in favor of the validity of the ordination. But there could be concrete circumstances that would render it invalid.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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