Stipends and Mass Obligation

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Does an ordained priest have the duty and responsibility to say Mass only on Sundays and on the days of obligation? What about the weekdays when he does not get an intention from faithful — does he have any obligation or is it optional (Canon 904)? Does he have to say daily Mass so as to help his bishop fulfill the bishop’s Mass intentions which he has requested and received from other countries? In my diocese we work in mission churches where we get two or three Mass intentions for a month. The other days we apply for the bishop’s intention, for which he receives money to support his diocese. In this context I base my question. — P.D., Orissa state, India

A: There are two separate questions involved here. One involves a priest’s obligation to say Mass, the other regards the rules for the distribution of stipends.

Although many Catholics are unaware of it, strictly speaking, a priest has no obligation to say Mass at all. With respect to Mass, the priest has the same obligation as every other Catholic to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

This fact does not make saying Mass a mere question of option or personal choice. Canon 904 of canon law, mentioned by our reader, actually recommends priests to celebrate daily. To wit:

«Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function.»

Therefore the Church highly favors priests to celebrate daily, because the Mass is his greatest privilege and the highest thing he can do. Even if no one else is present and there is no specific intention, the Mass glorifies God, intercedes for the living and the dead, increases the Church’s holiness and is the primary source of the priest’s spiritual growth.

Some priests do have a certain obligation to say Mass in virtue of their office as pastors. Some also acquire an obligation to say, or have said, a weekly Mass for the intention of the souls entrusted to their care. Once more, the obligation derives not from the priesthood itself but from the office for which they have been appointed and the obligations they freely assume on accepting this office.

The question of stipends is somewhat more complex. This is governed by canons 945-958.

«Canon 945 §1. In accord with the approved practice of the Church, any priest celebrating or concelebrating is permitted to receive an offering to apply the Mass for a specific intention.

Ǥ2. It is recommended earnestly to priests that they celebrate Mass for the intention of the Christian faithful, especially the needy, even if they have not received an offering.

«Canon 946. The Christian faithful who give an offering to apply the Mass for their intention contribute to the good of the Church and by that offering share its concern to support its ministers and works.

«Canon 947. Any appearance of trafficking or trading is to be excluded entirely from the offering for Masses.»

In order to avoid the appearance of trafficking or trading, there are rules governing such aspects as the obligation of celebrating even if an offering has been lost and limiting the number of intentions per day.

With respect to how to act when more intentions than can be celebrated in a year are received in a parish or shrine, the following laws are observed:

«Canon 954. If in certain churches or oratories more Masses are asked to be celebrated than can be celebrated there, it is permitted for them to be celebrated elsewhere unless the donors have expressly indicated a contrary intention.

«Canon 955 §1. A person who intends to entrust to others the celebration of Masses to be applied is to entrust their celebration as soon as possible to priests acceptable to him, provided that he is certain that they are above suspicion.

«He must transfer the entire offering received unless it is certain that the excess over the sum fixed in the diocese was given for him personally. He is also obliged to see to the celebration of the Masses until he learns that the obligation has been accepted and the offering received ….

«Canon 957. The duty and right of exercising vigilance that Mass obligations are fulfilled belong to the local ordinary in churches of secular clergy and to the superiors in churches of religious institutes or societies of apostolic life.»

In the case mentioned by our correspondent in India, it would appear that excess Mass intentions requested outside of the country are transferred to the diocese to be celebrated in a mission diocese.

This is a fairly common practice, and those who do so make these transfers with the specific intention of helping to support the Church’s missionary efforts. They are aware that differences in exchange rates make relatively small European and American donations go a long way in other countries.

According to Canon 945.1, the stipend attached to a priest’s daily Mass intention is for the diocesan priest’s personal use. In some places all offerings are received by the diocese, parish or religious community in lieu of a salary or other retribution equal or higher than the totality of Mass offerings. Authoritative canonists consider this a legitimate practice provided that it is voluntary.

In most Western countries the established stipend for Masses is such that it would never amount to more than a small fraction of a priest’s sustenance.

In the case at hand, however, even a $10 stipend (the stipulated amount in many U.S. dioceses) could far exceed average daily income in a poor area and give the wrong impression. Likewise, those transferring Mass intentions usually intend to aid the missionary work in general and not the priest’s personal income.

In this context it is probably legitimate for the bishop to retain for diocesan projects a part of stipends received from other countries, especially if he has actively sought this form of help. However, in virtue of Canon 945.1, it would be proper for him to transfer to the priest at least the amount corresponding to the established local stipend unless, as mentioned above, a voluntarily alternative is already established.

It would also be feasible for the bishop to transfer the whole stipend to the parish and determine how much the priest retains for personal use while transferring the rest for parish projects.

This is, of course, merely a technical consideration. In truth it must be recognized that most priests working in missionary diocese show little concern for their personal comfort and a great deal for the spiritual and human welfare of their flocks.

Finally, with respect to the first part of the question: A priest would not be obliged to say Mass just to fulfill the intentions requested by the bishop. If the priest does request an intention, however, he acquires an obligation of justice to celebrate Mass for that intention.

In doing so, not only does he glorify God by celebrating Mass, but also helps the missionary effort of the whole diocese to make progress.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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