By Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.
When we look through our weekly parish bulletins, we come across the Mass schedule along with a listing of the various Mass intentions. We might also hear those Mass intentions mentioned at the beginning of the Mass or at the Prayer of the Faithful. What is the meaning of Mass intentions? Why make an offering to have someone remembered or mentioned in the prayers of those attending that Mass?
The Offerings made at the Mass
The idea of making an offering during the Mass goes back to the New Testament. St. Paul, for example, speaks about the offerings that he hoped people would make to help the poor in the city of Jerusalem. He recommends that, instead of making one big offering when he arrived, they make smaller offerings each Sunday so that the impact of their giving would not be so burdensome. Furthermore, we know that people would bring offerings of food and other necessities each Sunday for the upkeep of the leaders of the community (who because they were serving the community, could not always provide for their own needs) and for the poor. These offerings tended to be material offerings rather than offerings of money.
It was only centuries later that people began to make regular monetary offerings each Sunday at Mass. This was due to the changing economies of the countries in which the people lived. Instead of trading and bartering, the people now had coins with which they could buy the necessities of life.
This offering was an act of charity, a form of a prayer in which they expressed their love of God and neighbor. The source of that love was the love shown by Jesus to all of us on the cross. He loved us so much that he died for us, and we want to share that same love with those who most needed it.
Slowly, the faithful came to consider their act of love, their offerings made at Mass, as something that could be offered up for the intention of someone who needed our prayers. There were actually two levels of love in this. There was the love which Jesus showed by dying on the cross for us and there was also the love that the person making the offering was expressing by participating in the Mass (by being there and making the offering).
At Mass, Jesus fills the hunger of our hearts. It is as if our hearts are like vessels that are filled to overflowing with the love of God. Every time we participate in the Mass, more love is poured into that vessel. But at the same time, we, being broken and fragile creatures, can only take in so much of that love at a time. As we convert our hearts to the Lord, the vessel gets larger and we are more able to live in God’s love.
When we offer a Mass for someone (living or dead), we are asking Jesus and the community to pray for that person. We are asking them to pour more love into that person’s heart. The ability of the person to receive love always depends on that person’s openness to the love of God, and that is why we do not pray for them once and for all. We continue to pray for that person so that he or she might accept more of God’s love.
The money (stipend) that we give as an offering for the Mass is a physical expression of our prayer. It symbolizes our lifting that person up to the Lord. When we make an offering for the Mass, it is always good to try to be present for the Mass when it is celebrated, but that is not always possible (especially if we make an offering that will be sent to the missions). In that case, we entrust our beloved to the prayers of those participating in the Mass and we pray at a distance (much as we do when we light a candle for someone’s intention).
Church canon law speaks beautifully of Mass offerings: “The Christian faithful who make an offering so that the Mass may be applied for their intention contribute to the good of the Church and by their offering take part in the concern of the Church for the support of its ministers and works.” (CIC # 946)
The money given for the Mass stipend is most often used for the upkeep of the priest celebrating the Mass. While in the Western world, the intention is a small assistance, in the mission lands, the Mass stipends can constitute a large share in the physical needs of the missionaries. The amount given for the Mass intention depends upon local custom. Normally, the parish will give an indication of what the customary offering is in a given diocese. However, if one cannot afford that amount, almost all parishes will take whatever one can give. It is very important to remember that one is not buying a Mass. The stipend is a love offering that symbolizes one’s love for the person for whom the Mass is offered. Furthermore, this doesn’t mean that we can’t pray for others at that Mass. The love of God is so great that it can extend to everyone who needs it.
For the Dead and for the Living
How does offering a Mass change the reality for the person for whom we offer it?
If I am offering the Mass for someone who is alive (for a birthday, an anniversary, a special need), then the Mass is an expression of my love joined to God’s love (as expressed in the sacrifice of the cross) and that love visits the person for whom I am praying. Remember that love always changes reality!
If the person is deceased, my offering of the Mass is a way of loving that person even beyond the grave. When we reach the gates of Paradise, God will want us to come into heaven to be with him forever. The one difficulty is that throughout our lives, by our sinfulness, we have wounded ourselves and deepened our selfishness and brokenness. Our sins were forgiven on the cross, something we celebrate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but the brokenness still needs to be healed. Some is healed through our life of conversion before our death, but whatever else needs to be healed before we can fully embrace the love of God for all eternity needs to be healed at our judgment (we call this purification Purgatory). The love I express by offering a Mass for a deceased person helps heal whatever has not yet been healed. We are in effect, cheer-leading that person into heaven, urging that person on to finish the race.
The Good Thief
The bottom line is that when we offer a Mass for someone we love, we are repeating the words of the Good Thief, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” We are saying that entreaty for the one we love so that Jesus might respond to him or her, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise!” †
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