Mass Stipends

How much is a Mass? The question usually is asked by a parishioner at the presbytery or sacristy door who wants to have Mass offered for someone who has died or for some special intention. Most priests are uncomfortable with such questions because while they do not want to offend the person, they do not want to encourage a practice that reflects a very limited understanding of the laity’s participation in the celebration of the Eucharist.
To understand how the Mass stipend developed we need to look at the liturgical practice of the eighth and ninth centuries.
With the missionary growth of the Church in western Europe more and more monks were ordained priests. Soon the monasteries were filled with monks celebrating “private” Masses. About the same time a rather pessimistic view had led people to conclude that even the faithful Christian would need to be purified in purgatory. It was also accepted, however, that the prayers of the Church, and especially the Mass, could gain a speedy release from what was popularly thought of as the “purifying fire of purgatory”. But how did the Mass help someone who was not present? Theologians attempted to answer this question with the theology of the “fruits of the Mass”.
Requesting Mass to be celebrated and making an offering to the priest or monastery was established pastoral practice. It was presumed that all those who participated in a Mass obtained some “fruit” or grace. But with the increase in private Masses, the person who made the offering was usually not present at the Mass so the “fruit” that would have gone to that person was now transferred to the intention for which the priest had accepted the offering.
The practice has not been without its critics throughout the centuries particularly when the link was lost between the offering and the participation of the donor in the Mass. It is not surprising, therefore, that the modern liturgical reforms with their emphasis on the participation of the faithful have led to a decline in the practice of Mass offerings. People now understand that they too are offering the Mass with the priest and that their intentions are as much part of that Mass as those of the priest.
The only acceptable understanding of the Mass offering is to see it as a donation freely given for the work of the Church and not as a fee for service. This is reflected in the change in terminology in the revised Code of Canon Law which now speaks of “offerings” and not “stipends”.
One way to re-educate people on the meaning of Mass offerings is to place in the Church a book for intentions to be remembered by all who gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Alongside the book a box could be provided for donations to support the work of the Church, particularly in the Third World. The offering then becomes not a fee paid to the priest but a donation to the Church.


Elizabeth Harrington