Understanding mass intentions

Part of the Catholic tradition includes “having a mass said” for a particular intention. I am very familiar with this practice because, as a priest, I’m the one “saying” the mass in question! I have become increasingly aware, though, that many Catholics are not familiar with this practice, and those that are often don’t really understand it. This article is meant to help clear up any confusion and, hopefully, help us to appreciate how the Eucharist is a gift to all of humanity.

Before we get started, though, a point regarding terminology. The proper name for the sacrament we are discussing is the Eucharist. In Roman Catholic terms, we often refer to the ceremony of the Eucharist as the “mass”. This word comes from the Latin word “missa”, which is found in the closing words of the Latin version of the ritual, where the minister declares “Ite, missa est” (Go, you are dismissed). The term “mass”, therefore, is specific to the Roman (Latin) tradition: the Byzantine tradition (such as the Greek Orthodox, or the Melkite Catholics) refer to the Eucharist as the Divine Liturgy, not the “mass”. No matter what we call in, though, the key thing to remember is that we are fundamentally referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The starting point: the Last Supper

To understand the Eucharist (and, in particular, the tradition of mass intentions) we need to go back to the beginning. The Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper. During that supper, Jesus took bread and declared that it was his body, he took wine and declared that it was his blood. He also commanded his disciples to “do this in memory” of him. Each mass is our way of remaining faithful to that commandment.

The mass is much more than a simple ceremony of remembering, however. When Jesus spoke of the bread, he declared that it was his body, “given up” for us. When he spoke of his blood, he declared it would be shed for us as the blood of a new and everlasting covenant. These are clear references to what would happen to him within the next 24 hours, i.e. his death on the cross. The Eucharist therefore cannot be understood apart from the sacrifice of Jesus on that cross.

That Jesus’ death was a sacrifice is clearly understood from the words of the Bible. The letter to the Hebrews devotes long passages to how the offering of the blood of Jesus is the definitive sacrifice that puts and end to all others, for example. Interestingly, this letter also reflects on how Jesus was/is a new kind of priest, in the order of the ancient priest Melchisedek, who lived during the time of Abraham. When Abraham met Melchisedek after winning an important battle, this “priest of God most high” offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving, using bread and wine. It is no accident, therefore, that Jesus associated these particular elements with his own death, and this association certainly brings out the sacrificial nature of his death even more clearly.

The mass is a sacrifice

Today, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are therefore celebrating a sacrifice. It is not a repeat of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, as though Jesus had to be sacrificed over and over again. It is not a substitute for that sacrifice, either. A mass, believe it or not, *is* the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, brought forward in time to the present.

How is this possible? To understand this, we need to remember that the Last Supper was not just any supper: it was a Passover meal, celebrated as part of the Jewish tradition. The Passover was itself a memorial of the events surrounding the persecution of the people in Egypt and, in particular, their deliverance by God. According to Jewish theology, however, when the Passover was celebrated it was not simply that the people turned their attention to the past, but that those events of the past were being brought forward in time to those eating the meal. One could say that, by eating the Passover, later Jews were in effect walking through the Red Sea with their ancestors in a mystical way.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist within a meal that was a memorial. He also explicitly said that the use of bread and wine would be forever done as a memorial — in this case, of the sacrifice of his body and blood. At the mass, the Holy Spirit makes the bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ. This effectively opens up a “time warp” in which the sacrifice of Jesus is mystically brought forward to be present to us. When we are present to a celebration of the Eucharist, we are not merely turning our attention to the past: we are actually bringing forward into the present the most pivotal moment of human history.

The power of the sacrifice

The New Testament is very clear that the death of Jesus on the cross was not a defeat but a moment of power. The Gospel of John mentions how, at his death, he “gave up his spirit”: this refers to his soul leaving his body, of course, but has also traditionally been seen as the giving of the Holy Spirit to the world. In other words, the events of Pentecost, when the Church was born, were prepared by this death on the cross. Other narratives of Jesus’ passion describe an earthquake, a darkening of the sky, and tearing of the veil of the Temple, and even the rising of some of the dead. Some Biblical scholars believe that these events did not actually happen, but are described as part of a Biblical literary form. Even if that were true, however, it does not change the fact that the authors of those passages definitely saw the death of Jesus on the cross as a pivotal moment of sacrifice where divine power was at work.

Who was meant to benefit from this sacrifice? All of us. “Jesus died for us” as the saying goes. That being said, there is a small problem with a claim like this: we weren’t there when the sacrifice was offered. We didn’t even exist. How can the sacrifice therefore have been meant for us? How is the power of that sacrifice made real for us in (now) the 21st century? The answer is found in the concept of “memorial” described above. Jesus did not just die on the cross; he also gave us a mechanism (the Eucharist) by means of which that sacrifice could be sacramentally brought forward in time. Thanks to this, the fruits of that sacrifice — that divine power, in other words — becomes immediately relevant for those of us (like you and me) who have come upon the scene centuries later.

The heart of the mass: the Eucharistic prayer

We see all this movement of grace in the Eucharistic prayer, which is really the heart of every mass. There are many forms of Eucharistic prayer, but for the purpose of example we can use the second prayer found in the Roman usage. It begins with these words:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness. Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Note the invocation of the Holy Spirit, whose presence is absolutely necessary to open up the “time warp” and make the mass more than just a symbolic gesture.

At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion, he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you.

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice and, once more giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.

These are the critical “words of institution” that recall the Last Supper itself. Through them the bread and wine, upon which the Holy Spirit has already been invoked, are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The words themselves make clear the association of the Body and Blood with the cross, as well as the fact that this sacrifice is being associated with a memorial (in the Jewish sense of the term).

Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of Life and the Chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.

After the words of institution comes a simple prayer of offering. Any time when an animal was sacrificed in a religious ritual, there was a prayer said to offer the sacrifice to God. When Jesus’ was upon the cross, he took care of this himself (this is why we say Jesus was “both priest and victim” in that situation). However, while in the mass his body and blood are just as present, his actual voice is not heard making the offering as well. The prayer of offering, therefore, is made by the priest acting in the person of Christ. Indeed, the whole Eucharistic prayer is offered in a priestly way, which is why almost all of it is reserved to the priest.

What is of particular interest for our subject in this article is what comes next, however. Recall that the sacrifice of Christ unleashed divine power into the world. The mass brings this sacrifice forward into the world, and the next prayers (called “intercessions”) are meant to apply the fruits of that sacrifice for particular intentions.

Humbly, we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.

Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity, together with N. our Pope and N. our bishop, and all the clergy.

Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection, and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face. Have mercy on us all, we pray, that with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, with the blessed Apostles, and all the Saints who have pleased you throughout the ages, we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life, and may praise and glorify you through your Son, Jesus Christ.

These are powerful prayers! We are asking for the divine power of the Eucharstic sacrifice to accomplish a number of things, such as:

  • The bringing together in unity all who share the body and blood of Christ.
  • The growth in love of the Church.
  • The bringing into heaven all those who have died in the hope of rising.
  • The “making worthy” (justification and sanctification) of God’s people.

This, in short, is what the mass does: it brings forward in time the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and it asks that the fruits of that sacrifice be applied according to a certain set of intentions.

What about specific intentions?

While each Eucharistic prayer does mention of certain intentions (not all of which are common to every Eucharistic prayer), these do tend be rather general. There is no mention, for example, of a request that the fruits of the sacrifice of Christ be applied to helping someone find a job, pass an exam, recover from surgery, or whatever. At the same time, these can be perfectly worthy requests. Where do they fit?

First of all, the Eucharistic prayers generally contain an optional addition to the intercessory prayers to recall specific individuals who have died. The above-mentioned Eucharistic prayer II, for example, allows for the priest to insert this passage:

Remember your servant N., whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection.

The first Eucharistic prayer, also called the Roman Canon, even allows for the mentioning of multiple names:

Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace. Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light and peace.

The Roman Canon is unique among the Eucharistic prayers in that is also allows for a commemoration of living members of the Church:

Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N., and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you.

The pastoral value of mentioning a specific intention in this way should not be underestimated. At the same time, the fruits of the Eucharist are not just limited to those things mentioned specifically in the Eucharistic prayer. The opening prayer of the Eucharist has traditionally been called a “collect”, because at that time the priest is said to be “collecting” all the prayer intentions of those present at that mass. This is why some collects themselves have a special focus. The collect for a funeral mass, for example, expresses a specially-articulate particular intention for the deceased person. There are “special focus collects” for all kinds of situations: for the blessing of work, for the productivity of the land, for peace (including with special use in times of war or civil disturbance), in times of natural disaster, for various needs of the Church, and so on.

There is therefore a special balance found within the structure of the mass. On the one hand, we ask God to apply the fruits of the sacrifice of Jesus to all sorts of situations according to broad categories; on the other hand, we can also include specific mentions of particular intentions close to our hearts.

Mass donations and other ticklish questions

At this point we must discuss an issue which makes many people uncomfortable: the making of an offering for the sake of a particular intention. As just mentioned, it is possible for a particular mass to have included among its intentions some sort of particular intention. The Christian faithful often request this of priests — “Father, will you please remember so-and-so at your mass today” is something we often hear. In theory there is no problem with this: to repeat an example we have already seen, the structure of the Roman Canon itself allows for the inclusion of multiple names in an explicit way.

Where this gets ticklish, however, is the fact that a small donation is often associated with the intention request. At its root, this donation is meant to help provide for the expenses related to the celebration of the mass. After all, somebody has to pay for the bread and wine used at that mass. It goes beyond this, however. After all, the mass also requires books, candles, and altar linens, the expense of which can be spread over several masses. And what about the church building the mass is being said in? Buildings are pretty darned expensive, after all. The donation for a mass is meant to help cover the very real expense of providing not just that particular mass, but the whole infrastructure related to a worthy celebration of the Eucharist. As such, asking for a donation is not unjust: after all, if you want a special intention remembered at a mass, there needs to be a mass in the first place. The donation is simply a way to help make that happen.

With this comes a special problem, however: that of expense. If the total cost of the “mass infrastructure” was simply distributed over the amount of actual masses said, the individual “cost” of a mass would be so high that the very poor would never be able to have a mass said with a particular intention. Having a mass for a particular intention could easily be turned into a badge of social status — a perversion of its inner meaning if there ever was one. To help solve this problem, church communities usually raise the money they need for their liturgical life in other ways, such as through parish dues or by means of the collection on Sunday. I should note that even this doesn’t solve the problem entirely, because it tends to mean that those who don’t regularly go to Sunday mass but who want particular services like a baptism, wedding or funeral are effectively being subsidized by those who do practice more regularly: it isn’t an entirely just situation either, but it is certainly better than having a division based on social class.

Another special problem exists, one which is even more ticklish. You see, one of the expenses related to the celebration of the mass is the expense of having a priest. Priests have to eat. They need clothing and a roof over their head. They need to be trained, and ideally they stay up to date in that training. The mass offering, therefore, is also meant to help the priest to live. As you can imagine, though, this system can easily be abused. For example, how much should a particular priest be allowed to “charge” for a mass? If more than one intention is to be included in a particular celebration, does the “rate” for each intention stay the same (and this open the door to the temptation of having LOTS of paid intentions per mass)? What of the risk that a priest will turn into a “mass robot”, saying LOTS of masses in the day just for the sake of collecting more intention donations?

Unfortunately, all these abuses have happened. Indeed, they were part of the motivation for the Protestant Reformation. While Martin Luther loved the Eucharist, he renamed it to the “Lord’s Supper” and had this to say about the “mass”:

Since such countless and unspeakable abuses have arisen everywhere through the buying and selling of Masses, it would be prudent to do without the Mass for no other reason that to curb such abuses, even if it actually possessed some value in and of itself…The Mass is and can be nothing else than a human work, even a work of evil scoundrels…(Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article II)

The Catholic Church did not do away with the mass, of course, but most assuredly has tried to address the problem in a variety of ways.

First of all, all pastors are obliged to offer one mass per week for the intentions of the parishioners. The pastor does not receive anything for it: it is his gift to this people, who now know in turn that their intentions are rolled up into this one “super-intention”. The mass for this intention is to be celebrated at the principle Sunday mass of that community, so that as many people as possible may participate in it.

Next, the bishops of an ecclesiastical province are required to set a standard suggested amount for a mass offering. This amount is typically very low, such that it is often merely a symbolic reference to the support required to be able to celebrate the mass in the first place. For example, here in Montreal and its surrounding dioceses, the standard mass intention is $5. Even if a person contributes more, however, it is also our practice that the share of the mass donation that goes to the priest is capped at this $5. A person may choose to donate $500,000 to the parish for a particular mass intention, but the priest still only gets a maximum of $5.

To prevent the abuse of the multiplication of masses, canon law normally prevents a priest from saying more than one mass in a day. Still, there can be cases where pastoral necessity requires a priest to say two or even three masses, and in these situations canon law makes it clear that the priest may only benefit from one mass per day.

As well, to prevent the abuse of the multiplication, not of masses, but of paid intentions within a single mass, canon law normally requires that there not be more than one paid intention per mass. The Eucharist, after all, is supposed to be a way to access the power of the sacrifice of Christ. By restricting masses to one paid intention, it preserves the sense of responsibility for what is required to make the mass possible, while at the same time preventing the mass from turning into a form of fundraising.

Finally, canon law certainly permits the mass to be said even if there is no paid intention involved, and in certain cases this is even morally required. For example, if a person truly cannot meet the minimum threshold for the mass donation, it would be considered an abuse for the priest to refuse to say the mass for that person’s special intention. Simply put, the truly poor should never be excluded from the fountain of grace that is the Eucharist.

Putting forward a mass intention

I am hoping that readers of this article are at this point be wondering how their own particular intentions can become associated with the Eucharist. Of course, we are invited to pray to God at all times for the things we (and others) need, and this can (and should) be done outside of the immediate context of a mass. This being said, given that the Eucharist is the moment par excellence whereby the divine power is brought into our lives, it is also perfectly normal that we would want those inner prayer intentions to be associated with the celebration of the Eucharist in a special way. Indeed, it would be strange if a person wanted God to hear his or her petitions, but who at the same time refused to present those petitions within the Eucharist: it would be a real contradiction.

How can a person, therefore, have his or her intentions specially associated with the power of Jesus’ sacrifice as found in the Eucharist?

The simplest method is the most obvious: go to mass! Carry the intention in your heart as you journey to the church. Silently offer up that intention at the collect, in the moment of silence after the priest says “let us pray”. Even if no one has physically heard that intention or even knows it exists, it has already been placed upon the altar in a spiritual way. When you receive communion, thus completing your participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice, your intention becomes open to the fullness of the power the Eucharist represents.

What if you can’t go to mass yourself, or if for some reason you are restricted from receiving communion? Happily the Church is not a community of strangers, but of brothers and sisters who are called to regularly pray for each other. Nothing stops you from asking someone to offer the intention for you, thus making your intention theirs as well (and therefore also open to the grace that is “uncorked” at communion). Any Catholic in good standing can be an intercessor in this way, and it is a beautiful way to express the reality that every Christian is called to be part of the “priestly people” of God. People often make these sorts of particular requests of the priest himself. This can be for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, assuming it is appropriate, the priest can announce these special intentions to the community, thus inviting others into this movement of prayer.

Indeed, a very simple and common way of having an intention associated with the Eucharist is to approach the actual parish itself. Most modern parishes have a system to receive the intentions of the people, and it is often not more complicated than calling up or visiting the parish office and making a request. The person making the request has the opportunity to make a donation (the reasons for which have already described), and often a small token (such as a mass card) is received as a concrete indicator that the intention has been received. Indeed, one major advantage of this approach is that a particular date can be reserved for that intention, thus allowing people to come and attend in a special way. For example, if a particular mass intention is for the repose of someone’s soul, perhaps members of the family or friends would want to attend — having a pre-set date allows for this spiritual opportunity to take place.

As a final point, I want to mention how important it is to pray every intention we carry in our heart. Asking others to carry our intentions to the Eucharist is definitely worthwhile, but we must avoid turning it into a way of “passing the buck” spiritually. If you can’t attend a mass to which a particular intention is being carried, it would be spiritually worthwhile to nevertheless take a special time of prayer so as to associate yourself with that offering, even if it is at a distance. If possible, you could request communion outside of mass to complete that offering — it does not matter for these purposes if *that* host was not consecrated at *that* mass where the intention was offered, as every consecrated host is just as much the Body of Christ as any other. Finally, I should point out that even if you aren’t able to get to mass yourself or find someone to carry that intention to mass for you, don’t forget that (as we have seen) every Eucharistic prayer mentions several “global” intentions into which your intention probably fits. Offering up our needs and petitions in a Eucharistic way is possible even outside of the context of a specific Eucharist, and indeed every time we pray we should place our needs before the Lord with a Eucharistic heart.