Newsletter of the District of Asia

 April - May 1998

Mass Stipends

by Fr. Daniel Couture


The early Christians made offerings of bread and wine for the Holy Sacrifice, and other offerings for the use of the sacred ministers and the poor. The former were given at the Offertory of the Mass. These gifts were distinct, both in origin and signification, from special offerings made to the celebrant for a pious intention or the application of Mass to that intention. Offerings were made by those only who had the right to do so, and consequently the excommunicate, catechumens and penitents, made no common offering, as they were excluded from direct participation in the Sacrifice. Formal alms for Masses are traced to the seventh century, possibly to the fourth. Thus, the Venerable Bede speaks of money as an alms for Masses. (Eccles. Hist. IV, 22) By the twelfth century the practice had become general, but it was open to abuse, as witness Pope Alexander II condemning priests who celebrated several Masses on the one day for the sake of profit, and the Council of York (ann. 1193, c. 3) forbidding the practice altogether.

Enemies of the Church - Wycliff, Calvin, the jansenists, and many today?implicitly condemn such almsgiving as simony. The Church, however, accepted and positively approved of the practice on the very clear grounds that by Natural law the faithful are bound to support their pastors, and by divine positive law the pastor has a right to maintenance: "Even so, the Lord directed those who proclaim the Gospel to live by the Gospel" (I Cor. 9, 14). Pope Pius VI, therefore, condemned the contention that alms for Masses were a disgraceful abuse as false, temerarious, injurious to ecclesiastical and pastoral rights, and offensive to the Church and her ministers.

Acceptance of Mass Stipends

The Church, then, in her canons (c. 824, CIC 1917) asserts that it is in accordance with approved custom and the ordinance of the Church that a priest, who celebrates and applies a Mass, should accept for it an alms or an offering (stipend). He offers the Sacrifice gratuitously; he receives, on the ground of strict justice, an alms for his entire or partial sustenance, and this is not merely equitable, but it is necessary, for if wine, candles, a server, vestments, altar-furniture are necessary for the celebration of Mass, much more necessary is the priest himself, duly maintained and disposed for his office. No priest and no Catholic make the mistake of thinking that a price is ever given for a Mass; the error, rather the gross imputation, is a fabrication of the heretical mind.

Equivalence of Masses and Stipends

The number of Masses celebrated and applied in virtue of stipends accepted must be exactly equivalent to the number of stipends received, even if they are small. When a priest has accepted a Mass stipend with the obligation of saying Mass, he must fulfil the contract, even though the stipend has been lost or stolen, or mislaid, culpably or not, for he undertook the obligation, the stipend became his own, and if lost he must be the loser. If, however, such a priest did not actually receive the stipend, because, for example, it was lost in transit by post, or stolen before it reached him, he is under no obligation in justice. Where a sum of money has been given and accepted for Masses, but the number of Masses has not been indicated by the donor, that number must be determined by the stipend customary in the place where the donor is staying unless the priest can legitimately presume the donor's intention to have been otherwise (c. 830, CIC 1917). Nevertheless, a priest may reasonably presume that a donor of stipends wishes to benefit a poor mission or to make a personal gift to the priest. If the presumption is valid, as it may easily be, the celebrant must determine in his own conscience the extent of his obligations. For example, a priest in India receiving US$50 with a note to offer "some" Masses would be right in offering 5 Masses (US rate average stipend $10) rather than 65 masses (Indian rate, average stipend Rupees 30 $0.75)

Diocesan Standard

It is the right of the local ordinary (local bishop) to settle the monetary measure of stipends by decree in the diocesan synod, if possible. Where, however, the ordinary has issued no decree, the custom of the diocese must be observed. Nevertheless, it is permissible to accept a larger stipend if spontaneously offered, and a smaller stipend, unless the local ordinary has forbidden a smaller one to be taken.

Circumstances Governing the Celebration of Stipend Masses

In general, the donor of a stipend is to be presumed to request only the application of Mass, but if some particular circumstances in its celebration are expressly asked for, those circumstances must be fulfilled if the obligation is undertaken by accepting the stipend. These circumstances may have reference to time, place, kind of Mass, personal celebration, and they are a substantial element in the contract.

1. If a precise time for the celebration of a Mass has been assigned, that circumstance must be fulfilled, but if the time has passed, the priest may interpret the reasonable wishes of the donor.

2. If no particular time has been assigned the canons prescribe the following rules: 1 A

(a) If the Mass is to be offered for some pressing intention, it must be celebrated as soon as possible.

(b) In other cases, Masses are to be celebrated within a short time relatively to their greater or lesser number for the same intention.

(c) When the door has left the time of celebration to the priest, the latter may celebrate the Masses at his own convenience, but he may not undertake to say more Masses than it is possible to say within one year (c. 835). The latter prescription does not bind a priest if he accepts the obligation on the condition of being allowed to pass on some of the Masses to other priests, and this condition may perhaps be presumed unless the contrary is expressed. The year is to be computed from the date when the stipends were accepted.

3. Stipends for Novena of Masses (9 Masses in a row) and for the Gregorian Masses (30 Masses in a row) are usually larger as they bind the priest for the corresponding number of days.

Practical Conclusions

1. Mass stipends are the priest's personal money. They do not go to the church fund. Not this: "Father, here is a donation to the church. Please say a mass for me." (too vague) But this: "Father, this is a donation to the church, and this is for a mass for me." (clear distinction)

2. In our Asian priories, since the Mass stipend is the only "income" or "pocket money" the priest receives (a regular salary not being possible), and since the amount of the stipend is left to the donor's discretion, donors are reminded that their stipend is also a sign of appreciation for their priests in this time of shortage of priests.

3. As it has been said above (see "Origin"), the pastors have a right to their maintenance ("those who proclaim the Gospel ... live by the Gospel"). Therefore a priest is under no obligation to offer a Mass when no stipend has been given to him, unless he personally decided otherwise. (This is a frequent case, when people ask for a Mass by telephone and never send the corresponding stipend).

4. Faithful are urged to present their Mass stipends in a clear and proper manner, i.e. in an envelope, with the intentions clearly indicated and with the stipend.

5. By law (c. 835, CIC 1917), the priest cannot accept more than a year's Mass stipends unless he can pass some to other priests. As there are so few priests celebrating the traditional Mass nowadays, the faithful are asked to be moderate in the number of requests for Masses. The priest is entitled to send back the stipends when he is overloaded with Mass intentions or when the requests are unreasonable.

6. For the same reason, the faithful must understand that it is not always possible to offer masses on specific days, especially for minor intentions (such as birthdays). Note. The main reference for this article is "Moral and Pastoral Theology" by H. Davis, S. J. Vol III, pp. 174 - 194.

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