Why should I have a Mass offered for the dead or for someone else?
By Fr. Allain Caparas
When I was teaching high school a parent of one of my students passed away after a tragic and long illness. Many of my students struggled with how to express their grief or condolences appropriately. I suggested to a few of my students that having a Mass offered for the dead is always a beautiful and appropriate way to express one's solidarity with the grieving. Most, if not all, looked at me as if I had something growing out of my head. It occurred to me that many really did not understand the value of offering a Mass for the dead. And I would guess that there are many people out there - while they recognize the Mass as something important - do not fully understand why offering a Mass for someone, especially the dead, is so important, not only for those who grieve, but for the person who died.
First of all, we must never forget the infinite graces that flow from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - graces which are directed for the salvation of all humanity. After all, the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ Himself. It is Christ Himself through the ministerial priesthood, who makes the benefits of His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension present to us in the here and now. By our full and active participation in the Mass, we offer our own sacrifices and our very lives in union with Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, something mystical and something extraordinary happens to us at every Mass!
But something extraordinary happens too to the entire Church here on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical "Mirae caritatis" (1902) emphasized that there is a connection between the deceased and the living members of the Church (the Communion of Saints), and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He wrote:
"Faith teaches that although the [Mass] can be offered to God alone, it can nevertheless be celebrated in honor of the saints now reigning in Heaven with God, who has crowned them, to obtain their intercession for us, and also, according to apostolic tradition, to wash away the stains of those who died in the Lord but without yet being wholly purified."
Hence the Mass is the means through which we, the church here on earth (the Church Militant), together with those in heaven (the Church Triumphant), offer our intercessions or prayers on behalf of the dead (the Church Suffering). Catholic teaching affirms that our prayers on behalf of the dead, particularly the offering of the Mass, actually are beneficial for the souls of the dead. As Pope Leo said, through the Mass we ask God to "wash away the stains [or sins] of those who died in the Lord." The Mass is also, as the Holy Father pointed out, a means for us to seek God's graces on our behalf and on behalf of others who are in need of God's graces (i.e. the sick and the suffering).
This tradition of offering Masses for others, particularly the dead, originates at the time of the apostles and in the history of the early Christian Church. We find evidence of this practice in inscriptions found on tombs in the Roman catacombs of the second century. For example, the epitaph on the tomb of Abercius (c.a. 180), Bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia, asks for prayers for the repose of his soul. St. Hippolytus of Rome (c.a. 235) (to whom we attribute the second Eucharistic Prayer) mentions explicitly the offering of prayers for the dead during the Mass. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.a. 386), in his catechetical talks, explained how the living and dead are remembered at Mass, and how the Mass is a benefit to sinners, living and dead. St. Ambrose (c.a. 397) preached, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord." St. Augustine (c.a. 430) in his Confessions recorded the dying wishes of his mother, St. Monica who asked: "One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be." And lastly, Holy Scriptures in the Second Book of Maccabees 12:43-46 records that praying for the dead is a "holy and pious thought" and that we do so, so that "they might be freed from sin."
Therefore, when a priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he has three intentions: first, he offers the Mass reverently and validly according to the liturgical norms of the Church. Second, he offers the Mass in union with the whole Church and for the good of the whole Church - both living and the dead in purgatory. And third, he offers the Mass for a particular intention, such as the repose of the soul of someone who has died.
The Catholic Church teaches that the effects of the Mass bring certain benefits or fruits. Generally the fruits of the Mass are bestowed upon the entire Church - to the living faithful and those souls in purgatory. That is why in the Eucharistic Prayer you might hear a special mention remembering both the living and "those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith." But the special ministerial fruits of the Mass are applied to the particular intention of the Mass, i.e. "for whom the Mass is offered." That is the reason why the priest or commentator might mention the name of the person "for whom the Mass is offered" or you might see a person's name recorded in the bulletin for a particular Mass. Most of the time, it's for a deceased person, but it could also be for a person living who might have a special intention (anniversary, thanksgiving, illness, etc.).
Customarily, a stipend is usually given to the priest for offering the Mass. Canon law stipulates that the stipend is to be the equivalent of a minimum of ten dollars. The stipend serves both as the "daily wage" for the priest, but also is a "symbol" of one's sacrifice of self - a giving of something of ourselves in Christ's Holy Sacrifice at Mass. What is a sacrifice without an offering? What is a sacrifice if it does require us to give something of ourselves, even if it is only symbolic? This is why when one is making a request for a Mass, a stipend of ten dollars is requested - it's not a payment for the Mass (I've often heard people say "I want to buy a Mass" - as if God's graces can be bought!), but rather it serves as symbol of one's offering or sacrifice. And out of justice for the priest, it also serves as his "daily wage." Notice that I said a "minimum of ten dollars" - that means that one is certainly free to make an offering of more than ten dollars if one wishes to do so!
And so, this custom of "offering" the Mass has both a historic and scriptural origin, but is also of the greatest importance for the Church - for the salvation of the living and the dead. Therefore, I will offer the same suggestion to you that I offered my students years ago --when someone dies, even a person who is not Catholic, have a Mass offered for the repose of his or her soul. Now that you posses an understanding of the significance of offering the Mass for the dead, you will agree I'm sure, that the Mass, as well as our own personal prayers for the dead, is more beneficial and comforting than any other sympathy card or bouquet of flowers. Remember too, you can also request to have a Mass offered for your particular intention or for someone else. On a personal note, I often tell family, relatives, and parishioners that when I die: "Please, do not bring me flowers! I will have no use for them after I'm dead. Pray for me and have Masses offered for me instead!"