Why do we pay for Masses for the dead?

Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

by Fr. Hugh Vincent Dyer, OP

Dear Father:

I paid $20 for two Masses to be said for the repose of the souls of my husband and my daughter. Am I buying the Masses? Would it be just as efficacious if I offered the two Masses without paying for them? — Mary

Dear Mary:

Thank you for your question. First, money is part of the pain of living in a fallen world. The grace of Christ brings freedom and is free. The sacraments are not made efficacious by some monetary exchange. Sacraments are free because they are gifts, made effective by the power of the Holy Spirit and by God loving his Church.

Let us consider the “mysteries of November:” Here in the United States, most people associate November with the celebration of Thanksgiving Day — turkeys, stuffing, favorite pies (à la mode), all shared with loved ones.

For those who live liturgical time, life is characterized by thanksgiving as a virtue united to the thanksgiving of Jesus Christ, principally in the offering of his life in the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Jesus is thankful for his mission of revealing the Father’s love. He reveals the Father’s love by adopting us and making us his Mystical Body.

Oct. 31 is Allhallows Eve. Hallow is an old word. We hallow God’s name in the Our Father. Some speak of hallowed grounds (for example, those of a consecrated cemetery). Hallowed means holy or consecrated, set aside for the purposes of God, to be fulfilled by God. Allhallows Day, therefore, is All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. What follows on Nov. 2 is All Souls’ Day.

The purifying of souls

All saints are those holy ones in heaven. All souls are those in the final process of sanctification. November is the month of the holy souls. In northerly places, where leaves turn to various colors of flame, one might be reminded of the purifying fire of Divine Love and to pray for the holy souls.

The Church calls the final process of being sanctified purgatory. It’s preparation to enter before the very face of God. When passing through this life, we get banged up, and there is evil in a fallen world that clings to us. Praise be to God, as his love is stronger, and he gently carries us home and washes us along the way. We receive the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and while we may be free from mortal sin when we die, there may still cling to us the remnants of attitudes and attachments that cannot have a home in heaven, and so we need purification.

We pray for those undergoing purification.

Our vocation as the Church is to love and to celebrate the triumph of the Lord Jesus. We never lose hope in the mercy of our Divine Master. His reach is longer, and so we pray for those who are beyond death, and we pray not only for admission to heaven, but that their time of purification be short.

Praying for sanctification of the deceased extends back to our Jewish roots. In 2 Maccabees we hear the hero Judas Maccabeus calling for sacrifices to be offered for the expiation of the sins of fallen soldiers:

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:46, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

Offering Masses for the dead belongs to the corporal work of mercy we call “burying the dead.”

Notice the society of the Mystical Body of Christ. Here we are the Church on earthly pilgrimage; the souls in purgatory are the Church in final suffering, a good kind of hurt; and the Church in heaven prays that we on earth will make it even as we ask the saints to pray for us.

We pray for those undergoing purification, and they, too, pray for us. Take time to wonder: If I love even my deceased loved ones and unknowns whom I cannot see, might I also begin to love better those whom I still see? Our ecclesial way of loving doesn’t allow for “out of sight, out of mind.” Even the feasts of various patron saints focus our prayers on particular forms of human suffering. We are constantly reminded. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist reminds us to love the whole Church.

In the Church, interceding still, are saints who cared greatly for the souls in purgatory. St. Monica asked her son St. Augustine to “remember her at the altar” after death. Other saints of purgatory are St. Catherine of Genoa, whose writings on purgatory are beautiful; St. Nicholas of Tolentino, St. Juan Macias, Bl. Mary of Providence, St. John XXIII, and many others.

The silent Marian apparition in Knock, Ireland, occurred shortly after the pastor had offered 100 Masses for the souls in purgatory. Concern for these souls was part of the pastoral program of the parish. It took seriously that for the lives of the faithful, in death, life is changed but not ended. Happily, the Church is now seeing signs of renewed care for the faithful departed and devotion directed toward the holy souls.

Offering a mass

When I give, for example, $10 for a Mass to be offered for a loved one, deceased or living, that money is a sign of my offering in love as a money-stuffed “Christmas envelope” might be under the tree. It has practical effects, as well. In ages past the bread and wine used in the Eucharistic sacrifice was paid for or brought by the people. The priest is owed a just wage, and other expenses of lighting and so forth are provided for by an offering. But, if a poor person wanted a Mass offered, a priest may never refuse or else the priest commits a sin.

In other situations, where money isn’t easily accessible, I might signal my offering through an act of kindness to someone in need or of labor offered to the parish. The money or labor offered signifies love. All these offerings are united to the offering of Christ in the Mass as our love is joined to his and made powerful because it is offered in him.

St. Paul VI expressed our practice of making an offering for Mass as “the faithful, desiring in a religious and ecclesial spirit to participate more intimately in the Eucharistic sacrifice, add to it a form of sacrifice of their own by which they contribute in a particular way to the needs of the Church and especially to the sustenance of her ministers” (Firma in Traditione, In the Tradition of the Church).

The intention and the offering are acts of love directed to the Mystical Body, our communion of love.


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