The source of the life of the Christian is prayer. Prayer connects us to our God, allows us to listen to his voice, and opens our hearts to the needs of our neighbour. Although we all may pray slightly different and our different christian traditions worship a bit different, the necessity of prayer is at least something we can agree on.
In the catholic tradition, however, there is a type of prayer that is unique to us: praying for the dead, and more specifically, the Mass intention. Although it is a millennia old tradition, there is still much confusion over how this “works.” And so I thought I would take a few moments to talk about the practical and spiritual aspects of Mass intentions.
- Why do we pray for the dead? Aren’t they with God? Why would they need our prayers then?
It seems to stand to reason that, when one passes on, there are two eternal destinations: heaven or hell. If they are in hell, they are beyond prayer, and if they are in heaven, they are so totally at peace that they don’t need prayer. So, why?
a. Since no human can judge the eternal destination of another, there is a long standing practice of commending the soul of the deceased to the mercy of God. If we would pray for blessings upon people who are alive and in need of our prayers, how much more so should we pray for those on their journey to eternal life! This is done in many ways: prayers in the presence of the dying, the Sacrament of the sick, viaticum, the funeral Mass, graveside prayers, and finally, the subject of this post, Mass intentions. Even St. Paul prays thus: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day”(II Timothy 1:18).
b. If we are not in a state of total grace, we pass through a period of purification before entering before the face of our Father. This is the doctrine of purgatory. Most of us have not so totally rejected the love of God that we have merited for ourselves eternity in hell, and most of us neither will pass away in such a state of grace and peace that we will be entirely ready to immediately stand before the radiant face of God (as I write this I pray actually that we will be able to. God grant us a peaceful death!) Many of us therefore, after death, will enter into purgatory on our journey towards heaven. This is a time of cleansing, of the final letting go of our earthly sinfulness, the time when our eyes will truly be opened and we will finally see our lives as Christ can. Just as when we were alive on earth we needed helped and prayers to overcome our sinfulness, so to after death do we need the prayerful support of our brothers and sisters in Christ to enter into our final rest. Though the word purgatory is not found in scripture, there are many instances of the necessity of praying for the dead, and it wouldn’t be insisted on if it wasn’t important! St. Paul refers to God “who is to judge the living and the dead” (II Timothy 4:1). If God continues to judge us, even after our death, it is certain that we need prayers!
2. Ok but what kind of prayers?
a. All prayers work, and are good. Just pray. Always. For everything and everyone. But be specific. Pray for God’s will and mercy, and then pray that your heart may be open to hear his voice, his answer, and then trust. For a further discussion on prayer, many great spiritual books have been written, and sorry that I do not have the time to discuss it here.
b. The Mass is the greatest catholic prayer because:
- It is ancient and was given to us by Christ (c.f. the Last supper)
- In it we receive Christ himself, our daily bread (John 6:35)
- It is the greatest form of communal prayer, bringing millions together each day or week. No matter where in the world you attend Mass, we all listen and reflect on the same scripture each day.
3. So how does the Mass work?
a. Every time we go to Mass we have the opportunity to do many things: It is a time to be with and pray with fellow Christians, to delve deeper into the mystery of Christ as revealed through the scripture of the day and the sacraments, and – most importantly for the purpose of this article – we can bring with us a prayer intention (or several) for which we offer our sacrifice of time and the sacrifice of the Mass at the altar. This can help us prepare for Mass, focus our attention and prayers, and allow us to be better able to hear God’s voice throughout the Mass.
b. Most priests celebrate or concelebrate Mass every day. Each Mass is offered then for a specific intention either from his own choosing, or given to him by the people. That particular Mass then is offered specially in the name of that intention and it is often, and most properly, announced publicly, in the bulletin and/or by the priest himself. There is immense spiritual efficacy here in much the same way as praying publicly for anyone has, except that, if we reflect back again on the beauty and power of the Mass, it is the greatest prayer intention one can offer.
4. Can I only pray for the deceased at Mass?
No. you can pray for anything. Prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for discernment, for health, blessings, etc. Just please forget not our dearly departed.
5. Can’t I just pray “for everything” and hope that covers it all?
a. Sure. Prayer, all prayer, is good. Again, just pray. But when we pray, it is often good to focus our prayer and pray for specific people and intentions. It shows to God and others that we care specifically and are not just “covering our bases” so to speak.
b. Same with Mass intentions. It is ok to have a Mass offered from time to time “for all the deceased members of the ____ family.” This is beautiful. But again, specific intentions show specific concern and focus our prayer. Is someone on your heart? Have a Mass prayed for them.
6. I asked to have a Mass for ___ but I can’t make it. What do I do?
a. It is nice that when you have requested a Mass, that you are able to be physically in attendance for when it is offered, but it is not necessary. If you can’t make it, it is easier to join yourself to the intention spiritually, than worry about rescheduling the Mass or your life.
b. Some parishes have so many Mass intentions that yours goes on a list. If you are looking for a specific date, eg. the anniversary of the death of a loved one, book early!
7. How come the priest gets paid for Mass when he already gets paid?
Because we’re greedy, money hungry pharisees. Sorry, this has been too long of an article not to throw in a bit of humour.
a. Mass intentions are free. What? Mass intentions are free. No priest gets paid for the sacraments. Diocesan priests receive a salary (a living wage?) and the sacraments fall under their duty of responsibility. However, most dioceses have a suggested donation (here in the Prince Albert diocese it is $10) attached to Mass intentions which yes, go directly to the priest. There is a great distinction here however; you do not buy or purchase a Mass, rather, you offer a monetary sum attached to your spiritual offering as a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for all he has blessed you with and as a physical sign of your dedication to offering this Mass. (This can open up a whole other discussion of why we donate to our church. It is a spiritual offering! It is not just so that we can pay the power bills! But that is a discussion for another time)
b. If you cannot afford the suggested donation, you can give less, or nothing, and the priest is obligated to accept. On that note, you can also give more 🙂
8. I wanted a Mass prayed during my daughters surgery but it wasn’t scheduled until two weeks later. Does it still work?
This is probably the weirdest question I get, but I suppose it makes sense. With prayer we leave the realm of this world of time and enter that of our timeless Eternal God. In other words, I will say it again, pray. Just pray. Pray always. There is no such thing as a “late” prayer. We can pray for things in the past and in the future because there is no time with God, he just hears our prayers.
9. How do I know when to stop praying for my deceased loved one? How do I know when they are in heaven?
a. Someone once told me that they were glad when so-and-so got a job so that they could “finally start praying for someone else.” This caught me quite a back at first but I am at least impressed with their dedication to intercessory prayer. We need never quit praying for a deceased loved one even if we are absolutely certain that they are at rest and peace in eternity with God. Why? Because praying for them reminds us of our love for them and of their love for us.
b. As catholics, we believe that the saints, those who have entered into the blessed rest, do not cease to care about us who still remain. Just as God cares for us and walks with us, so to do the saints, who daily see the face of God and live forever in his presence. This is why we ask the saints to pray for us to God, because they are closest to the Source of Life, the Fount of Love. When we offer a Mass then in memory of a saint, we allow them to pray to Christ for us.
Last things (pun intended. did you laugh?)
You may or may not have noticed, when you look at the bulletin and see the Mass intentions for the week that one says “For the people.” All pastors – note that not all priests are pastors – are canonically obligated to celebrate one Mass each week, preferably on Sundays, for all the people under his pastoral charge. This is a great and beautiful thing that unites us, but it means one less personal intention on the weekend. And the weekend is when most people want their Masses prayed. Sorry.
I hope you have found this useful! When considering your monthly donations (church, food bank, etc.), consider offering some Masses as well! They make great birthday and Christmas gifts ;-p
Fr. Travis Myrheim