First, thank you so much to all of the people who put so much work into making our Holy Week liturgies so beautiful: the decorators, the musicians, the lectors, the servers, those who cleaned, etc.! I know there were hours and hours and hours of preparation. Everything truly was quite beautiful. It is so right that we worship the Lord with such beauty!
Second, I want to offer a little more teaching on Mass intentions. I'll start with a question: Should I have accepted the Mass intention we received for Rush Limbaugh soon after his death? (May his soul rest in God's peace!) I got a couple emails saying that intention really upset some people; and that I should not have accepted that intention, because Rush Limbaugh's name stirs up bad feelings in many people. The situation raises some questions: What is an intention for? Can a priest refuse it? How does it get fulfilled? Does it oblige the priest, or the congregation, or both? Is the person asking for the intention “buying” the prayers of the priest and congregation?
What is an intention for? An intention is for praying for somebody deceased or living. It is not something we do to “honor” the person for whom the intention is given. (Did the upset people think we were honoring Mr. Limbaugh?) When it comes to “honor” in the Mass, that's something we do when we celebrate a saint's memorial. The saints receive our “veneration” – a special type of honor; and this in turn renders glory to God.
Can a priest refuse an intention? The only way a priest can refuse an intention is if he knows that he has way too many intentions already to fulfill. He can only accept as many intentions as he can fulfill in a year's time. Still, in that case, the priest should accept the intention, letting the faithful donor know that he will send it to a religious order with priests who will be able to fulfill it. Otherwise, a priest is not allowed to refuse a legitimate intention. I'm sure that the intention for Mr. Limbaugh was given in good faith and sincerity. I have no reason to believe otherwise. I don't believe it was somehow politically motivated.
How is an intention fulfilled? What makes for a valid fulfillment? The priest has to commit to the specific intention before the Mass is celebrated. That's it! Then, of course, the priest has to actually celebrate that Mass validly. The priest holds that intention in his heart. At the memorial for the dead during the Eucharistic Prayer, I always remember the intentions given for that Mass. In the First Eucharistic prayer, there is a moment before the consecration when the priest celebrant stops and remembers any living person who is part of the intention; and after the consecration there is a moment when the priest celebrant stops to remember any dead person who is part of the Mass intention. So, the priest is obliged to commit to this intention for the Mass.
The congregation, however, is not obliged to keep the Mass intention in mind. It's only the priest, standing in the person of Jesus Christ, celebrating Holy Mass, who fulfills the Mass intention. It's still a fine thing if people in the congregation decide to keep that intention in mind, but whether they do or not does not affect the valid fulfillment of the Mass intention. I'm thinking that perhaps the people who got upset about an intention for Mr. Limbaugh felt they were being forced to pray for him; yet they did not like him. Now, I think Christian charity requires prayer even for people we do not like; but in a sense you could say the upset people technically were actually “off the hook” when it comes to having to support that Mass intention. That Mass intention did not oblige them to pray for Mr. Limbaugh. It is not required that anybody in the congregation intend the Mass intention of the priest, in order for it to be fulfilled validly. Only the priest has to hold that intention in mind. Perhaps people at times in their life are not in a place spiritually where they can yet pray for a particular person who has upset them; and there is healing and forgiveness that has to happen for them to get to such a place.
Is the person who asks for an intention “buying” the prayers of the priest and congregation? Is this a financial transaction, where the person offering the intention is paying for the service of prayer for a deceased loved one? No, there is no purchase involved. We should always avoid language of “buying” or “purchasing”. Although there is an amount (set by local bishops) recommended for a Mass stipend, there really is no donation even required to have a Mass said for somebody. On the other hand, there are occasions when a person will give a larger sum, and yet still ask for only one Mass. It's up to the person asking for the intention. The Mass offering is a way for the faithful to contribute to the good of the Church, says Canon (Church) Law. And there are explicit laws of the Church that prohibit any type of “trafficking” (i.e., buying and selling) of sacraments. The person offering a donation for an intention is not “buying” the prayers of the congregation at that Mass, or the prayer of the priest.
In the Roman Missal the Priest uses for Mass, there is a "formula of intent” to help the priest set his intention for each Mass. Immediately after I arrived at the parish, we framed a copy of this formula and hung it in the sacristy for my use before each Mass. It is beautiful. Here is the formula:
My intention is to celebrate Mass and to consecrate the Body and Blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Rite of the Holy Roman Church,
to the praise of Almighty God and all the Church triumphant,
for my good and that of all the Church militant,
for all who have commended themselves to my prayers
in general and in particular, [Here is where the priest inserts specific Mass intentions]
and for the welfare of the Holy Roman Church. Amen.
May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant us joy with peace,
amendment of life, room for true repentance,
the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit and perseverance in good works. Amen.
From the formula above, you can see the dynamic of the priest's intention at each Mass:
1) He has to intend what the Church expects of him, i.e., to consecrate the Body and Blood of Jesus according to the Rite of the Church.
2) The priest's celebration of the Mass gives God glory, as well as the Church triumphant (people in heaven).
3) The priest's celebration of the Mass helps the Church militant (the faithful on earth).
4) The priest's intention includes general groups who have somehow asked for prayers
5) The priest's intention includes the particular/specific intention offered for that Mass
I hope this explanation can help us understand and appreciate more fully the richness of the priest's intention at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
Have a blessed Easter Season!
In cordibus Iesu, Mariae et Josephus,