The History and Practice of Mass Intentions
(accompanies Fr. Poggemeyer's bulletin letter of March 28, 2021)
The offering of a Mass for a specific intention is a very common practice, but its history and purpose are usually unknown or misunderstood. To fully understand this practice, we have to go back to the beginning--the events that we recall this week--the Last Supper, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection. When, in the shadow of the cross, Jesus commanded his disciples to eat his Body and drink his Blood, he instituted a memorial. This was not just any ordinary remembrance, but one that was done within the context of the Passover: a memorial where according to Jewish theology, the past was made present in the eating of the meal. The Jews taking part in the Passover meal were essentially walking through the Red Sea with their ancestors in a mystical way. Therefore in this new memorial, time and space are transcended, and Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is made present again right in front of our eyes in an unbloody manner. This “time warp” is how we can truly say that Christ died for all of us, even those who did not yet exist: his sacrifice and the divine fruits of it are sacramentally brought forward in time. Thus, we can offer intentions to God because his Son’s sacrifice is taking place in our midst.
Now on to Mass intentions: there is evidence that the Eucharist was offered for specific and general intentions in the early Church. Tertullian (c. 200) wrote that he offered “prayers and sacrifices” for a deceased one’s spouse on the anniversary of death. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) explained that both the living and dead are remembered at Mass and the Eucharistic sacrifice benefits sinners, both those in purgatory and those still on earth. This practice of intentions has continued throughout the ages. At each Mass, there are general intentions and specific intentions which bear certain “fruit.” The fruits for human beings are: impetratory (spiritual and temporal benefits), propitiatory (forgiveness of sins), and satisfactory (remission of temporal punishment). These fruits redound to the whole Church (“general”), to those participating in the Mass (“special”), to the priest himself (“personal”), and to those for whom the priest is offering the Mass (“ministerial”).
General Intentions: Within the Eucharistic Prayer, which makes the sacrifice present by the power of the Holy Spirit and words of institution (“This is my Body… This is my Blood”), there are intercessory prayers. They always pray for the following: 1) all of the living and all of the faithful departed; 2) the bringing together in unity and growth in love for all who share in the Eucharistic Banquet; 3) the justification and sanctification of God’s holy people. These intentions are offered by the priest. The faithful who are gathered are also able to offer intentions. My article last week on the Collect explained that the priest “collects” all our prayers and intentions at the beginning of Mass. Also, by our singing of the Memorial Acclamation (“We proclaim your Death, O Lord”) and the “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, we take part in the sacrifice members of God’s faithful as “kingdom priests” - at baptism, we were joined to Christ and anointed as priest, prophet, and king.
Specific Intentions: Historically, the faithful have given a monetary gift for a specific intention. This purpose was twofold: 1) the gift was the only source of income for the priest (in some poorer countries, it still is), and, 2) the person who requested the Mass, made a sacrifice of his own. This is referenced in the Code of Canon Law: “The Christian faithful who give an offering to apply the Mass for their intention contribute to the good of the Church and by that offering share its concern to support its ministers and works” (#946). The offering of a specific intention most often is for someone who is deceased, but it can be for the living, or for a special need. The specific intention is offered by the priest. In the Roman Canon, there are two instances of the memento--Latin for “remember.” You will hear Fr. Poggemeyer pray twice (once before the consecration and once after): “Remember, Lord, your servants…” and then pause. It is at those moments when he calls to mind the specific intention(s). At the first memento, he prays for the living intentions and at the second memento he prays for the dead. Having a Mass offered for someone is an act of love because we should desire everybody’s salvation. Masses can be offered for any soul, living or deceased. It is important to note that on each holyday of obligation (Sundays and “extra” ones like Christmas, All Saints, etc.), a pastor is required to offer at least one Mass pro populo (for the people of his parish and all their intentions whether they are at Mass or not!).
Let us enter more fully into the celebration of the Eucharist offering our intentions to God!
Pastoral Associate for Worship