How Many Intentions Per Mass?

I’ve written before about the Mass “for the people” (pro populo) that pastors are bound to offer on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligations for the sake of their parish(es). But at the other Masses each week, For how many intentions may a single Mass be offered? 

First let me preface the answer by saying that in most places in the U.S., this generally does not seem to be an issue. That is, at least judging from the published lists of intentions I come across in parish bulletins during my travels. However, I’ve seen fairly remarkable abuses in other places…

The Code of Canon Law dedicates 14 canons to the issue of the offering given for Masses and the intention connected with that, but interestingly, doesn’t really address this issue of combining multiple intentions in one Mass offering in a clear manner (canon 948 touches on it). The current Code went into effect in 1983; it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the Vatican addressed the present issue specifically in a separate document, entitled Mos Iugiter.

Mos Iugiter (which means “the longstanding custom”), moreover, is only available in Italian on the Vatican web site. It’s not a terribly long document, but for some reason it has never risen to the top of the “to be translated” stack, I guess. Odd. It’s hard to hold people accountable to a document that they can’t access in their own language.

In any case, here is the answer given by that document concerning the combination of multiple intentions in one Mass:

  1. Multiple Mass intentions may be combined into a single celebration only when those who requested the intentions know about that in advance and agree to having their intentions combined;
  2. The day and time of those Masses with combined intentions are to be made known publicly, in advance;
  3. Combined/collective intentions should not be scheduled more than twice per week;
  4. The celebrant may not keep all the stipends given for the separate intentions, but only a sum not exceeding the usual amount in that diocese for a single intention (in many places now it’s $10); any excess funds remaining from the various stipends received for the intentions must be handled according to the norms established by the local bishop;
  5. Diocesan bishops have a duty to inform priests (whether diocesan or religious) about these norms and supervise their execution;
  6. Priests should instruct the faithful about the Mass offering (to avoid any sense that they are “buying” spiritual goods), the value of giving in general, and the support of the clergy and the Church.

Pope John Paul II approved these norms “in specific form”, meaning that he intended for them to be legally binding.

There are some other points the document makes, but the above are the most important and relevant to the present question.

Bottom line: combining multiple intentions (always with the permission given beforehand of those who requested them and made an offering for them) should be rare, and cannot, for the priest, become a sly way for him to augment his income.

Some additional clarity may be needed. I might request a Mass to be offered for several intentions at once. Let’s say: “for my friend John, for the healing of my beloved cat, and for world peace”. I might make that one single intention request, with one stipend given for it. Even though there are multiple parts, then, it is still considered only one intention. Offering the Mass for that intention with multiple parts requires no special permission, because it is understood to be, in fact, a single intention. It could even be combined with other intentions, assuming the priest fulfills the conditions set forth in the law, as enumerated above.

So between the Code of Canon Law and the subsequent legislation of Mos Iugiter, it is very clear how priests must handle the intentions they receive. There may be local legislation also — for example, as to how he is to handle the stipends in general or perhaps how he is to handle the excess stipends that he may not keep.

What emerges in my mind, upon reviewing these things, is that the later legislation of Mos Iugiter has a sort of “compromise quality” to it: it’s as if there were widespread abuses in some places, so these norms were written in a way that helped ease those priests off the abuse and move towards doing things the right way. That’s just speculation. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that combining Mass intentions is something we should not ordinarily encounter; it’s not really what the Church intends, though she does tolerate it in some cases. If a priest judges it necessary or highly opportune to combine intentions from time to time, he must be careful how he handles it – and the law offers clear direction.

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