In Defense of Mass Stipends

Anthony Zimmerman
Letter to Priest Magazine
29 May 1991
Reproduced with Permission

Stipends: The System is Not at all Bad

I was disappointed by the one-sided viewpoint of Fr. Daniel F. McSheffery about Mass stipends (TP May 1991), who wrote from the viewpoint of the clergy but not from that of the laity.

I suppose the desire of the laity to participate by some sacrifice of their own in Liturgical services, and to support priests, goes back almost to Adam and Eve, and is ritualized in most religions. Just a few weeks ago I happened to be in Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, when a joint group participated in a pre-arranged commemorative ceremony for their dead. The Buddhist priests marched with stately step in finest purple vestments, while young priests and altar boys flitted about to light candles, burn incense, jangle the bells, and assist in a general way; the priests sung sutras in plaintiff ritualized tones, accompanied by rhythmic tapping on wooden drums. The main celebrant then gave a sermon, a final prayer, and made a ritualized recession, again with stately movements accompanied by the procession of priests and altar boys. The participants, well dressed for the occasion, then arose and greeted each other, their joy, respect, and satisfaction written all over their faces. Mind, you don't set up a ceremony like that in Zojoji without a proportionate stipend. That did not deter these Buddhist lay people from requesting the ceremony; rather, their sacrifice is one part of the ceremony itself.

Maybe some of our Catholic priests get tired of counting petty cash for Mass stipends, but we members of the clergy should not forget that the Mass has a special meaning for lay people who offer a stipend; that people take joy and pride in providing support for the priests. The recent document from Rome states that it is the "Church's constant practice" to thus allow the laity to do this: It is the Church's constant practice, as Paul VI wrote in the Motu Proprio Firma in Traditione that "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" (AAS vol. 66, (1974) p. 308; quoted in a Decree on Mass Stipends, promulgated by the Congregation of the Clergy, 22 February 1991).

The clergy can easily enough offer the Mass without a stipend if they get support in some other manner. But if the clergy would now suppress the stipend system, they would pour cold water on those lay people who desire to sacrifice something of their own with the priest at the Mass: who thereby exercise their own priesthood more fully, and show their appreciation to God for the gift of the Mass and for the ministerial priesthood; who thus exercise the priesthood of the laity in an eminent manner.

Occasion for Pastoral Ministration

"Father, will you please offer Mass for my deceased husband?" She hands him an envelope, or a bill with a note. The priest notes the date, announces it in the bulletin. The entire family may attend that Mass, renewing their bond with each other and the deceased in the sight of God. Heaven opens for them this morning, very specially. Parishioners show their solidarity too. Day after day events of the parish are commemorated through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The intentions occasion a ritualized celebration of solidarity in the parish over and over again.

Parishioners tend to use the offering of a stipend as a legitimate excuse to call on their priest. Offering a stipend is like a pass-word which works at any time. The way is now open to speak about something else. "For my intention...You see, my son is not married, but is living with this person." "Sure; but can you bring him in?" The "stipend pass-word" had worked again.

When intentions are outlandish, the priest may do some pastoral repair work. "Will you say Mass so that I can come back to the Sacraments?" a lady asked me. "What may be the problem?" I asked in turn. "I'm living with a man whose wife is ill and incapacitated. Will you offer the Mass so that the wife dies quickly; so that I can marry the man and go to the Sacraments again?" I would not, and I told her why.

Benefit to the Priest

The priest, who receives the stipend with appreciation, benefits spiritually too. By accepting the stipend and offering the Mass he affirms once more, to himself and to the parish, that he is an ordained priest, one who can offer bread and wine according to the order of Melchizedek. He speaks the words of the Consecration in the Person of Christ, whom He now personifies before them all, whom He makes sacramentally present in the sight of the people.

Folklore in the Church

Altar boys sometimes reap windfalls from stipends. During the depression years of the 1930's, our pastor would share a nickel or a dime from his dollar stipend with the altar boys. After a wedding the two leading altar boys would rush to the back of the church to hold a rope across the aisle; they blocked the exit of the newlyweds from the church, until the groom forked over a whole dollar! Our parish always had enough eager altar boys. Yes, most priests accept stipends gratefully, a fact which motivates people to be generous. Generosity feeds joy back into the giver; and helps the priest to live. I see too many priests who today speak about stipends with disdain; who tomorrow stop celebrating daily Mass when it is not scheduled.

Stipends serve various spiritual and social functions. I feel close to relatives and friends in America when I offer Mass for their intentions here in Japan. Occasionally Mass intentions are willed to me, or diverted to me, as part of an inheritance. It is beautiful to commemorate the departure of my dear ones and recommend them to God. That consolation and connection will probably disappear if the stipend system is suppressed. Poor missionaries sometimes purchase books and special necessities from priests in America and Europe by accepting Mass intentions and paying with the stipends.

Stipends Teach the Faith

My father sometimes had special Masses offered for rain; then, after rain fell, he requested a Mass of thanksgiving. That nourished our faith. None of his ten children has abandoned the faith. He used to quote the priest who said that the Mass is so powerful that it pierces the sky and gives direct access to God. And so it does. Christ here at the altar is Christ at the right hand of the Father. With the universe fully in His power, Christ plants a kiss on the cheek of the Godhead. Parents who offer stipends teach their children much about the faith.

Rome: Do Not Refuse Their Stipends

Obviously the Church values the practice of stipends and is not about to give it up. So she keeps an eye on abuses. In the recent document of 22 February 1991 the Vatican asked pastors and catechists to instruct the people properly; the Decree excluded the abuse of accepting many stipends for particular intentions, and combining them in a single offering, and, without the knowledge of donors, satisfying the many intentions with a single Mass celebrated according to an intention which they call "collective." Cardinal Gilberto Agustino, when explaining the new decree, asked priests not to refuse commitments to celebrate for a stipend: The priests who do not accept the commitment to celebrate Mass for particular intentions are not aware that they are precluding people from an excellent way of participating actively in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord.... precisely through an offering given to the priest. Provided we instruct the faithful correctly and control abuses, we can draw rich spiritual dividends from this ancient, precious, and ritualized tradition of receiving Mass stipends.

Finally, a personal note: stipends help pay my subscription to THE PRIEST. Why axe the goose that lays your golden egg?